By Scott Michaux
Just more than two months after the world shut down, four elite golfers carried their own bags in a televised charity golf match at exclusive Seminole Golf Club on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It may not seem like a big deal in retrospect, but on May 17, 2020, when Rory McIlroy delivered the winning shot in a closest-to-the-pin playoff, it was a huge moment for a worldwide audience starved for distraction.
“They were aware that they were the vanguard for the return of sport,” said Jason Wessely, the director of golf for Sky Sports. “It feels like eons ago and it was only in May. At the time it felt nervy and new and risky.”
That TaylorMade Driving Relief skins event, in partnership with the PGA Tour, was the first live televised event to be waged since sports across the globe shut down in mid-March because of the global pandemic. The trimmed-down production – broadcast simultaneously on NBC, the Golf Channel, PGATour.com and even Twitter – was like finding the corner puzzle piece in a complicated effort to safely resume bringing sports back into our living rooms.
“We had a nice step out of the gate,” said Pete Bevacqua, the chairman of NBC Sports Group. “That was a great – I don’t want to call it a test run because it was a really neat event – but it was showing how we could test our teams (for the virus) and we could do more remotely. The tour got a good sense of the players being tested. I think we learned a lot from that one-day event that went off really without a hitch.”
The PGA Tour and golf deserve plaudits for being the leaders in getting safely restarted after a three-month shutdown because of the coronavirus, but its broadcast partners deserve a lot of credit for reinventing its production model and rebuilding the complex sports landscape. Fitting familiar pieces into unfamiliar places – like a Masters in November or a Kentucky Derby in September – was a massive undertaking that required unprecedented levels of cooperation between networks and sports associations.
“It felt like the whole broadcasting world came together,” said Wessely. “We were all singing from the same hymn sheet and making sure everyone was safe and the feeds can get to us.”
“Everybody kind of put aside their competitive feelings and everybody worked together,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “It was a period of cooperation. We talked a lot and were perfectly willing to share the knowledge that we have and our experiences.”
“Sure, we’re competitors and everybody wants to do well, but they’re also friends of ours,” Bevacqua said of the camaraderie among network peers. “The conversations we had during this period – we were aligned not 99 percent of the time but 100 percent of the time.”
While the sports world slowly falls back into a more familiar cadence in 2021, the lessons learned in making 2020 happen and delivering it to a global audience will not simply disappear with a vaccine and return to relative normalcy.
At the start of Players Championship week in March, the PGA Tour announced its new nine-year domestic rights deal with CBS and NBC that boasted a 70-percent increase to more than $700 million a year from 2022-30. Four days later, the tour joined every other sport in shutting down after one incomplete round of the Players.
Bevacqua was among the guests at PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s house on Wednesday night when announcements started coming in about other leagues suspending seasons. “It all happened very quickly,” Bevacqua said.
Bevacqua had recently returned from a meeting in Tokyo regarding the Summer Olympics, so the coronavirus was already on his radar, but the severity of its impact was still emerging.
“I don’t think at that point anybody truly understood the extent to which it would impact all of us in sports,” Bevacqua said. “We never assumed that the entire sports world would come to an absolute grinding halt. I think we started to ascertain that certain events might be disrupted for a certain amount of time, maybe spectator capacities could be altered. But I don’t think anybody saw everything happening as quickly as it did.”
McManus and CBS felt the brunt of the shock immediately, with the sudden loss of its spring centerpieces March Madness and the Masters.
“When the dominoes started falling it was very surprising – obviously unexpected and traumatic for everybody,” McManus said. “Everybody was mostly concerned about safety for their families and coworkers, but it was amazing that so much shut down so quickly. It was disheartening to see all the postponements and cancellations that took place.”
When golf did return in June, CBS had to rethink how it would present 11 consecutive events in a safe fashion. It was far more complex than simply having Nantz commentate alone while his colleagues reported remotely.
Even Sky Sports, which had weeks earlier been forced to shut down its offices in Italy after a ferocious early outbreak, wasn’t prepared for a complete absence of sports inventory. Sky had to pause all sports subscriptions, taking a huge revenue hit on top of advertising losses everyone felt.
A shared sense of being in this together kicked in immediately.
“We got into what turned out to be good-natured conversations with all our partners and you worked down the list from a rights fee per-annum basis,” said Jonathan Licht, deputy managing director of Sky Sports. “What we were saying with partners was clearly we have a contract that may not have provisions for this force majeure event, but we want to approach it from a partnership perspective. We want to give you short-term financial certainty and the flexibility to think about your calendar and how to come back but as part of that we expect you to sort of take your share of our disruption.
“That short-term financial certainty when the screen was blank and no one was coming through the turnstiles was something that they had never contemplated facing.”
While the sports leagues began discussing how and when they could safely resume, the networks – especially 24-hour sports channels such as ESPN and Golf Channel – had a lot of dead air to fill. The short-term remedy was presenting archival programming during weeks that would normally be filled with major events. CBS rebroadcast classic Masters interspersed with live commentary from Jim Nantz, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in April. The R&A produced a virtual “Open for the Ages” in July.
