Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 6

Events and Attractions

The PGA Championship will bring in record revenue this week at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow, as sales have skyrocketed by a whopping 40 percent over last year’s event held at Baltusrol Golf Club.

“It will be the most successful PGA Championship in terms of revenue,” said Jeff Price, chief commercial officer of the PGA of America, the organizing body of the PGA Championship. “The Charlotte community has absolutely embraced the championship and rallied around it.”

Charlotte is a first-time host of this week’s event, which is golf’s final major of the year. When early ticket sales got off to a roaring start last summer, PGA of America executives sensed that Charlotte would deliver.

PGA of America officials mapped out a plan that revolved around new ticket pricing tiers, additional hospitality inventory, and a new secondary ticketing deal to its premier event.

An expanded merchandise tent is among the upgrades for this year’s tournament.
Photo by: PGA OF AMERICA

The strategy includes a new weekly ticketing package and a new high-end hospitality offering called the Green Mile Club. A new multiyear agreement between the PGA of America and PrimeSport, which calls for the company to sell travel packages and serve as the official secondary ticketing seller for the tournament, is also boosting revenue.

Sales for this year’s PGA Championship also are bolstered by a well-organized local effort led by Quail Hollow President Johnny Harris (see related story), familiarity of tournament golf given that Quail Hollow has hosted a PGA Tour event since 2003, and strong regional support with more than 2,000 members of the PGA of America located in the Carolinas, making it the largest section of the organization in the country.

“The past few years we have had great demand, but the number of registrants led to record sales levels and it goes back to a golf-hungry market,” said PGA Championship Director Jason Mengel.

PGA of America organizers expect more than 250,000 fans to pass through the Quail Hollow gates during the week, though executives declined to say how that compared to last year’s event. PGA of America executives also refused to disclose specific revenue or profit from the tournament, which goes to fund the PGA of America and its initiatives to grow the game.

First Look podcast, with in-depth discussion of this week’s event in Charlotte:

A new $95 per day ticket pricing structure for championship rounds was put in place this year compared to last year’s championship where tickets ranged in price depending on the day. Monday practice rounds cost $24, Tuesday practice rounds cost $30 and Wednesday practice cost $35. Tickets to championship rounds ranged from $90 on Thursday, $95 on Friday and $115 for Saturday and Sunday.

The new, weeklong ticket packages for this year priced at $295 were sold out. Championship round tickets also have long been sold out. Tickets for the Monday and Tuesday practice rounds sold for $30 each. Much of the ticket and hospitality offerings were snapped up when sales began the day after the 2016 PGA Championship ended late last July at Baltusrol.

In addition to ticket sales, record revenue is being driven by demand for premium products, including the new offering in the Green Mile Club where an undisclosed number of all-inclusive weekly tickets priced at $6,000 have been sold. It is a similar hospitality offering that the PGA Tour has sold in recent years at the Wells Fargo tour stop held in May at Quail Hollow.

“We were able to create a new high-end level that we had not offered before,” Price said of the Green Mile Club. “It is a new tier of opportunity for individuals and corporations who didn’t want a huge tent experience.”

Along with the Green Mile Club, weekly tickets to the Wanamaker Club, a sports bar-like club, are sold out. Those tickets cost $600, compared to $575 at last year’s PGA Championship. The package includes admission for each day with high-end food and beverage available for purchase.

Corporate hospitality products, which range from $500,000 for the largest all-inclusive tents to the $600 Wanamaker Club, have also set sales records with more than 100 corporate clients both locally and nationally buying into the tournament.

“We have had strong local support,” said Kevin Ring, chief revenue officer for the PGA of America. “About 60 percent of our hospitality are national companies and that is a solid investment. It is a reflection on a major championship coming to Charlotte.”

The makeover of the Quail Hollow course helped drive hospitality sales by allowing for more corporate entertaining space. The course redesign also allowed tournament organizers to build a larger merchandise tent that at 43,000 square feet is 7,000 square feet bigger than last year’s event.

