American Century Championship
Friday, July 10, 2020
THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by Jon Miller, President of Programming, NBC Sports; Mr. Jonathan Thomas, President and CEO of American Century Investments; and Carol Chaplin, President and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitor Authority.
One of the major issues and the first question we’ve been getting since the announcement in June that the tournament was going to continue was why is the tournament continuing, how did you do this and what were the different steps involved in making it happen. Jon, you want to give us background on that.
JON MILLER: First of all, we get asked that question every day both inside and outside our respective organizations. I will tell you this is a very important event on the NBC Sports calendar. This is our 31st year in this wonderful setting.
We have the most unbelievable partnership with American Century and Jonathan Thomas and his team and then the folks in Lake Tahoe with Carol.
And we knew how important it was to the community. We also felt it was an opportunity to conduct the event and employ some really good social-distancing guidelines.
We went through all the proper protocols, dealt with our government affairs and legal folks throughout. Gary Quinn, who is my associate, really spearheaded it for NBC and working everything out. And we’ve been able to pull it off with the cooperation of everybody, including the celebrities who understood and who, quite honestly, reached out to us when the pandemic hit in March.
We heard from everyone from Charles Barkley to Tony Romo, to Aaron Rodgers, to Steph Curry, please, please, keep Tahoe alive; we want to come to American Century. And we knew we would have to do special things to make it work. We spent a lot of time and a lot of dialogue with American Century, who, as I said, is a great partner. And we figured out a way to make it happen.
And that’s one of the things we’re proud of. We’re excited. Today the first round just started about a half an hour ago. It’s a little bit of a different vibe out there. It’s a little bit quieter. I’m not used to it being so quiet on a Friday. But we’re excited and ready to go.
Q. Jonathan, tell us the thought process was with American Century Investments. This is for you to bring your special customers and guests out, and that’s not part of the deal this year. So how did that factor into the overall decision for you to continue?
JONATHAN THOMAS: You’re absolutely right. This is typically a major branding event where we also have the opportunity to entertain some special clients and guests of ours. And we knew immediately that wasn’t an option. This quickly came down to effectively an encore performance of reruns or to that do this scaled-back version of what you see here today.
But all the planning took place on shifting sands. Jon and I and his team were on the call every week talking about the latest updates in the news. And NBC and the resources that they’ve brought to this has just been amazing. You see the creativity and the ingenuity in a company like this to pull this off is just breathtaking.
But for us, you know, we don’t have very special guests, it’s still a branding platform for us. As an organization, we are deeply entrenched in giving for every year, for 20 years we’ve been giving 40% of our profits each year to medical research. This is a platform for us to tell that story.
And then, of course, through this event itself, we’ve also raised millions and millions of dollars for charity. And this year, probably more than ever, we think those charities needed those funds. And, so, like always a portion of them will go to the Lake Tahoe charities, but this year we’ve added a COVID relief charity as well, as well as an equal justice initiative, which is about a social justice program, really. And all the proceeds, the entire purse will be directed to the charities.
Q. That purse is $600,000, so that’s major. Carol, from Lake Tahoe’s standpoint, what does this mean to the community to keep this event going for the 31st consecutive year?
CAROL CHAPLIN: Well, I think we should name July American Century Month here in Lake Tahoe. Honestly for the community —
JON MILLER: I’m all for that.
JONATHAN THOMAS: Second.
CAROL CHAPLIN: For the community, I think it’s, it pulls on our heartstrings to have this event this year. You know what the buzz is like, and Jon’s right, that’s a little bit changed, but it doesn’t mean that American Century Championship isn’t part of our lives and part of our summer and really the highlight of what we do here in partnership with NBC and American Century.
And I speak a lot about the partnership, and that isn’t even fair. It’s much closer than that. It’s much more emotional for us. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with the advertising and the promotional opportunity that we still have this year.
And I think this year the message is we are resilient. We can come back. The ingenuity that’s been spoken about, the creativity, the dedication and the commitment to the event and to the contributions to the community and enjoying the celebrities, even if we can’t get up close and personal this year, it’s just amazing.
