Safety & Security

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Cancellation of PGA TOUR Event Shows the Need for a Game Plan for Protests

2 Oct, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When the PGA TOUR announced it had cancelled its October tournament in Hong Kong because of concerns over players’ safety in the area, given a number of violent protests, it sent a clear message to organizers everywhere: athletes, no matter what level of competition, are more important than income. Directly on the heels of that announcement, CONCACAF announced it was relocating its Women's Olympic Quaifying tournament in Haiti because of political unrest there.

The problem, however, is that many cities in the U.S. have seen protests that get violent as well as spikes in crime because of rising tensions between police and special interest groups. In fact, it has led to some events being used as bargaining chips with cities, when groups can’t get what they want.

How do organizers know when is it time to pull the plug, when is it time to negotiate and when is it time to simply ride out the problem? Unfortunately, there’s no sure way of knowing and there’s no one game plan that is guaranteed to work in all settings. A few examples of different ways problems have been addressed in the past, however, can serve as guidelines.

In 2015, the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon found itself at the center of a protest planned by the St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter. The protest was announced four days before the beginning of the October 3 and 4 race weekend, according to an article in the Star Tribune.   The chapter stated its intentions of “shutting down” the annual October running event near the finish at the State Capitol to raise awareness of recent incidents involving St. Paul police and ethnic minorities.

Marathon organizers, in one of the regular updates published to their website noted that “city officials have said they will not tolerate any actions that compromise the marathon, its runners, spectators, or its success.” In the end, BLM activists met with the city and agreed not to disrupt the marathon. However, that did not mean the event was drama-free.

Protesters walked through traffic on their route to their designated protesting area, and staged a "die-in" near the finish line of the marathon at Rice Street and John Ireland Boulevard. Police told protesters to leave the street, but no arrests were made. Several counter-protestors stood nearby, waving Confederate flags. There were no reports of physical clashes by the end of the event.

Officials in the area had already seen the disruptive effects protesters can have on professional sports. In St. Paul, an incident in which a group blocked the light rail train tracks prevented the train’s use by fans attending the Minnesota Vikings 2015 home opener. But it certainly was not the first time a professional sport event had been affected by strife. In Baltimore in April of that same year, when riots and protesting in the city forced the relocation of three Orioles home games to their opponents’ stadium in Tampa Bay, the team elected to play a fourth game, scheduled against the Chicago White Sox, to an empty stadium, resulting in tremendous losses to nearby businesses that relied on game day traffic.

In fall of 2016, the controversial shooting by police of an African-American man resulted in at times violent protests in the city of Charlotte, and led to the enforcement of a temporary curfew being placed on the city. That resulted in the cancellation of a number of events, all of which had been designed to bring tourists into the city, which at that time, was already hurting from the NCAA’s decision to pull out events in light of the ‘bathroom bill.’

To help deal with questions and allay visitors’ fears, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority created a special landing page on its website to keep visitors informed and updated. However, there was still plenty of fallout:

  • The American Heart Association cancelled a major fundraising walk and fun run that had been scheduled for uptown Charlotte. The event had been expected to bring more than 15,000 people into the area.
  • The Charlotte Knights cancelled its Family Movie Night.
  • The Charlotte Hornets Team Store received heavy damage during the more violent protests and remained closed while clean-up began in other areas of the city.

Despite the fact that protestors planned to march in the area around Bank of America Stadium, however, a Panthers game went on as planned.

There isn’t really a template for behavior in an era of civil unrest, unfortunately, and event owners are often left to make their own decisions, based on the information available to them at the time. The PGA TOUR event, which was supposed to be held Oct. 17-20 at Clearwater Bay Golf & Country Club in Hong Kong, was cancelled without being rescheduled. Instead, the 13th and final tournament will be held Oct. 10-13 at the Macau Championship.

Hong Kong is in the fourth month of protests that occur every weekend, and some have been violent. The protests started as opposition to a proposed extradition law and have expanded to include demands for greater democracy. Last weekend, protesters threw gasoline bombs, and police responded with tear gas.

Greg Carlson, the executive director of PGA Tour Series-China, said safety was at the forefront of the decision.

"We have analyzed this situation from every angle, and as a group, we determined that canceling the 2019 Clearwater Bay Open is the best decision," he said.

Carlson said the tour looked into an alternate site for the tournament without finding one it deemed suitable.

PGA Tour Series-China played two official events at Clearwater Bay in 2016 and 2018, along with an unofficial event in 2017. Carlson said the tour expects to return – once the area settles down.

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