“Merchandise continues to expand,” Ring said. “We knew we had to grow and the space is available.”

On a spring afternoon in 2011, Arnold Palmer finished lunch and made his way to the door at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, where a car waited to take him to the airport. Palmer, then 81, had just played in the Wells Fargo Championship pro-am with his grandson, Sam Saunders, and an old friend named Johnny Harris, the club president.

Harris walked Palmer outside. Standing on the pavement, Palmer reflected on the growth of Quail Hollow, a club he had encouraged Harris’ father, a local insurance executive, to build 50 years earlier.

Palmer looked at Harris. “John,” he said, “your dad and the founders would be really proud with what you’ve done with this course and this tournament.”

With that, Palmer turned to get in the car. Then, he stopped, wrapped his hands around the back of Harris’ neck and offered one final thought.

“Remember,” he said, looking Harris in the eye, “the road to success is always under construction.”

Harris took those words to heart, especially the ones about construction. This is, after all, a man who, 18 months before the start of this week’s PGA Championship in Charlotte, convinced the PGA of America governing body that it would be a good idea to attempt the audacious feat of reworking four holes on the course at the same time all the greens were being replaced.

Quail Hollow President Johnny Harris dreamed big and now has a golf major to show for it.
Photo by: NANCY PIERCE

Remarkably, the project, incorporating three construction firms working simultaneously, wrapped in 89 days last summer. Three hundred crew members moved and reshaped 200,000 pounds of dirt, cleared hundreds of trees, and replaced and re-planted at least 250 or so of those trees.

Rory McIlroy, after an impromptu sneak peek last year, pronounced the new opening holes “a firm handshake” compared with what he once viewed as a rather casual golf introduction at the first tee. McIlroy, like everyone else on the PGA Tour, came to know Quail Hollow as the home of the Wells Fargo Championship, an event added to the tour schedule in 2003.

As Harris and others have made clear, what the golfers will encounter this week is another thing altogether.

Sitting in his real estate firm’s headquarters — located just a few blocks from Quail Hollow — Harris talked about those changes. And six years after Palmer’s farewell benediction, Harris turned serious while recounting the last time Palmer played at the Charlotte golf club.

Palmer, who died at age 87 last year, and the late James J. Harris, who died in 1985, were, as Harris will tell you without hesitation, the two most influential people in his life.

Over the next week or so, Harris expects to have his father and Palmer on his mind often. They inspired an ambitious charge spanning 20 years that, with a major assist from renowned golf architect Tom Fazio and $14 million worth of changes and upgrades to the fairways and greens, allowed Harris to create a course that has won kudos from pros who have dropped in to get a glimpse of the overhaul.

Now, at the dawn of the 99th PGA Championship, the golf world is ready to descend on Quail Hollow, capping a suburban, old-school course’s ascension from afterthought to regular tour stop — and into the rarefied air of staging a major championship. Millions of people, watching on TNT and CBS, will get an eyeful of a course considered young by golf majors’ standards — and one that looks like it will be in the spotlight on a regular basis for years to come.

First Look podcast, with in-depth discussion of this week’s event in Charlotte:

■ ■ ■ ■

Harris, who turned 70 this summer, is a boisterous personality: loud, always on the go and fond of addressing almost everyone he meets with a simple greeting: “Pod-nah!” That’s Southern patois for “partner,” for the uninitiated.

Golf runs through almost everything Harris does, and has done. His father was a member at two of the most exclusive clubs in the country — Augusta National, where the elder Harris and Palmer became friends, and Seminole near Palm Beach, Fla.

It long ago became part of family lore that, soon after Palmer won his first green jacket in 1958, he paid a visit to James Harris in Charlotte. Johnny Harris, all of 11 years old at the time, remembers what everyone in his family recalls about the visit: James Harris dozing while Palmer recounted his triumph at Augusta.