And all of our partners here in town, you know, it’s not the same thing. But they were committed from long before they started conversations, we went out and asked: Do you want this this year? And there was not a hesitation on anyone’s part. It is part of our fabric, and I can’t wait until No. 32.
Q. Jonathan, Jon Miller told us in many of the conversations that one of the big reasons that American Century continued this was because of these relationships.
JONATHAN THOMAS: That’s extremely accurate. The connection, as Carol just talked about, to this community, is genuine. It’s authentic. It’s deep. And as we sat around the table with NBC thinking about the pros and cons of doing a cut-back event, raising money and supporting this community, especially during these times, was absolutely a key consideration.
It’s funny how the connectivity has grown. It’s sad for me not to see all the volunteers on the holes as we used to. But I’ve been coming out here for 15 years. And I recognize two-thirds, three-quarters of the volunteers and the people from the community.
And it’s just, there’s a level of connectivity that I’d be shocked to see if that exists in any other tournament like this in the country.
Q. Jon, we know there’s been a lot of questions as far as the safety issues. And could you please address some of the things that the tournament’s doing this year to maintain that safety?
JON MILLER: We have a very aggressive screening process for anybody who comes on the grounds. NBC has hired a company called Medcor, so everybody who comes on the grounds has to answer questions on an app, as well as have their temperature taken to make sure that we keep everybody safe.
I think one of the most remarkable things is when Gary and I started looking at this, we realized we had to reduce the footprint, to try to keep our celebrities, our volunteers and our senior officials safe and still conduct the event.
So in 2019, last year, we had a record crowd. We had over 62,000 people on the ground, including spectators, fans, sponsors, hospitality, you name it, credentialed media. This year that number is 250. So we have reduced it by over 61,750 people.
And it was a big challenge. And a lot of work had to go into it, to the point where now all you’re going to see on the golf course are the players, those players who have chosen to bring a caddie. We’re allowing some players to take carts for the first time.
We have a scaled-down volunteer contingent, who are marshalling the different holes. We have staff. We have PGA officials who are here. And that’s it, as well as a very small media representation.
But by doing this and by wearing masks — and for this interview we’re not wearing them, but we have masks on all the other times that we’re out there. We’re very careful — no parties, no concerts, no functions like we’re all used to having here. And everybody bought into that and understood that was the price we were all going to have to pay to keep this going. And I’m happy to say that it’s working out quite well.
Q. We notice you’re all six-feet apart?
JON MILLER: We are six-feet apart.
Q. Jon, talk about the coverage this year. Understand there will be more coverage this year for the audience at home?
JON MILLER: Right. We were very fortunate that we have three hours a day of live coverage. We come on today at 5:00 Eastern, 2:00 local here in Tahoe for three hours. And then three to six on the East Coast, Saturday and Sunday. And all nine of those hours will be shown again in an encore presentation in prime time on The Golf Channel from seven to 10:00 pacific. First time we’ve ever been able to do that. We’ll actually have 18 hours of coverage of the event.
Another thing I wanted to talk about here, this is a very important event for NBC. We were all in Ponte Vedra, Florida, in March, when we got pulled off the golf course on that Thursday, at the PLAYERS Championship, when the TOUR decided to shut down, quite honestly, their biggest event. Our golf unit has not been back together since that Thursday/Friday in March.
And we have a very big golf schedule coming up in August, starting with the BMW Championship, followed by the TOUR Championship in Atlanta, and then two weeks after that we have the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which we just recently reacquired.
It was very important for our golf team to get back together, put the protocols in place that we’re doing here, so that they’d be able to administer them when they get on the grounds for these PGA TOUR events. So that was another critical reason why we wanted to get this event up and running.
Q. Jonathan mentioned a little bit earlier one of the charities is the Equal Justice Initiative. And I know there were some interviews conducted yesterday with a number of the players in that regard. Do you want to give us some details on that as well?
JON MILLER: It’s interesting. Comcast has made a very strong commitment to social justice and social responsibility. So in the early dialogue about the event we made a decision that we would put 100 percent of the purse towards charity.
