Golf is the most traditional major sport, and the PGA Tour is no different. But as live golf events begin to resume after being halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, the return of the Tour is allowing television networks a new opportunity to experiment.
After several exhibition events featuring professional golfers, the PGA Tour will resume on June 11 with the Charles Schwab Challenge, which is being held at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.
As the lead broadcast partner for the event, CBS Sports has been plotting for two months how to reintroduce live golf to a sports-starved public, according to Chairman Sean McManus.
For viewers at home, some of that will look the same, while other new features will be added. That will all come with social distancing restrictions, as they’ll have to pull it off with a crew about half the size of previous years. The network’s main production truck, for example, will only have nine people compared to the normal 22.
Unlike previous events, anchor Jim Nantz will fly solo from the broadcast tower on the 18th hole. His only companion will be a robotic camera.
While reporters Dottie Pepper and Mark Immelman will be on-course, lead analyst Nick Faldo and Ian Baker-Finch and Frank Nobilo will call the tournament remotely from Orlando. Amanda Balionis will report from home.
Among the new golf strategies coming from CBS will be ‘Inside the Ropes:’ CBS will invite players to enter a small tent alone and answer a specific question. Questions will be along the lines of what have you missed about not playing on the PGA Tour for the past three months? Or what they need to do on the back nine?
Nantz said he was excited about hearing from the players in the heat of competition. He thinks the idea could “cross over” into coverage of the NFL and other sports. But Nantz admitted it would be up to the players to make it work.
“If you had a chance to hear from 30 players in the field, you can’t imagine what a difference that could make to our broadcast,” said Nantz. “To have inside-the-ropes sound from the players, thoughts from the players, in mid-round. And all they have to do is walk over, look into that ‘Confession-cam’ if you will, then walk away and get hit their shot. I think it can make a big difference. We need the players’ help.”
CBS is also “aggressively” working with the PGA Tour to gain permission to mic up more players, said McManus. It’s a process that’s been years in the making. It will be tough to pull off since golfers are notoriously paranoid about people listening to their strategy talks with caddies.
Faldo admitted he wouldn’t have done it as a player. But he thinks it would be a “fantastic gesture” by the top 30 players in 2020 if they promoted the Tour by donning mics on the course. The players could end up benefiting financially too. “We’ve got plenty of fun talkers, fun tweeters, haven’t we out there? Maybe they’d like to get their face and their sponsors on TV,” Faldo said. “I can’t see any harm. They have to switch a little bit. The players are entertainers right now. They have to do a little bit of entertaining.”
More players are likely to say no than yes, admitted McManus. But the sports shutdown has sparked a “greater appreciation for wanting to contemporize golf coverage,” he said. “The players are beginning to realize they can play a real role in making the product more interesting for the viewer at home. I sense there’s more cooperation.”
That will include more “Eye-On-The-Course” commercial breaks. This format allows viewers to continue to watch the on-course action in a box, while the commercial plays on-screen.
However, there are no plans to artificially pipe in crowd noise during the coverage, according to McManus. Announce teams typically work shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye. The network is trying to figure out how Nantz and Faldo will commentate from different locales without stepping on each other. “You don’t want cross-talk. You’re just not certain when the other guy has put a period on his thoughts,” said Nantz.
At the top of Saturday’s coverage, Nantz will deliver an essay placing the return of sports in perspective against the backdrop of race protests, social unrest, and the pandemic. CBS is leading the production for the 59 hours of live coverage across CBS, Golf Channel, and PGA Tour Live.