Harris’ father, James (right), was a Quail Hollow founder and passed along his love of golf to his son.
Photo: COURTESY OF JOHNNY HARRIS
The anecdote may be well-worn, but it still delivers a laugh whenever Harris finds himself telling tales, which is all the time. (Palmer’s visit to the Harris home came on the same night James Harris invited 20 friends over to plan the private club that became Quail Hollow.)

Johnny Harris remains mostly anonymous beyond the Carolinas, but in golf circles he has long been a known entity. In addition to the connections forged by his father at Augusta and with Palmer, Johnny Harris’ wife, Deborah, had an uncle named Joseph Dey Jr. The same Joseph Dey who ran the U.S. Golf Association for 34 years before becoming the first PGA Tour commissioner in 1969. Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were among the golfers who backed Dey at a time when the players succeeded in breaking away from the PGA of America.

Dey, along with Ike Grainger, an influential rules committee leader at the USGA and Augusta, played pivotal roles in the 1951 rules summit involving the USGA and Scotland’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club. The Rules Conference is viewed by hard-core golfers as the game’s Magna Carta.

Grainger, a New York banking executive, and Dey became friends, furthering Harris’ golf connections. Dey died in 1991; Grainger in 1999 at age 104.

In Harris’ view, the thread connecting all of his golf friendships and networking is simple: love of the game. Growing the game is, in Harris’ view, the point of everything that happens on the professional tour and beyond.

By the 1970s, when the Kemper Open brought Palmer and the rest of the PGA Tour to Quail Hollow each year, Harris was still an avid recreational golfer. Dey provided introductions with other power brokers in the sport. It was less a path to power than a natural progression of golf enthusiasts embracing others who loved the game.

■ ■ ■ ■

When it comes to golf’s most influential, Harris lavishes praise on almost all of them. Former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was, and still is, a close confidant. Sir Michael Bonallack, an accomplished amateur golfer who presided over the Royal and Ancient for much of the 1980s and 1990s, is a gentleman who loves the game, the loftiest praise Harris bestows.

Then again … “I had problems with Deane,” Harris said of Deane Beman, the tour commissioner from 1974 to 1994. Beman was running the tour when the Kemper Open left Quail Hollow for Washington, D.C.

Ambition and peer pressure are what truly sparked the renaissance at Quail Hollow. In 1995, Harris went to the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in western New York. During a dinner that week, Harris sat with businessmen and fellow golf aficionados he knew well: Jack Vickers, the Colorado oilman who developed the Castle Pines course designed by Jack Nicklaus; Tom Cousins, the noted Atlanta real estate developer; and Wisconsin billionaire Herb Kohler, who commissioned Pete Dye to build Whistling Straits.

“Everybody up there was trying to get an event,” Harris said. “All these guys [who are my contemporaries]. I said, ‘Lord, I’m not trying to get an event. I need to get in the game.’”

After attending that dinner, Harris resolved to bring big-time golf to Charlotte. When he returned to Charlotte, he hired Fazio and began the long journey that brought him, and Quail Hollow, to this week.

The players said nice things about Quail Hollow’s transformation from the beginning and never stopped. Sure, praise from Jay Haas, a veteran player, Quail Hollow member and friend of Harris, was biased, but similarly glowing remarks came from less-partisan notables in those early years. David Toms, Fred Couples, Nick Price and Tiger Woods — all past winners of a major — touted the course and club as traditional and hinted at future major championships being played there.

All of the praise instilled confidence in Harris, as did a champions list that, with Woods’ title in 2007, began to boast more pedigreed players. Even so, it took a financial meltdown to push Quail Hollow into a sustained drive for a major championship.

Charlotte-based bank Wachovia and its then-CEO, Ken Thompson, played a key role helping Harris lure the PGA Tour back to Charlotte. Thompson knew PGA Tour executives well because Wachovia was the tour’s bank. When Thompson went looking for a way to introduce the “new” Wachovia following a merger between Wachovia and First Union in 2001, the CEO liked the idea of using a golf tournament as the centerpiece of his company’s next marketing campaign.

