How COVID-19 Is Impacting Sport

Kara Baker, Director of Digital Partnership at the Golf Channel, discusses TV coverage of sports disrupted by the coronavirus.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: COVID-19 and sport. Every major US sporting event has been suspended or canceled because of the coronavirus. Our guest this week is Kara Baker, Director of Digital Partnership and Operations at the Golf Channel. Hear how her team is responding to shifting priorities and changes to signature events as a consequence of COVID-19. Kara shares practical tips for keeping remote teams connected and productive while maintaining a work-life balance.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS: A unique perspective on the business of advertising. Produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello! I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. Today, we’re going to be talking about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sport, and what it means for marketing and advertising. Fifty-nine percent of Americans follow a sport or consider themselves sports fans. Yet, every major sporting event in the United States has been suspended or canceled because of the coronavirus. The N.B.A., the N.H.L., M.L.S. and Major League Baseball have all suspended play. The N.C.A.A. canceled all of its championships, including the men’s basketball tournament, which supplies most of its annual budget. Even the Boston marathon, usually a staple of the spring sports calendar, has been postponed until September. And the cancellations are not limited to the US. This summer’s Olympics in Tokyo are being postponed until 2021, UEFA too has postponed the Euro 2020 football competition until next year, and numerous marathons, including those in London, Paris, and Barcelona have all been postponed, as has the French Open tennis tournament. All of these cancellations have an enormous economic impact. Sports sponsorship is worth around $55 billion a year. There are the revenues that come in from people watching the games live, but also from television rights. For example, the revenue for the National Basketball Association is around $1 billion; Premier League Football brings in around $2.7 billion. Fans spend money traveling to games, on hotel stays, and buy merchandise. So it’s a big industry. I’m joined today by a marketing professional who is dealing with these changes to key sporting events as a consequence of the coronavirus on a daily basis. Kara Baker is the Director of Digital Partnership and Operations at the Golf Channel, a television network owned by the NBC Sports Group division of NBCUniversal. The channel focuses on coverage of golf, including live coverage of tournaments, as well as factual and instructional programming. Kara’s career has been centered around operations and partnerships. While she started in the non-profit sector running operations and project management, she ventured over to the sports media industry a few years ago and hasn’t looked back. Being a competitive golfer since she was a teenager, finding a career at the Golf Channel has been extremely rewarding and fun. She now oversees digital partnerships for both the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup digital products. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Kara.

Kara Baker: Hi, thanks. I’m super happy to be here today and kind of share a little bit in this ever-changing world right now that we’re living in sports and COVID-19.

Adrian Tennant: So Kara, what does your role entail?

Kara Baker: Okay, sure. Yeah. So I help oversee the digital products for the Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship events. And so just to paint a little bit more of a picture, PGA Championship is one of the four majors in the golf industry. There’s also four events that are under the PGA Championship: there’s the senior PGA, the KPMG Women’s PGA, as well as the Players’ Professionals Championship, which kind of leads into this team of twenty that gets to play in the PGA Championship. But most people that are probably listening today will know the PGA Championship and that it’s one of the four majors. And then additionally, the Ryder Cup, which is a competition between Europe and the US that happens every other year, that is also a really big golf tournament, probably one of the best that there is in the sense of just camaraderie and country and team spirit. And so with both of those PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, I’m helping with the digital products as well as the partnerships that these media kind of deals and rights hold for us at the Golf Channel. We’re building out the website and the apps that go along with these products and then the partnerships perspective are the governing bodies that are putting on these events. So that’s the PGA of America and the European Tour.

Adrian Tennant: So before COVID-19, what did a typical “day in the life” look like for you?

Kara Baker: So we have a small team that’s a hundred percent dedicated to these digital products and day-in, day-out project management, product management, the design, and a whole slew of different things. And then we have a partner that we’ve sourced from a development perspective that we’re constantly working with as well as what we call our shared resources within the Golf Channel and NBC Sports. And so when you look at those three buckets – our own team, our dev vendor, as well as our shared resources – we are in constant communication with all of those teams and ensuring that we have put together all the different moving parts. This is a new partnership for us that started that we signed the contracts for in 2019, so 2020 PGA Championship and Ryder Cup will be the first year that we actually are the ones producing these digital products. And so this is a big year for us. It’s an implementation year. And so we’re working with a lot of different people on ensuring that we get everything right and we get it all built from the ground up, the best way possible for year one. 

Adrian Tennant: Now, in what kinds of ways is COVID-19 impacting your work at the Golf Channel?

