Change is gonna come
Look not inside a boardroom at the PGA Tour’s Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., headquarters but instead at a nearby club for a glimpse into the tour’s approach under new Commissioner Jay Monahan.
It was at the Lodge and Beach Club located a few miles from tour headquarters where Andy Pazder, the tour’s chief tournaments and competitions officer, sat last April having coffee at his favorite haunt that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Ruminating over a copy of the tour’s schedule, Pazder paused at the Zurich Classic stop near New Orleans and was hit by an outside-the-tee-box thought: Why not shake things up by shifting the event’s format from traditional stroke play into a two-man team event?
|Dustin Johnson tees off during last season's Tour Championship.
Changing the format of an official tour event is hardly routine given sponsorship contracts, TV obligations and the challenge of getting the players to sign on. But an energized Pazder immediately took a screen shot of the Zurich Classic website and texted his self-described “lightbulb moment” to then commissioner-in-waiting Monahan.
A day later, Pazder heard back from his boss, who at the start of 2017 took over as commissioner from Tim Finchem.
“Jay said the more he thought about it, the more he liked it,” Pazder said.
Today, the revamped Zurich Classic stands as one of the most intriguing events on the 2017 PGA Tour’s schedule as buzz grows around the late April tournament. It also points to an era of change under a new administration.
From technology to scheduling, tournament formats to media deals, expect the tour to evolve to attract a younger and larger audience while continuing to satisfy its traditional core fan base. A new imprint won’t happen overnight, but changes are well underway.
“Part of our mission is to protect and grow the game, but at the same time, we have to be forward thinking,” Pazder said. “It’s balancing the desire to be relevant to fans and sponsors with the understanding that there are certain aspects of the sport we need to remain true to.”
The PGA Tour season is a marathon that begins with the wraparound schedule in October and ends with the four-event FedEx Cup playoffs culminating with the Tour Championship in late September.
Add to the regular tour schedule the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup played in alternate years and it becomes a cramped, grind-of-a-schedule that encourages top pros to skip smaller tournaments to prepare for the four majors — the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.
The schedule can also take its toll on fan interest, particularly after Labor Day during the FedEx Cup playoffs when
|The PGA Tour has asked the PGA of America to consider holding the PGA Championship in May instead of August.
Pazder said the tour continues to evaluate the tournament schedule, but golf insiders see change as necessary to allow the FedEx Cup playoffs to end by Labor Day to maximize interest in the tour’s season-crowning championship. Any later and the lure of watching the tour’s biggest stars stand over putts with the $10 million FedEx Cup prize on the line will be diminished by football’s dominance of the autumn calendar.
“They have to restructure it,” said Scott Seymour, senior vice president and managing director of golf at Octagon. “I see the FedEx Cup playoff Labor Day Monday as the end of the PGA season.”
There is also serious consideration of the PGA Tour moving its Players Championship from May to March and to shift the PGA Championship to May instead of its current August date to accommodate broader schedule changes.
Last month, PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua gave a 90-minute overview to the PGA of America board of directors related to the potential scheduling change for the PGA Championship, which is run by the organization.
“We were approached by the tour about a year ago that if they moved the Players to March, would we move the PGA Championship to a date in late May,” Bevacqua said. “That accelerated our analysis. We like where we are, but it has given us an opportunity to see what it would look like to be the second major in order as opposed to the fourth.”
No decision has been made.
“We are in no rush,” Bevacqua said. “Doing what is in the best interest for the health of the majors is good for the entire golf landscape.”
As the tour ponders shifts to its schedule and tournament formats, changes to the property’s media deals are also expected.
Deals with CBS and NBC run through 2021, but both allow the tour to open the contracts and negotiate new terms after the 2018 season. The tour is locked into its Golf Channel deal through 2021.
|The tour has expanded the live tournament coverage available on Twitter.|
“The future is going to look a lot different from the player and fan perspective and it will be carried over into the media,” said Steve Loy, president of golf at Lagardère Sports. “Everyone is trying to sustain that media value while also keeping the fanfare at a high level.”
What is clear is the tour’s willingness to shake up its media structure given its recent strategy around its subscription over-the-top network, PGA Tour Live.
After experimenting late last year with live-streaming PGA Tour Live on Facebook and Twitter with two FedEx Cup playoff events, the tour this year made a much deeper commitment to digital media by signing a deal with Twitter to stream PGA Tour Live’s Thursday and Friday morning tournament coverage for the entire 2017 season. Future streaming deals are a definite possibility.
“The deal with Twitter hits on a lot of different fronts,” said Luis Goicouria, senior vice president of digital platforms and media strategy for the tour. “The audience is younger, and putting it on Twitter allows us to market to that demographic. We feel if you are a fan of golf and get a taste of the product, you will buy it. For us, it has been a chance to do both of those things. We are happy with the results so far.”
The tour’s deal with Twitter is just the start of what Goicouria said will be a major push by the tour into various social media platforms. Signaling the shift, the tour this year changed its rules to allow players to stream live video and post photos during practice rounds and pro-am events on tour-approved social platforms.
“We have really increased the resources that we are putting toward creating social media connections,” Goicouria said. “We have really doubled down on our engagement. We are trying to make it as easy as possible for our players to cultivate a social following and be active. We absolutely are looking at changing some of the social guidelines to make that happen.”
While the tour experiments with its social media approach, it also is dabbling in virtual reality. It began testing VR at last year’s Tour Championship and is in talks for a VR deal.
“There is no deal yet,” Goicouria said. “Golf lends itself to VR in some ways. It could be really powerful.”
One of the biggest changes occurring in real time is how the PGA Tour is addressing how golf will be viewed on television.
The tour is upgrading its ShotLink technology that tracks golf shots as part of a major effort that could transform TV coverage into a more customized experience.
For years, the tour has used ShotLink to track shots using lasers, but now, the tour is testing an enhanced system
It’s a challenging undertaking but one that the tour is betting will help make for a more compelling and immersive viewing experience both on TV and through PGA Tour Live.
The new system is not yet ready for a rollout, but it is getting close with nearly 80 percent of approach shots now able to be tracked by the new ShotLink+ technology. The goal is to reach nearly 100 percent of approach shots tracked properly.
“People are on-site putting in software enhancements and we are chipping away,” said Steve Evans, senior vice president of information systems for the tour. “The reason it takes so much time is that every tournament has its own challenges.”
Evans also is leading an effort to create 18 weather stations at tournament sites to track wind speed and direction, barometric pressure and temperature at the player level throughout the course. The current system uses limited reports from an on-site meteorologist. The goal is to collect more data about how course conditions affect players.
“We will do a bunch of analytics around all shots,” Evans said.
The tour also is testing more functions on its PGA Tour app to improve the fan experience at tournaments. Expected improvement will include the ability to track various player groups on the course, the ability to order food, and messaging.
“They are rolling out some stuff to really immerse our fans into what is happening on the course,” said Nathan Grube, tournament director of the Travelers Championship event in Hartford, Conn., set for late June.
Another reflection of the new-look PGA Tour is the increased focus on entertainment at the tournament level.
It’s an area that is pushing tournament directors into the concert business as the tour turns to live music to meet fan experience demands.
This year organizers of the most-attended event on tour, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, added more headliner music acts to create a concert series for each night of the tournament. Others tournaments have been quick to follow suit.
|The Travelers Championship is among the tournaments that have used concerts to elevate the fan experience.
Additional white-glove hospitality products are also on the rise at the tour.
This year, the tour’s Players Championship is selling its Players Club hospitality at $1,639 per day for competition rounds and provides access to the posh clubhouse at the TPC at Sawgrass course along with gourmet food and drink. It also provides access and shopping credits at the TPC pro shop and access to private suites on the 17th and 18th holes.
Grube said the Travelers this year is adding to its Fan Fest experience built at the TPC River Highlands course that now includes rock walls, miniature golf, kids games and a stage for two nights of concerts, all of which are included in the price of general admission tickets that range from $10 for practice rounds to $37 for tournament rounds. The tournament also is increasing the number of daily tickets sold to its all-inclusive Champions Club that last year generated a 15 percent increase in ticket revenue.
“We keep building it bigger,” Grube said, “The experience is resonating. The most growth is the high-end individual ticket.”
With the BMW Championship returning this fall to Conway Farms near Chicago after Crooked Stick played host last year, organizers have changed their hospitality offerings. The BMW will for the first time sell reserved seats around the 18th green while upgrading the Green Club, the event’s all-inclusive venue that costs $775 per day, by adding a high-end local restaurant as a sponsor.
“Tournaments have really blown out these ideas,” said Vince Pellegrino, senior vice president of tournaments for the Western Golf Association, which runs the BMW Championship.
“Premium, unique experiences are now at the top of the list.”
About 75 percent of all tour events this year will have some form of musical entertainment, up from about 20 percent in the past few years, said John Norris, senior vice president of tournament business affairs for the tour.
“One of our initiatives at the tour and at the tournament level is to drive interest and participation from the non-core golf fan,” he said. “If you are a big fan of the tour, you will show up early and find your spot. But we are trying to attract a younger generation and families, and to do that we have to offer a lot more than golf.”