Michael Tothe has spent the better part of every workday devising creative and innovative ways to get fans to flock to Colonial and watch golf. That job is now fundamentally changed.
“You work on building an event that fans come to. Your on-site activities, your events inside the event, those are things you focus on,” Tothe said. “Now the focus is providing a safe environment when the guys come back to Ft. Worth [Texas].”
In simplest terms it’s a sea change for Tothe, the Charles Schwab Challenge tournament director. A more nuanced examination reveals a complex and entirely new set of challenges – financial and operational – as the game prepares for professional golf without fans.
Under the PGA Tour’s revised schedule, the plan is to play the first four events without fans beginning June 11-14 with the Charles Schwab Challenge. Everyone involved agrees that if golf, or any sport for the matter, can carry on during this coronavirus pandemic, it will be without fans. What exactly that will look like is still a work in progress, but as the game inches closer to a possible return a vague picture has emerged.
According to one long-time Tour operations manager, “without fans” doesn’t mean without infrastructure. Although tournaments won’t have the normal build out of grandstands and luxury suites, there will be ropes lining each fairway, scoreboards, a media center and some sort of TV compound.
Officials anticipate between 500 and 600 volunteers will be needed to provide basic services like ShotLink – which will require the most manpower – and there will even be a need for marshals to track errant golf balls.
But the logistics of running a tournament in the age of COVID-19 without fans goes well beyond the normal checklist.
“Our day-to-day has always been something we know,” Tothe said. “Social distancing, what does that all mean? How many masks do we need? What do we need to take temperatures? The challenge is things we haven’t needed before.”
When the Tour announced its latest schedule revision last week, the primary focus was on testing. Lots and lots of testing that, at least now, doesn’t appear to be readily available.
“We're spending a lot of time right now learning about testing,” said Tyler Dennis, the PGA Tour’s chief of operations. “I want to be perfectly clear that first and foremost, the situation at the moment with testing is that it's most critical across the healthcare world and in our communities, and so at this juncture, we are merely evaluating it.”
Although the Tour is still working out the details, the rough plans would require players to be tested before they travel to a tournament site and then tested regularly once they have arrived. It stands to reason caddies and Tour officials would be subject to the same testing protocols, but what about the volunteers and other operations personnel needed to make, even an event without fans, run?
“How will we handle the testing? Testing every single player before they even get on site? Is it doable? Absolutely we can do it and I think the country needs it,” said Hollis Cavner whose Pro Links Sports firm manages four Tour events, including the 3M Open, which is scheduled for July 23-26 in Blaine, Minnesota.
The uncertainty of the current climate goes well beyond the Tour’s first four events back.
Although the current plan is to play the 3M Open (return event No. 7) with fans, Cavner and his team are preparing for any contingency, including playing the tournament without spectators or with some sort of limited access.
Along with all this uncertainty is a cost. While playing tournaments, even tournaments without fans, is good for the PGA Tour’s business, that’s not the case for the individual tournaments. The Tour’s business model is based on corporate sponsors and media rights, which wouldn’t be impacted by the absence of an on-site audience, but tournaments depend on the “gate.”
More specific, according to one tournament director, only about 10-15 percent of his budget comes from ticket sales, but 80-90 percent is derived from pro-ams and corporate hospitality. Without that revenue source, the tournament director explained, it’s financially worse to play events without fans than it would be to simply cancel the event.
“If you just cancel every tournament it would cost a lot less. It’s not for the faint of heart,” Cavner said. “If you walk away and everyone gets their money back it’s a lot less expensive. That’s why we’re working with the Tour and our title sponsors so that we have a good plan going forward. Everyone has to take a little bit of a hit.”
Perhaps the best example of this is the RBC Heritage. When the Tour halted play and initially canceled the event last month, tournament director Steve Wilmot was about 90 percent into his build out for the tournament. That came at a cost of over $1 million. It’s a financial hit that won’t be salvaged by the Heritage’s return to the schedule in June.
“We’re still addressing [the originally scheduled] event,” Wilmot explained. “There were a lot of costs involved and a lot of lost revenue and now we’re doing something in June with no revenue but with expenses.”
Still, Wilmot – like Cavner and Tothe – explained that holding an event in 2020, even one sans fans, goes well beyond the bottom line. From Hilton Head to Ft. Worth to Blaine, it’s about civic pride and forging ahead.
“Financially speaking in the broader spectrum, it’s better to have a tournament without fans,” Tothe said. “Charles Schwab gets the media exposure from TV. That’s a big piece of it. In the greater good, absolutely having it without fans is more important. For us to be first up, the first event back in sports, in golf, it’s very important.”
What tournament officials and the Tour are planning for will be a fundamentally different product – a TV-only sport – and players are anticipating an atmosphere like they had in college with no fans or the energy the crowd brings. It will be an adjustment for both players and for those watching the action unfold from a safe distance.
“The experience is going to be a lot different. The guys who get pumped up with the galleries are going to struggle,” Cavner said. “I’m hoping the guys embrace it and make it a show. Make it a good TV event. Show some character and their fiery side. I’m hoping they don’t come back and it’s just business as usual.”
Given the fundamental changes that await golf’s return, it’s safe to say that it won’t be “business as usual.”