Kara Baker: Yeah, so like many companies around the world right now, we are working from home but I think it’s been really a pretty amazing testament to see how quickly we can go virtual. Our team specifically started doing an 11:30 standup call where we all are on video calls. And you know, before, I think there was a lot of reluctance to turn on that video screen, where now it’s, “no, let’s get personal, let’s, let’s make this humanize as much as much as we possibly can.” And so we turn on that video screen and we all share laughs about what our background noise is. My boss’s kids are coming in and out – and it’s great, I think it’s really cool. And so I think that the biggest way it’s been impacting us is by making us go remote. But I think it’s been really amazing to see how it’s almost become more humanized and it’s the new norm. There’s some kind of funky background noises and kids are coming in and out in meetings and dogs are barking and that’s okay. And so I really think, again I go back to it’s humanizing where we all are and that we’re all on this journey together and we all have lives at homes that we’re now bringing a little bit more into work than we probably ever thought we would.

Adrian Tennant: The Masters is the first major golf championship of the year in the US and has been played every year since 1934 – except from 1943 to 1945 when it was canceled because of World War II. Yet it has also been postponed this year because of COVID-19. How has that impacted your plans?

Kara Baker: So the Masters is the first of the four majors and it’s about five weeks prior to the PGA Championship. So when the news hit that the Masters was postponing, it was a foresight or was it a foresight – you know, in April, everyone knows right now with COVID-19 it was within the 30 days was then so many different warnings that the government was putting out with large groups of people. And so the question was, was the postponement of the Master’s going to be a domino effect for all the other majors? And we were the second one up with the PGA Championship. And so that was the biggest thing is that wasn’t foresight or was it that it just fell within a window of time that kind of made it obvious and that everything would stay as it stands right now with the PGA Championship. And so it was about three to five days later, I think, because I think the Master’s was announced on Friday that it was postponed and then by Tuesday, so four days, five days later, a PGA Championship was announced that it was going to be postponed. So I think that, I don’t know if they were absolutely correlated. I think it was just really the way the world stands right now. The Masters was just the first given that it was literally the first of the four majors to get started.

Adrian Tennant: In the wake of these cancellations, are you having to reevaluate your on-air and online promotional campaigns?

Kara Baker: Yeah, so you know, we have a programming department within the Golf Channel and they have been working around the clock and still ensuring that we’re giving good content. And, and one of the ways of doing that is that when these tour events get canceled, which would have been your typical Thursday through Sunday or Thursday and Friday, kind of watch cycles, what we’re doing now is we’re taking old content. So in 2018 at the Valspar, which was a PGA tour event that would have been played last weekend, we showed the 2018 one instead, which was a really good one to show. Tiger Woods performed quite well in it, Jordan Speith performed quite well in it. So from a ratings perspective, if we were going to give someone good television, we felt like the 2018 version of it was the best one to show.

Adrian Tennant: As the situation is changing so rapidly, to what extent are you constantly having to review the appropriateness of creative messaging, digital media placements or elements built into your websites and apps?

Kara Baker: In my role, you know, we’re representing and so in relating to PGA Championship, it’s important that we have just updated information as soon as it’s given to us. And we’re essentially a new source. We’re putting up the press releases and at the end of the day we’re all going to the different news channels and outlets for our first take. But then we’re going to the source and in this case is the source. And so people are asking like, “what’s going to happen now?” And so it’s really important that we are aligning with PGA of America and whatever decisions they’re telling us and we’re getting that content updated as soon as possible so that we are giving that end user, that consumer, that this is potentially affecting, the answers to their questions.

Adrian Tennant: In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen some unexpected moves by big brands in response to the pandemic. Tito’s Vodka has announced that it will begin the production of hand sanitizer, as has Anheuser-Busch. Chipotle Mexican Grill is trying to put an uplifting spin on the situation by offering “Chipotle Together,” which are virtual hangouts on Zoom. But we’ve also read about ads that got pulled. Hershey Company said it had pulled two ads that featured human interaction replacing them with spots featuring only chocolate bars, text and a voiceover, I guess in response to social distancing. And Molson Coors halted a planned campaign called, “The Official Beer of Working Remotely,” because it didn’t want to appear insensitive, as many companies like your own have now adopted work from home policies to deal with the coronavirus. How well do you think brands are doing to ensure their creative elements are appropriate and not tone deaf?