Playing a round with Phil Mickelson in 2014.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
In 2002, the Wachovia Championship was created, with the first one played the following spring at Quail Hollow.

From the beginning, the Wachovia Championship drew praise and brought in capacity crowds. Tour executives cited the Charlotte tournament as a role model.

Everything was great until the economy, and the financial sector in particular, fell apart. In 2008, Wachovia stumbled badly, crippled by the after-effects of its purchase of a California mortgage company two years earlier. Despite those woes, Wachovia extended its contract as title sponsor through 2014.

Tournament officials and the bank announced the agreement on May 2, 2008; a month later, the Wachovia board fired Thompson.

As the Great Recession roared through the financial sector in the fall of 2008, Wachovia cratered. Wells Fargo acquired what remained of Wachovia that fall.

Even with Wells Fargo, uncertainty persisted for Harris and the tournament. Federal bailouts spurred backlash over financial firms spending money on sports sponsorships and other advertising. Wells Fargo — inheritor of the contract running through 2014 — responded by stripping its name from the Charlotte tournament even as it kept paying the sponsorship fees.

Harris, frustrated by what he viewed as a possible end to the PGA Tour partnership, quietly searched for alternatives.

“They’d already taken their name off the tournament,” Harris said. “I was looking for somewhere to go.”

Joe Steranka, who ran the PGA of America at the time, liked what he had seen at Quail Hollow and, in August of 2010, Harris and Steranka announced they had a deal: The PGA Championship would be coming to Charlotte in 2017. For nine months before that announcement, Harris and his board at Quail Hollow sat on the signed contract, at the request of the PGA of America. The secret never leaked.

Wells Fargo, of course, fulfilled its contract and by 2011, the bank’s name — Wells Fargo, not Wachovia — returned as part of the Charlotte tournament. And several years later, Wells Fargo negotiated a new deal running through 2019. The event was held in Wilmington, N.C., this year as Quail Hollow prepared for the PGA Championship.

While those machinations played out, the PGA Tour placed another bet on Quail Hollow. In 2015, it chose the Charlotte club for the 2021 Presidents Cup, the team competition matching top pros from the U.S. against international players (other than those from Europe and Britain) every two years in non-Ryder Cup years. (The Ryder Cup pits the American players against Europeans and the British.)

Charlie Zink, chairman of the Presidents Cup and former PGA Tour chief operating officer, pointed to Harris’ leadership as an important factor.

“I don’t think there’s any better golf course or nicer golf club anywhere, arguably, than Quail Hollow,” he said. “And the investment that Johnny has made in that club to keep taking it to higher and higher standards is second to none. The golf course speaks for itself.”

■ ■ ■ ■

A year ago, at Baltusrol, Harris led a Charlotte delegation to see the PGA Championship. The trip gave local government and public safety officials a chance to see the logistics needed to run a major championship. Harris and several Quail Hollow representatives scoped out everything from merchandise tents to hospitality areas.

Harris made his way to the media center, where he spoke to reporters about taking the PGA Championship to North Carolina. Armed with aerial photos of the Quail Hollow makeover, he explained the just completed course changes. As the interview wound down, Harris was asked about Palmer, then ailing in Pennsylvania in what would be the final months of his life.

      Augusta’s influence

    In 1986, Augusta National invited Johnny Harris to become a member, where his influence grew enough that he presided over the prestigious cup and tee marker placement committee, which determines the course setup during the Masters.
    Seeing the tradition of the Masters from the inside has left a deep impression on Harris. Quail Hollow is, in the words of CBS golf analyst Nick Faldo, “the Augusta of North Carolina.”
    From the tree-lined entry road to the minimalist corporate advertising seen during the annual PGA Tour event, and on to Quail Hollow organizers referring to ticket-buying fans as “patrons,” Augusta’s reach can be seen all over Harris’ golf kingdom.
    “Johnny being around the Masters, he knew what he wanted,” said Davis Love III, who admired Harris’ approach so much that he borrowed the Charlotte tournament’s operations director, Tony Schuster, when Love started his own event at Sea Island Golf Club in Georgia. When the Wells Fargo Championship debuted in 2003 at Quail Hollow, “It looked like a major when it opened,” Love recalled. “That’s what Jack Nicklaus strives for at the Memorial Tournament. You know you’re not going to be the Masters, but you want it to look like it and you want the players to say nice things.”
                                   
