Jun 9 2014, 5:44pm CDT | by Forbes
Two championships, one event.
For the first time in its 119-year history, golf’s governing body will host back-to-back national championships at the same course.
From June 12 – June 15, golf’s greatest male players will compete at the Pinehurst Resort & Country Club (No. 2); and the following week, June 19 – 22, the world’s best female golfers will take on the course. Pinehurst No. 2 last hosted the U.S. Open in 1999 and 2005 and has since undergone a reported $2.5 million renovation.
According to USGA executive director, Mike Davis, operational costs and saving money were not the motivation for staging dual events. Instead, the nonprofit organization saw it as an opportunity to compare the world’s best men and women golfers on the same stage.
Admittedly, the USGA’s current executive leadership team notes that it cannot take credit for the decision to host consecutive championships. The idea was originally conceived by its former executive director, David Fay. He likened it to the U.S. Open Tennis Championships where the world of tennis focuses its undivided attention on one venue.
In other words, for avid golf fans during the next two weeks Pinehurst No. 2 and the Village of Pinehurst, N.C. will be better known as “golf heaven.” Although, if you are a golf novice, the USGA highlights that the U.S. Open Championships are for you too.
By way of its U.S. Open Experience fan engagement campaign, upgraded digital and social media platforms, and a reported $1 billion 12-year multi-media agreement with Fox Network and Fox Sports 1 (set to launch in 2015), the USGA is evaluating how it can operate as a sophisticated business rather than a small nonprofit.
Recently, Forbes.com caught up with Sarah Hirshland, Senior Managing Director, Business Affairs, to discuss her role within the USGA and what is in store for the next two historic weeks at Pinehurst No. 2.
Alana Glass: In September 2011, you joined the USGA and began overseeing its accounting, broadcasting, human resources, marketing, and membership. Given your extensive background in sports business, what are some of the business measures that you are charged with accomplishing?
Sarah Hirshland: The organization had a number of key pivotal moments ahead of it in those individual areas and an overall organizational transformation that was being fueled largely by a change in leadership at the top. Coming in, we were a year away from what was a large domestic broadcasting renewal. We were at a place where we wanted to start evaluating the future of the USGA program. We knew we needed to have a much deeper engagement with our core customer group, and that was going to require a shift in strategy to think about how to engage the audience.
The corporate partnership program was still relatively new. The organization did not have corporate partners until 2006 which in sports is unheard of. There were revenue-related functions where I had a good base of expertise to help move those forward. Then from an operational perspective with the finance, human resources and technology departments we looked at how do we start operating a little bit more like a sophisticated business and a little less like a small nonprofit. And it was not about being for profit or nonprofit as much as it was about being more sophisticated and disciplined in the way we operated the organization.
AG: This year the 2014 men’s and women’s U.S. Open Championships are being played in consecutive weeks. How did this unique arrangement come about?
SH: I am sure our whole leadership team would love to take credit for the idea, and none of us can because we work so far out in planning. The dual U.S. Open and Women’s Open was a decision made long before my time. The beauty of it is at the time the decision was made, there were not a lot of opportunities to compare men’s sport to women’s sport and particularly in golf. What Pinehurst had done from a restoration perspective to the golf course was an enabling factor, which was going to allow a fair and true comparison of the men’s game to the women’s game at a venue that had the space, capacity, and logistical ability to do something like this back-to-back.
We have the great privilege of having the U.S. Open as one of the most visible sporting events in the world – let alone in golf – and to use that as a mouthpiece to showcase the quality and caliber and competitiveness of the women’s game is something that we do not often have the chance to do.
AG: Are there discussions to combine future men’s and women’s U.S. Open Championships?/>/>
SH: If you asked us six months ago we would have said “oh easy.” We have a lot to figure out before we are ready to think about again. At this point, we are feeling good about the way this has been received by the broader public all the way up to the narrowest audience of our core constituents. While none of us are ready to say we are going do it again next year, I think a lot of us are saying this has a chance to be special.
AG: Surrounding the 2014 U.S. Open Championships, the USGA developed rather innovative initiatives. Describe what U.S. Open for All means for golf fans.
SH: We want to make sure that this dual championship is something that the entire community has the opportunity to experience regardless of their level of avidity for golf itself. We want to use this as a platform to engage the community and thank them for having us. Also, to introduce those who may not be avid golf fans now, but have the experience of understanding what a huge championship like this can mean. It is incredibly compelling, and we want to make sure that the experience we provide at the U.S. Open is truly open for all.
AG: What programming related to the U.S. Open Experience can fans expect to see?
SH: The U.S. Open Experience that we are creating is off the property, outside the gates. We are calling it Beyond the Gates, and that experience is in the village of Pinehurst. Each year the U.S. Open is different because we are in a different market, and logistics are different and the venue is different. In this case, the village of Pinehurst is close to the golf course itself and is a just fabulous quaint little community that has an incredible personality. Also, it happens to have a lovely central park in the middle of the village. We have essentially taken over Tufts Park for the two-week period, and we will offer programs each evening.
We have created a one‑hour documentary on the story of Payne Stewart winning the 1999 U.S. Open, which is an incredible story whether you are a golf fan or not. We have built a real putting green in the park where people can come and pick up a golf club and hit some putts. We will have a full stage, one evening the North Carolina Symphony is going to perform. We have a panel of golf media to talk about what’s happening on the golf course. It is a two‑week programming schedule that allows us to have something for everyone.
AG: For the fans that cannot make it to Pinehurst No. 2, I understand that the USGA has redesigned its digital and social media platforms so everyone can stay connected to the championships. What can fans expect when using their smart phones and tablets?
SH: Last year was the first year we designed an iPad app. Prior to that, we had an iPhone app and an Android app. This year, we’ll update and revise each of those, but we’ve not added a new product, as much as we have enhanced the existing products.
The younger generation has a different way of communicating with one another than those who grew up decades ago. We try to give everybody an opportunity to participate, recognizing that the core golf audience is an older audience. We have to service both and find compelling ways for young people to interact as they choose, and yet still provide the experience that our older audiences are expecting.
AG: Looking towards the future, next year the USGA’s television deal with Fox begins. Additionally, what else does the USGA envision for the future?
SH: The broadcasting of our championships on Fox platforms will be unique and different. But at the same time it is a continuation of what we are already doing. What the relationship with Fox will allow us to do, is to tell stories around what the USGA is all about and to bring the unique essence of our championships to light. There is as a lot of confusion in the golf world about the difference between the USGA, the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, and LPGA. Our opportunity is to make sure that the constituent base understands the unique role that we play, alongside the unique role that all of our allied organizations play.
Also, we are focused on the long-term health and sustainability and viability of the game itself. Some of that is about making it more welcoming, and creating opportunities for juniors, women, and underrepresented audiences in the sport to find it easier to enter. We are focusing on what are the barriers that keep people from playing and how do we knock down those barriers and make sure anybody who wants to has the opportunity to come and play.
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