“The world of broadcasting had to innovate and sit down and think laterally how they were going to provide some sort of content for people watching,” said Wessely.
The key, however, was getting back to live programming. Doing that safely required an entirely new approach by the networks – more remote and more flexible.
Whenever sports returned, it was going to be on a reduced scale without fans. Networks, as well, needed to establish their own socially distanced production plan.
“We understood quickly that out of necessity you could do more remotely,” said Bevacqua. “Because the combination of putting as few people on the ground as possible in order to minimize risk – to protect those who absolutely have to be on site like our camera people, the athletes and the rules officials. We learned that across the board, not just in golf but in all sports.”
When golf did return in June, CBS had to rethink how it would present 11 consecutive events in a safe fashion. It was far more complex than simply having Nantz commentate alone while his colleagues reported remotely. CBS implemented an all-encompassing testing plan for its crew, which required earlier travel, quarantining and abundant personal protective equipment protocols. It had to split its production teams in half, with one team working from additional mobile units on site and a second at the hotel in case the first team came down with COVID-19. A third mobile unit was ready to produce remotely from Stamford, Connecticut, if both teams were compromised on site.
Then there was Nantz flying solo while Nick Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch and Frank Nobilo were at the Golf Channel studios reporting remotely.
“Jim drove to the golf course, went to his tower and literally turned the lights on himself,” said McManus of the network’s primary asset. “He was by himself at the tournament and then went back to his hotel. There were numerous bubbles that people didn’t ever leave – hotel to workstation and back to hotel.”
With quarantine restrictions grounding most of its travel staff, Sky Sports had to do its own remote gymnastics to make the tournament feeds from its U.S. and world partners fit its audience. That meant using more of American-based commentator Rich Beem for PGA Tour events and Butch Harmon commentating from his home in Las Vegas during the Masters.
“The British audience expects a sort of anglicization of the feeds, wherever they are in the world, to be turned into something that they’re familiar with and enjoy watching,” Wessely said. “With European Tour we had more control and were able to go to those events that were fairly local. For PGA Tour we couldn’t fly out there with travel restrictions in place so it was a matter of leveraging our colleagues at NBC and CBS, using their talent, their feeds, their resources to take a little bit extra on top of what was normal coming down the line.”
The lack of fans and the traditional on-site atmosphere, particularly at the majors, presented its own challenges as well as opportunities to try new things, including on-course interviews at some tour events and drone coverage at Augusta.
“Nothing replaces having 50,000 or 100,000 people at an event – the excitement and passion generated from that – but you can televise and bring golf to the public and our viewers in a way where you could focus on the golfers and focus on the golf course,” Bevacqua said. “And there was a certain charm to it just as there was a certain charm to seeing Jimmy Fallon do his show from his home. People gave us the benefit of the doubt that it was going to be different, but it’s a lot better than the alternative which is not having live sports on air.”
These streamlined operations and innovations are something each of the network executives anticipate will outlive the pandemic – a new normal in broadcasting.
“I think we learned a lot of lessons, that conceivably in the future there would be more work done remotely from a central location – whether it’s graphics or videotape or different technologies,” McManus said. “Some of those lessons will be carried forward when things are back to normal.”
Bevacqua agrees: “When you think about our NBC/Golf Channel sports group being based from Stamford, we’ll take our learning from what’s happened over the last seven months and continuing and see how we can do things every bit as effectively but maybe a bit more efficiently.”
“That seems to be a template for the future,” said Wessely of the consolidation of resources. “Why take 14 commentators when you need eight? It’s a win-win for everybody and it’s a cost-saving, environmental-saving practice and a way forward for the future.”
Golf coverage obviously is only a piece of the sports puzzle NBC and CBS had to cobble together when the major sports leagues returned through the summer and autumn. The calendar was a muddled mess, with everything from basketball, hockey, baseball, horse racing and golf pushing their schedules deep into the fall when pro and college football typically dominate the programming schedule.
When the reconfigured golf schedule was announced in April, it was not without network input. Golf’s various assets had to coordinate placing its major events into new windows requiring another layer of cooperation between networks and other leagues.
“There was a lot going on and it was a bit of a compromise saying here are the windows, what can fit it?” said Bevacqua. “From the tour’s perspective, which controls and has the overwhelming majority of events, I think (Monahan's) leadership really was at an all-time high. Not only having the ability to bring the game back as he did but then to really orchestrate the overall calendar of when things should occur. But for his leadership, it could have been cumbersome. But to his credit, it really came off in an amazing fashion.”
The PGA Championship choosing a return to the August window vacated by the Olympics postponement was easy enough for CBS to accommodate. A Masters in November, however, required more finesse, like moving a marquee Alabama-LSU college football matchup to a later kickoff and coordinating an earlier Sunday finishing time to allow CBS to meet its afternoon NFL requirements. CBS even had a contingency plan to finish the Masters broadcast on a rival network if it ran late because of a playoff.
