The PGA Tour was one of the last major professional organizations to shut down operations due to the coronavirus pandemic when it pulled the plug after the first round of the Players Championship back on March 12. If all goes as planned, the tour will be one of the first to come back.
With the revised schedule announced for the latter half of the year, the tour released a planned calendar of events to get the game back up and running.
The first tournament on that list is the Charles Schwab Challenge on June 8 at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. That means, if this schedule holds true, the Charles Schwab Challenge will be one of the first major sporting events to take place since the pandemic shut down athletic events in this country.
The appetite and the pent-up anticipation for sports to come back has built up to a swell that had fans on social media and news outlets eager to talk about the first tournament. That they could actually watch live sports created a flurry of exposure for the tournament, one that could not be replicated without being that first tournament on the schedule.
According to sports sponsorship research company Joyce Julius & Associates, the Charles Schwab Challenge received more than 2,700 mentions throughout news media stories over a three-day period that started two days prior to the PGA Tour's official announcement. That provided Charles Schwab with an estimated exposure value of more than $5.5 million.
That isn't in actual dollars, but what it would have cost the company in traditional advertising costs.
The tournament was also mentioned during the same time period in 2,293 social media posts, which would have a value exceeding $450,000. Based on the high viewership for broadcast replays of PGA tournaments and other sporting events, Joyce Julius estimates that the Charles Schwab Challenge could receive a minimum of $17 million in news media and social media exposure surrounding the event this year.
Those numbers are staggering, but Joyce Julius director of sponsorship analytics Jeremy Creutz says this could just be the start of the exposure.
"So far, the Charles Schwab Challenge looks like they could double what they've had in previous years in exposure value," Creutz said. "You could be looking at a couple more multipliers, if for some reason they can't have the event when they want, it'll get some more exposure then and also when it does actually take place. This could be an ongoing thing as far as exposure value for certain events."
Tournament director Michael Tothe said those numbers are staggering, but given the anticipation to get back to some kind of normal, they aren't surprising.
"The tour came to us and said, 'OK, here's what we're looking at, if we don't go your week in May, would you be willing to go three weeks later,'" Tothe said. "We raised our hand and said absolutely. The tour said, 'OK, you're up next and let's work to see if we can make it happen from a governmental perspective to make sure we have all our ducks in a row.'"
Part of getting their ducks in a row means organizing the event with no fans; the PGA Tour announced the first four events will take place with no fans in attendance.
As exciting as it was to have the schedule announced, Tothe, the PGA Tour and the other tournament directors know there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. It goes beyond having hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.
It will have to involve testing, taking temperatures and other measures with the guidance of health and government officials that will have to be put into place to ensure a safe environment for the workers, tournament officials, players and caddies.
Tyler Dennis, the PGA Tour's senior vice president and chief of operations, said the tour is currently going through studies about how to make the events as safe as possible for everyone involved.
"As it relates to players, we're thinking of it as one would work through a normal week, and it probably starts with some kind of testing before you leave home in an effort to be as safe as possible," Dennis said. "And then proper hygiene and travel protocols as you travel toward the venue, possibly then testing that would go on in a safe and as clean an environment as we can make, both in terms of what you're doing in your daily routine at the golf course but also at the host hotel and dinners and all that."
It's all new for everyone, from the PGA Tour to Tothe and other tournament directors, who are going to abide by the guidelines from medical and government officials. They're all working together before the event to ensure the tournament is run smoothly and safely, but it's still a challenge they've never faced.
"I think we're going to get smarter as time goes on with all of those elements," Tothe said. "As a tournament director, these are all new things that we have not had to consider before. So it's going to be a learning process all the way up to the finish line, but our commitment, and the tour's commitment, is to make sure the environment for everybody on property at Colonial in June is safe. That's going to take a lot of work between now and June 8."
It's a daunting task with health and wellness on the line, but as Tothe points out, this specific tournament has been at the same venue for 74 years with floods and other obstacles that have been overcome. The confidence level is high that the tournament can proceed safely, but all are mindful of the government restrictions and aren't willing to force the event if it isn't safe.
The decision to keep fans at home, while the right one in the tour's estimation, doesn't come without ramifications, as that is revenue the tournament is used to bringing in each year. Events leading up to the tournament, fan engagement, hospitality sales, concessions and advertising will all be gone. So while the excitement of being announced as the first tournament is still fresh, the directors understand there is a sacrifice being made.
Tothe estimates annual ticket sales and concessions at $1.5 million, with merchandise sales hovering around $500,000 to $700,000.
"It's the right thing to do if we play because social distancing and just being smart and creating an environment on property to be safe, the only way you can do that right now is without fans," Tothe said. "All that fan engagement, all the things that go into concessions and merchandise, all the people on property that want to get in front of our golf fans, all that goes away, but the trade-out is the environment will be safe. There's positives and negatives -- of course we want fans on property and celebrating coming back, but it's just not realistic in this environment."
Trying to turn that negative into a positive, Tothe and the other tournament organizers are also working to ensure the charities associated with the tournament are not impacted by this decision. There are 33 different charities listed on the Charles Schwab Challenge website as benefactors from the 2019 campaign. Without hospitality money, advertising and other revenue, those charities could be without the large donations budgeted each year.
The tournament is now walking through safeguards to ensure those charities are made whole, and instead of asking partners to purchase hospitality and private seating, the directors are now asking those same groups to make donations to the charities involved instead.
It's a challenge the tournament is willing to take on, and despite the obstacles that still remain, the excitement around the thought that live professional sports could be back is growing each day.
"It's exciting, obviously," Tothe said. "To have the first event back is pretty cool, and the amount of attention around it will only grow. Of course we hope we get to that point, because a lot can happen, but let's say we get to that point and we broadcast for the first time ... that's big."