                                                      — Erik Spanberg

Harris declined to publicly discuss Palmer’s health, but said privately he was concerned about his prospects. Harris credited Palmer with all that had happened in Charlotte’s rising golf fortunes. Palmer, he reminded the reporters, was there from the beginning. It was Palmer who promised to get a tour event for James Harris if he built a club. A decade or so after that club opened, Palmer persuaded the tour to put the Kemper Open at Quail Hollow.

Palmer, who for years owned a home overlooking the course’s 15th hole, kept coming back even after the PGA Tour left. First for early-era seniors tournaments, later for one-off events and milestone celebrations. In 1985, he recommended and oversaw changes to four holes: Nos. 3, 7, 9 and 17.

Palmer had unofficially adopted Johnny Harris as a protégé of sorts. James Harris, years ago, had asked Palmer to look out for his youngest son. (Harris, the youngest of four siblings, has a brother, Cameron; his sister Sara and brother Jimmy are deceased.)

Arnie made Johnny Harris part of his immediate army in the mid-1970s, when Harris was getting started in his real estate career.

Harris remembers Palmer inviting him to go to New Zealand. Harris was 29 and early into his real estate career. He told Palmer he couldn’t afford to go.

Palmer replied, “I didn’t ask you to pay, I asked if you wanted to go to New Zealand.” Then the golfer told Harris, “If you can get to L.A., I’ve got you covered.”

Harris got to L.A.

So began a long-running series of travels with Palmer and a tight-knit group of friends and advisers. They went to China, South Africa and France, among other stops, sandwiching those outings around regular bull sessions with Palmer and his coterie at the Masters, St Andrews and beyond. Being in Palmer’s orbit put Harris in some unexpected places: spying Sophia Loren in a Los Angeles restaurant, meeting a rising Spanish golfer named Seve Ballesteros and watching 007 — Sean Connery — hit the links.

Traveling with Palmer gave Harris more than memories. Palmer, of course, pioneered sports marketing business long before it had a name. He could, and did, sell almost anything, from Pennzoil to lemonade-tea.

■ ■ ■ ■

Seeing major championships, gleaning some of Palmer’s salesmanship and carrying on his father’s love of golf, Harris learned how to recruit high-profile events by turning to another sport: college basketball.

Longtime Charlotteans still remember the infamous jab from a sports columnist when the city made a run for an expansion NBA team in the late 1980s: the only franchise the city should expect, he wrote, involved Golden Arches. As in McDonald’s. Charlotte defied the odds and the expansion Hornets arrived in 1988.

Several years later, Harris made his first big civic push, lining up local power players and spearheading a bid to bring the men’s Final Four to Charlotte.

CBS Sports announcer Jim Nantz, who remains the voice of the Final Four and the network’s golf coverage, struck up a friendship with Harris after seeing the real estate developer become a familiar presence at NCAA summer meetings. Harris attended in hopes of building support for Charlotte among NCAA leaders. Nantz remembers a couple of occasions when the summer gathering was in Pebble Beach and he was part of golf outings with Harris.

“Even way back in the early ’90s, leading up to the Final Four, I thought, wow, this guy, if he has your ear for five minutes, whatever it is Johnny’s selling, you’re going to buy it,” Nantz said.

Charlotte hosted the Final Four in 1994, with Nantz calling the games on CBS. And, now, as the PGA Championship lands at Quail Hollow, Nantz will be in the TV tower to tell millions of viewers what’s become of Harris’ golf dream.