"We worked with the NFL to figure out how to do NFL Sunday and the Masters, and we came up with a scenario where we only had late games on that Sunday and had the Masters ending around 2:45 p.m. It was really a cooperative effort and we worked with all three of our partners in this case to try to figure out the puzzle.”
– Sean McManus
“It was complicated,” McManus said. “Fortunately, we worked closely with the NFL, Augusta National and even the (Southeastern Conference) to move our college football game, which in the end ended up being postponed. We worked with the NFL to figure out how to do NFL Sunday and the Masters, and we came up with a scenario where we only had late games on that Sunday and had the Masters ending around 2:45 p.m. It was really a cooperative effort and we worked with all three of our partners in this case to try to figure out the puzzle.”
Presenting the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in September provided a different challenge and opportunity. The USGA had a contract with Fox Sports, which is a major NFL broadcasting partner. NBC, which had broadcast the U.S. Open for years before Fox took over in 2015, had a potential solution. Bevacqua called Eric Shanks, the CEO and executive producer at Fox Sports, to talk about moving the 2020 U.S. Open to NBC, since Fox’s Sunday was full with the NFL. NBC only produces Sunday Night Football and could move that week’s Notre Dame football game on Saturday to USA Network.
That contingency conversation quickly escalated into something bigger – NBC taking over the full USGA contract from Fox.
“It made all the sense in the world to move the 2020 U.S. Open and as we started talking about all the details and thinking about the economics of it, it made sense to us and made sense to Fox as well that we shouldn’t just be talking about the 2020 U.S. Open,” Bevacqua said. “We should be talking about the full rights that they had from the USGA over the course of the next seven years. What started as very much a 2020-centric conversation quickly evolved into a broader conversation between Fox and us and the USGA had to be comfortable with that. It was a transaction that when it makes sense for everybody involved, things tend to happen. That came together quickly and smoothly.”
As the calendar flips to 2021 and golf resumes at its more familiar pace even without galleries for the foreseeable future, the challenges of conducting and televising sports during a pandemic have left an indelible impression – that live sports matter more than anyone thought.
“It’s proved to be very valuable in people’s lives,” said Licht. “I think sports can sort of look back on the year and feel proud of what it’s done. It’s never lost its relevance but some people questioned in perspective its importance and I think it’s shown it’s a real anchor in people’s lives and gives people a positive escape.”
Golf and its sports brethren provided a service we didn’t know how much we needed until it was taken away.
“We also understood frankly that people were starved for live sports and they’re passionate about live sports,” Bevacqua said. “We took it upon ourselves, and I know the tour agrees, as an obligation to get back to action as soon as possible because people needed live sports maybe more than ever. Everything people were dealing with personally and professionally with the economic impact of all of this and the health impact on people, I think sports proved to be a great form of escapism to entertain people for a few hours here and there.”
McManus agreed: “I think it was an important part of trying to, in some ways, heal the nation from what we were going through. Sports had an added significance and added role in trying to in some small way come back to normal even though it was just for a few hours on an afternoon.”
After a year of upheaval nobody anticipated, predicting how 2021 will unfold as the pandemic still rages and vaccines are slowly rolling out would be folly.
“I’m not gonna get into the business of predicting what the future holds,” McManus said. “We’re just going to have to remain very flexible and very nimble and deal with circumstances as they occur. I hope at some point in 2021 we’re back to normal, but I can’t predict that.”
While it hasn’t always been smooth navigating the sports world through the COVID-19 era – with late cancellations and postponements becoming a familiar part of the routine in some sports – that golf made it through the rest of 2020 without further interruption is a marvel of coordination shared by the tours and the networks.
“I think it was amazing,” said McManus, heaping praises on the tours and various major governing bodies for making it work. “It’s amazing the way they pulled it off and that they protected the safety of the players and the volunteers and staff members. In retrospect when you look at how difficult it was and how complicated it was, it’s remarkable that they pulled it off safely and efficiently and in a really first-class way.
“For all of us it was as challenging as anything we’ve ever tried to accomplish. Golf is probably the most complicated sport to cover to begin with – with 18 holes and a dozen golfers being followed at any one time and shots happening simultaneously and some have to be on videotape. So to do it in a pandemic with all of the restrictions and all of the complications that we had was a remarkable feat.”
Bevacqua believes the results since that four-man skins game at Seminole speak to the value of everyone’s efforts to make it happen.
“I don’t think anybody could say they honestly predicted this, but to the credit of the sports world and the credit of the broadcast world – it’s worked,” Bevacqua said. “Everybody has done a great job of bringing live sports back, certainly in a different compromised way. Each league entity had its own answer which really had to be bespoke because each is so different. There’ve been hiccups here and there but ultimately – fingers crossed and knock on wood – we have live sports back and I think that’s great for the country.”