Obviously the Lake Tahoe community was front and center. And clearly we wanted to try to identify some COVID charities as well.
But with the social justice that’s taken over the country and the dialogue that’s going on, we went to American Century and said, look, this is your money; you need to tell us and give us some guidance on where it wants to go.
I’ll let Jonathan tell you how his company came to the decision to go with the Equal Justice Initiative, which was remarkable.
JONATHAN THOMAS: Thanks, Jon. So this issue is important to us, to American Century Investments as well. And we’re a family. We’re a privately owned company. Connective tissue between the employees is very strong. Given the environment we’re living in, we thought it would be an interesting way to do it.
We actually conducted a vote. Every single employee at American Century was given a survey of three different, four different social justice organizations that NBC had vetted for us. And the employees all voted, and Equal Justice Initiative is the one that prevailed.
We like it because it’s money that we’re funding, as Jon mentioned, with the direction of it going to a great cause, to a highly regarded organization that was selected by our employees.
Q. Jon, this golf tournament probably is more representative of population than any others. We have a number of African-American players here. Probably more than any other event I can think of.
JON MILLER: Normally we would have a field of about 92 to 95. We try to sneak in a few extra ones. As long as Mike Milthorpe, our tournament director, doesn’t get after me on that. But we’ve had a big field. And we’re at capacity with a very strong list of people who will come in and fill in at the last minute if we lose anybody.
This year we had to freeze our list at 80. And then once we had people drop, we weren’t able to fill those spots. So we actually are at 71 players. And more than a third of them are African-American golfers. This is clearly the most diverse field in golf. And we’re very proud of that fact. And we try to be a very welcoming event. We introduce a lot of new players every year.
We have some great new competitors who are joining us this year for the first time. And it’s pretty exciting to see their reaction when they show up and see this event that they’ve seen on television for so many years and now they get to participate.
Q. Jonathan, can you talk a little bit — you did earlier — but could you talk about the process of those weekly conversations you had in terms of what the challenges were and what the discussions were about on the: Can we do this; can we not?
JONATHAN THOMAS: Great question. It was, like I said right out of the gates, we knew we weren’t going to be able to do what we were doing the previous 30 years. That was just out of the question. And we had to define the two options kind of the scaled-back version we’re experiencing today, or an encore performance.
And we had to do it in a period where there was tremendous uncertainty. When you think about, when we first started talking amongst ourselves, what we did and did not know about this pandemic has shifted tremendously, right? We thought it was living on surfaces and couldn’t be transmitted in the air and all sorts of things that have turned out not to be true.
And as we become more informed, and as the pandemic has spiked and eased and starting to spike again, we’ve been changing on a weekly basis with the NBC folks. And like I say, the relationship with the NBC team could not be any stronger.
The creativity and the adjustments we made each week were amazing. Even sitting out here today, every day I think all of us walk around and notice, oh, something here isn’t quite like it used to be. And we’re making on-the-fly adjustments.
But in the end, it came down to protecting — making sure that the players felt respected and protected and that they could come out here and compete in a very safe environment.
And that was really the driving force behind all of our decision-making. And the staff; you all. You can see we’ve changed this room dramatically. The volunteers. It was all about health and safety.
Q. Carol, how different is it this year? How much of an impact is it to not have the 60,000 fans and not have the Celeb Ams out here all week?
CAROL CHAPLIN: There’s obviously economic impact. Like I said, July is American Century month. I’ll declare that today.
Our businesses — it’s amazing to me to understand what this tournament does in terms of its own environment and how many local businesses are involved on the course, behind the course, behind the scenes, and of course places where we have visitors, lodging, restaurants, et cetera, going.
And so it’s obviously limited it a lot. I think this is — so we can’t deny that. We can’t deny the impact of it. But the promotion of the area has always been priceless. I think there’s a commercial about that stuff.
But we wanted more than anything to let the world know that we were open for business and that American Century could not be kept down, and that we knew that it had to be done differently.
I would say right now, this is a testament, the way this is running, to how our community needs to respond to COVID and how we are helping our visitors to understand how to respond and to respect everybody.
