How The First Major U.S. Sports Event Handled Media During Pandemic

    • On-site media in San Francisco was at 5% compared to the 2019 edition in New York.
    • The PGA of America created a virtual media hub to reach global audiences.

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When the PGA Championship teed off on Aug. 3, it was America’s first large-scale sporting event since Super Bowl LIV in February and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With safety restrictions in place, organizers had to figure out how to secure media coverage with only a fraction — 5% compared to 2019 — on-site. 

Cue the virtual media hub, which provided the roughly 25 on-site media members and over 500 around the world a way to connect to the event.

The PGA Championship was initially scheduled for May, and in June, it officially went fan-less, giving the PGA a couple months to develop a plan of action. PGA of America worked with partner LENND — a live events management platform — on creating a “wireframe.”

“We basically sat with them and our team and the vision was, ‘Okay, if you were a reporter trying to do your job physically at Bethpage, what were the resources and things that you had access to on-site and how could we, in 2020, replace that with you sitting at home in your office through this virtual hub that would be created?’” PGA of America COO Jeff Price said. 

Scoring and updates were an obvious and relatively simple part of the operation, but organizers realized that player interviews would be key. In July, a partnership with video-calling company Zoom came together to handle those needs. 

“We began our efforts to integrate Zoom and re-do the entire way we do player interviews, and then ultimately allowed the media to Zoom in, ask questions, have that direct interaction,” Price said, noting that the Championship reached international media members in Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, the U.K., and more. 

Juan Guillen — who was writing on-site for EFE, the Spanish international news agency — also worked with the PGA of America’s communications team on interviews for a variety of international outlets and Hispanic media in the U.S.

“Although different, it was a great experience,” Guillen wrote in an email, adding that the virtual interviews gave the reporters on-site who were on deadline the option to listen to the press conference and ask a question while filing their stories. The interview space was three holes away from the media work area.

“We enabled a global media force to engage in those player interviews and feel like they were there,” Price added.

The hub also included instantly available, ready-for-broadcast video clips of all the player interviews and transcripts from Imagen and ASAP Sports, respectively. It also had a photo catalog from the tournament’s action.

Organizers were also able to proactively seek out coverage in markets that hadn’t planned for it as storylines emerged throughout the event.

When Sacramento native Cameron Champ was unexpectedly near the top of the leaderboard at the end of three rounds, for example, PGA reached out to Sacramento media to make them aware. No one from the area had previously planned to cover the event, according to Price. 

“All of a sudden we generated a significant amount of strong, local coverage that otherwise would never have happened,” Price said. “In the past, they wouldn’t have been coming in — they might’ve picked up some feeds — but were able to really use that as an example of how this can help us going forward.”

By the end of the tournament, overall media impressions from event coverage  — the total circulation for print publications or the unique views for a website that featured PGA Championship stories — neared what they were for the 2019 event in New York: about 48.5 billion, down slightly from about 51 billion last year. 

Television coverage also found success. ESPN’s live coverage of the PGA Championship finished as the most-viewed edition of the event on cable since 2010, averaging 1,659,000 viewers across all four rounds, up 35% from TNT’s 2019 coverage; viewership among adults ages 18-34 was up 76%.

ESPN aired the event for the first time in 30 years in the first go-around in a new 11-year deal to televise the PGA Championship. CBS’ final round coverage averaged 5.153 million viewers, up 3% from 2019.

Going forward, Price says the virtual hub will serve as the “backbone” of media operations. 

“Certainly as golf becomes more and more of a global game, there are players from all sorts of markets that don’t typically follow or cover golf, that we’re then able to tap into,” Price said. So the next time the PGA is presented with a storyline around a player like Champ, it believes it will “be in a position to unlock media coverage and interest that otherwise wouldn’t be there.”