Kara Baker: I think a lot of brands have responded really well to this, whether that’s pulling down advertisements that maybe the world would never know that were actually going to go up or by creating new advertisements. And so, like you mentioned earlier when you were introducing me, I’ve come from a nonprofit background and so I know for me, my heartstrings are always a little bit pulled when you directly are impacting people and what their livelihood is. And there’s no doubt that COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the economy, for some losing their jobs. And so I think that the companies that are really shifting their stance in the advertising world and not just advertising, but actually advertising that this is something new they’re going to be offering as a byproduct of some of the economic downturns, I think that’s really amazing. And so Ford has done this as an example. You know, they created a new advertisement, I think it was in only three days, where they were specifically announcing that they are going to have some payment relief during the coronavirus crisis. And for all those people that have financing specifically with Ford. And so I think that that is really, really important in these times. 

Adrian Tennant: Have you seen or heard any examples that you think got it completely wrong?

Kara Baker: There’s a company, Mint Mobile that – I’m not sure a lot of people have even heard of them – it’s actually a wireless company that Ryan Reynolds owns part of. But they did an ad specifically with putting their fingers in their mouth and at a party and this whole double-dipping aspect. And it got a lot of poor, negative attention on social media because in today’s world, like you said, are we going tone deaf to certain things? You have to make sure that you’re being sensitive and it doesn’t matter how much money you put back in an advertising campaign, but you gotta make sure you hit the mark and you’re not ignoring or making fun of something that is causing just a huge impact on the economy, on our lives. You just have to be careful of that. So I think that they did not do the best job with that ad.

Adrian Tennant:

Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Erik McGrew: I’m Erik McGrew, Designer at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising and design professionals. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. By conducting our own research, we’re able to capture consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations.This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused, creative-driven insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re talking to Kara Baker of the Golf Channel about the impact of COVID-19 on sports coverage. Now, I mentioned in the introduction that sport brings in big revenues here in the US, but money isn’t the principal reason that people take such an interest in sport. Many fans have a real emotional attachment to their team or their favorite players. Do you think, Kara, at a time when many of us are staying at home – with obviously no access to movie theaters or concerts – we especially crave connections through sport that can give our collective morale a boost?

Kara Baker: Yeah, I think it’s been unique to be part of the sports industry and to see how the stories are still unfolding and it’s still like I’m part of sports. So part of it is there’s a postponement and that’s a story right now and it’s just keeping me updated. It’s like, “Oh man, okay, the Olympics just got postponed.” Like that’s giving me something to read. The other stories, “Tom Brady’s now a Bucs – a Buccaneer,” and as a Florida resident, that’s a big story. And so it’s so interesting that even in the midst of all this, there’s a story that me as a sports fan, I constantly want to read and even, I’ve seen so many things about just higher activity from athletes on their social media platforms showing what they’re doing to help or what they’re doing to stay entertained. But I think that what I love even more than all this, and obviously I’m part of a media company, a sports media company, but I love that when we don’t have our favorite sport to potentially watch on television, maybe the current year, I should say 2020 – we can go back and watch 2019 and 2018 – what we do have though is the ability to get outside and to actually play. And so think this is a really great way that in the midst of that, we don’t have our team to cheer on, we can still be practicing ourselves and getting out in this really gorgeous weather right now, at least in Orlando, and get a chance to kind of put ourselves in that athlete’s shoes and get to be with family and really kind of embody that athletic team, sporting comradery that exists even when we’re just playing with our family.

Adrian Tennant: In what kinds of ways do you see COVID-19 impacting the coverage of sports and channels focused on sports, longer-term?

Kara Baker: I think it’s going to be creativity, um, in technology and innovation. I think I’ve already been amazed at the amount of things that are being produced in the most unique ways and in ways that we’ve never done before, whether it’s at the Golf Channel, NBC or any media company. And so I think NASCAR did a virtual race last weekend and it had great ratings. And so it’s things like that, we’re getting really experimental and what can we do? I mean, Ironman is actually doing virtual races starting very soon. And so there’s no doubt that we’re willing to film things with our iPhones now, we’re willing to get on Zoom and put a production piece together, and we’re willing to virtually have a race. And these are all things that were maybe not off the table, but were highly unlikely, kind of back- back-, back-burner ideas that now become a reality. And so I think that that will help in the future when we are past the COVID-19. I think we’ll go back and we’ll say, “remember when? And look how creative we were. And look how resourcefully we worked with what we had, and look how we put perfection aside, and we went back to humanizing something, and realized it was better to just see Jimmy Fallon on a screen and laugh a little bit. It didn’t matter that his wife was holding the iPhone and laughing in the background.”

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. “Deadline” reported last week that TV ratings have shot up as people rediscover live, linear viewing. The prevailing conventional wisdom has been that streaming services like Netflix would be the major beneficiaries of the current mandate for staying home, but viewers, many of them younger, are also checking out traditional TV. Viewership of NBC’s The Voice went up 38% and Ellen’s Game of Games, also an NBC show, jumped an eye-popping 44%. Do you think these viewing behaviors could become new habits – our new normal, if you will – post-pandemic?