I’ve been saying for a while, we have to be the best human beings we can be, and this is absolutely — I was telling Jon earlier, they wrote the book on it. And so I think this can be, going forward, impactful in another way where we understand how this day-to-day reinvention can really be applied to other places in the community.
So that’s another benefit. I’m always looking for the silver lining here these days. So, yeah. But the air time that we get. And of course yesterday was our event center groundbreaking, a huge project. It’s my first and last event center, I’ll say that right now.
It went off so nicely. And NBC partnered with us and filmed it, which was — that’s not — we don’t usually ask — they’re so busy anyway. So they made that special effort for us. So another opportunity and we didn’t know that going into this.
I’ll just have to say, because I think these two guys are more interesting than me, but Mr. Quinn, I’ve never had so much conversation with him on a weekly basis. I wasn’t sure whether I should pick up the phone or listen to his message, because every time I talked to him he was so concerned and told me about how many meetings went on with this event and how many times they had to meet and they were working through these things and assured me that they were doing what they could.
And you guys have a great partnership, and we love Mr. Quinn as much as all these guys.
JON MILLER: It may be American Century month here, but it’s Gary Quinn week.
CAROL CHAPLIN: There we go. There we go. So impact-wise, sometimes there’s things that come out of bad situations: Creativity; new collaboration; new partnerships; new ways of doing things. And we’ll come back bigger and better. And it’s the way that we are telling the world that we’re strong and we can beat this.
Q. Jon, with so little live sports on TV over the last six months or so, how important is it to have this? And also if your Nielsen ratings over the years have been X, can you guess what they might be this year?
JON MILLER: I’ll answer your first question. I think it’s obviously very important to have live sports. People are at home obeying social distancing and sheltering-in-place guidelines and trying to protect themselves and their families and their communities, and they’re thirsting for live sports. We’ve not had the benefit of things like Major League Baseball and NBA and NHL, normally would have finished up in the spring, or started in April with baseball.
We’ve actually been fortunate in a lot of our properties have resumed, whether it’s the Premier League in soccer and NASCAR and Indy Car and motorsports and horse racing packages have all started to come back.
But this is a unique event because not only is it live sports, but it’s golf, and it’s a lot of people that you recognize. You go down the list of 71 players, and I would bet you that the majority of people would know just about everybody on that list. So they get to see these people. And I think it’s also reassuring for them to get to see those people.
As far as ratings are concerned, I don’t like to predict because I don’t know what it’s going to be like. But I certainly think we’re expecting a jump up in ratings this year.
We’ve got a little competition from the PGA TOUR, with a very strong event in Columbus, Ohio. There’s also some NASCAR programming going on up against us over the weekend. But I’m confident that this event has established itself as a pretty big event and it will more than hold its own and certainly should improve off prior year’s numbers.
Q. This partnership is so strong now, and it has been for many, many years, but do you think this could have survived COVID maybe 25 years ago, when it was still kind of a fledgling type of event?
JON MILLER: I’ll be honest, I don’t. I don’t. I think it took an enormous amount of vision and leadership, but also guts.
And we’ve had the benefit of working with American Century for 23 years. We’ve obviously been here with Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority for 21 years.
But we’ve never had the combination of two leaders like we have with Carol and Jonathan. It wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago.
JONATHAN THOMAS: I’ll jump in on that, too. Jon doesn’t say much about it, but he’s developed and cultivated relationships with these celebrities that are really amazing.
There’s a lot of mutual respect between Jon and Gary and the players. And that bond that they have going in that direction also builds the strength and the resiliency of this tournament as well to persevere in times like this.
JON MILLER: If you think about it, you’ve got Steph Curry here, but you’ve also got the reigning NFL Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and you’ve got Aaron Rodgers. You’ve got so many active athletes who are here whose seasons are supposed to begin in four to six weeks.
You’ve got the head coach of the Tennessee Titans and the Los Angeles Chargers. And these guys have felt strongly enough about this event and what it does and what it represents that they have taken some risks being here as well.
So I don’t think you can underscore how much we appreciate the player participation.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports