PGA Tour hopeful for return of fans, pushing ahead without

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Amid hopes for the return of fans on the PGA Tour next year, Commissioner Jay Monahan says tournaments are prepared financially to do without and still break even on operating costs.

In a conference call Thursday to look back at a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Monahan said the tour was encouraged that a vaccine could lead to a “slow and steady increase” in how many fans are allowed at tournaments. Still, he said that would not be a decision by the tour alone.

The tour for the last five years had been pushing its tournaments – most are run autonomously – to build reserve funds to cope with a situation like what the pandemic presented.

By the end of the year, corporate sponsors were allowed to invite a limited number of clients. Pro-ams returned. The Houston Open was the first domestic event that had fans, selling 2,000 tickets a day. For early next year, most West Coast events have said they will not have fans.

The Phoenix Open is building a single-story structure for its rowdy 16th hole at the TPC Scottsdale, instead of what had been an enclosed stadium with seating for thousands.

“I would say that our tournaments are prepared to operate without fans and to do so on a break-even basis which, like reserves, allows you to continue to operate and continue to move your tournament forward,” Monahan said. “And we will try and be more creative and innovative about additional ways to raise money and help them.”

The tour has a remarkable model in which all income once operating costs are met is donated to local charities, and collectively it has raised more than $2 billion in its history.

With various programs that touched on longtime support, Monahan said PGA Tour events combined to raise $160 million this year, down from $204 million the previous year before the pandemic cut off a huge source of revenue.

“That’s not a record,” Monahan said. “But it’s certainly an accomplishment.”

The pandemic shut down golf on March 13 after one round of The Players Championship. The tour resumed three months later and played every week except for Thanksgiving through Dec. 6, with 18 players testing positive away from home. The most notable was Dustin Johnson, who returned from isolation and won the Masters.

Monahan was bullish on 2021 even amid uncertainty. The season starts Jan. 7-10 at Kapalua for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which expects no more than 200 fans in a seating area around the 18th green with no access to the rest of the golf course.

The biggest chunk of revenue in golf is from television. Tournaments also make money from ticket sales and related concessions, corporate hospitality and pro-ams.

Monahan said it was too early to determine how or when the vaccine would help with the full return of fans. He said the tour would not require vaccination to attend a tournament, and it would work with each community’s health officials before deciding anything.

He said limited ticket sales at some events, the return of pro-ams and some corporate presence has been a step for tournaments being able to operate next year.

“But we’re not operating with the hope that’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re operating with the reality that’s probably not going to happen for a lot of our tournaments in the first half of the year.”

The only tournament in early part of 2021 that remains in doubt is the Mexico Championship in Mexico City. Monahan said the tour is trying to make that happen.

The tour had a net loss of 10 events last year. One that was canceled was the John Deere Classic – it still raised $10 million for charity – which led to San Francisco-based Workday sponsoring a tournament that week at Muirfield Village in Ohio, a week before the same course held the Memorial.

That led to a new deal announced Thursday. Workday had been planning to sponsor a tournament at the TPC Harding Park in San Francisco with Stephen Curry as the host and money raised for his foundation.

Monahan said Workday instead will be the presenting sponsor of the Memorial, the tournament Jack Nicklaus created, and that Curry’s foundation (“Eat. Learn. Play.”) would be the beneficiary. The deal starts in 2022 for 10 years.

“We still have a lot of interest in bringing a PGA Tour event to San Francisco,” Monahan said. “We just won’t be doing it at this time.”

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