Kara Baker: I think that’s, that would be the hope. I mean it’s hard to see and know how much of these percentages in these trends, how stable they are and what we’re going to see post-pandemic. But I think from a cable perspective, these are great numbers and it’s good television. Ellen’s Game of Games is hilarious and The Voice is talent. And so I think that these are all positive things that NBC and other media companies will just continue to leverage as we move past this. 

Adrian Tennant: So Kara, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you personally?

Kara Baker: The biggest thing is getting back to your roots, slowing down a little bit and really holding true and holding close to things that matter most to you. Um, I think that that’s something that my husband and I really, really looked at in this past week and a half. My family’s safe, which is amazing. And um, continuing to pray for everyone’s safety. But I think that you never know what things can happen and you never want to take things too seriously. So I think from a personal perspective, it’s reignited the things that I think matter most. Helping to kind of refocus, you know, the ability to slow down, the ability to spend time with loved ones and ultimately just even care for them even if it’s virtually a little bit more often than maybe I was before.

Adrian Tennant: What, if anything, is proving challenging?

Kara Baker: I would say, working too much. It’s so easy to just get out of bed and just grab your laptop. You forget the morning routine of shower, makeup, commute to work, all that goes out the door and there’s one part of it that’s kind of nice that it goes out the door. But then there’s the other part where we don’t want to be on our laptops for 12 hours and I don’t want that for my employees. I think there are seasons where we work hard, but I very much am an advocate of work-life balance. And as are my leaders, frankly, as well. And so I think that the important part is making sure that we still stick to routine and we still stick to relatively standard work hours because like I said, it’s easy – the laptop’s still there. It’s in your living room now and there’s not that official closing of the laptop and then jumping in your car to drive home. So it’s important that I even help my team say that like, “be done, like, you’re good. You know, it’s all good. It’ll be here tomorrow,” and really stop it. Stop at work at whatever time that may be. But I think it’s important and I know that’s something that I tried to do even last night. It got to a point where I just kept working cause it’s very easy to, and then all of a sudden I was like, “I can be done,” and I just shut my laptop and it was done.

Adrian Tennant: Do you have any personal tips you’d like to share with our listeners for staying productive when working from home?

Kara Baker: Yeah, I think one of the most important things is facetime – communication with people, making sure that you turn on the video when you are doing a conference call so that you get the interaction – it forces you to not multitask and actually be present in that moment. And don’t be afraid to have fun with that. My team just scheduled a Friday Happy Hour – Virtual Happy Hour – and we’re really excited about it. We’re actually going to dual it as a product roadmap session as well. And it’s like, “this is fun. Let’s do it.” So I think there’s so many different things where don’t be afraid to push virtual things the same way that you would in a normal, everyday setting: the happy hour, a yoga session, a stand-up meeting, and push those through some sort of video conferencing and calling to connect with people and to keep yourself sane. And so I think that would be this. The second thing is we all have different ways of finding joy and finding balance and kind of being rejuvenated. And I think it’s important that each person soul searches a little bit and makes sure that they’re getting… that gets very easy to have your workstation at work and just go in. Like once we start working, it can be hard sometimes to stop, but what happens is with that it can be three or four days and that same thing and all of a sudden you realize, “wait, I haven’t gone outside enough. I haven’t called my best friend and I could use a non-work-related conversation right now.” So I think it’s important just to hustle, but then also stop and make sure that you’re keeping yourself sane, whatever that looks like. I think that’s different for everyone. For some people it’s a run, it’s yoga, it’s a walk, it’s a TV show, whatever that looks like, just make sure you’re inserting that in.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. I think those are great tips, thank you. If listeners want to learn more about the Golf Channel, where can they find resources?

Kara Baker: is a great place to go. You can sign up, you can see all the different brands that we have in our ecosystem, and you can sign up to be part of our newsletters, and you can sign up for Golf Pass. If you’re a golf fan, it’ll give you access to so many different um, golf instructional tips, really cool like Golf Channel television shows as well as discounts on golf. 

Adrian Tennant: Kara, thank you very much for being our guest today. Really appreciate it.

Kara Baker: Absolutely. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself. Thanks so much Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guest this week, Kara Baker, Director of digital partnership and operations at the Golf Channel. You can find our show notes with links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at, under “Insights,” just click on the button marked, “Podcast.” Consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening toIN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, stay safe. Goodbye.

And More