Harris developed a long friendship with Arnold Palmer, who served
as a cherished mentor.
Photo: COURTESY OF JOHNNY HARRIS

Harris still feels like an underdog. But an ambitious underdog.

What does Harris want from the PGA Championship? To make it the safest and best-run tournament in golf this week at Quail Hollow. And to create a lifetime of memories for the fans, players and everyone who works on the tournament.

Anything else? “To have all of this happen in Charlotte, North Carolina,” Harris said, “who would have thought?”

One who saw it was Palmer as his shared wisdom still rings true.

“Remember, the road to success is always under construction.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

Johnny Harris knows he’s a loudmouth, but he pointed to one person in his life who can outtalk him: Tom Fazio.

Harris and Fazio have had plenty to discuss during their long partnership at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. They’ve known each other for decades and, in the mid-90s, formed an alliance to overhaul the George Cobb-designed course, which opened in 1961. (Cobb’s credits include the par-3 course at Augusta National Golf Club.)

When Harris hired Fazio to create and carry out a master plan of phased renovations, Quail Hollow had already cycled through a 10-year run with the PGA Tour and hosted early iterations of what became the Champions Tour. To make the new generation of players aware of the course and Fazio’s changes, Harris started a prostate cancer fundraiser at Quail Hollow and persuaded a few PGA Tour pros to participate.

In 2002, Harris and then-PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem negotiated an agreement to put a tournament back in Charlotte. A year later, the Wachovia Championship (now the Wells Fargo) was born. Because the tournament became an instant financial success, it allowed Fazio and Harris to ramp up their course corrections. Since the PGA Tour returned to Quail Hollow, the club has spent $14 million on course renovations, Harris said.

Now, both Harris and Fazio agree that there is little left to do beyond minor changes. Harris doesn’t even have immediate ideas on what to tinker with next.

Fazio, who expects to spend the PGA Championship tournament week in Charlotte watching golf in the afternoons and drinking red wine with Harris and friends in the evenings, turns wistful while discussing the largely finished Quail Hollow course. He said working with Harris to improve the course while making sure club members had enough time to use it each year was a demanding but fun process. With no major projects left at Quail Hollow, Fazio regrets that he and Harris will no longer have an excuse to talk and plot and walk the course in search of more ambitious changes.

“It’s a case study of what can be done to a facility, to a property,” Fazio said. “When you look at it, it looks like it’s always been there. It doesn’t even look fairly new. You drive in that front gate and you feel you’re at a very special place. It feels old, it feels traditional, like something that’s comfortable.”

Fazio and the Quail Hollow staff long ago got used to seeing Harris at the start and end of the day during renovation phases. A typical day — including the 89-day blitz last summer that, in essence, created four new holes at the same time all of the greens were being replaced — began with Harris greeting construction crew members and supervisors with a brief, not-so-subtle hint.

“Pod-nah, it won’t be dark til 9:20 tonight,” Harris would say. “I’ll be back out here; I have to go to my office.” Sometime before dark, Harris would be back at the course.

For Fazio, whose courses consistently land on best-of rankings lists, the Charlotte layout remains special.

“If I only did one golf course my whole life and it was Quail, I’d say that’s about as much fun as you could have,” Fazio said.

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

This year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow will usher in a new strategy of on-course activation for top-level PGA of America sponsors.

Gone will be the large, stand-alone tents used by patron-level partners Mercedes and Omega for fan experience activations at past events. Instead, smaller, on-course display areas for both brands will be deployed, including new space inside the 43,000-square-foot merchandise tent, to allow for more integrated on-site fan activation.

“The big tents are not going to be there anymore,” said Kevin Ring, chief revenue officer for the PGA of America. “From a fan experience, we felt it was a better way to be more authentic. It shows our partners understand that from a use of space, it is the best way to do it.”

Only patron-level PGA of America partners Omega and Mercedes have activation rights at the tournament. The PGA of America’s 40 other partners are expected to have hospitality at the event.

Another sponsorship change at this year’s PGA Championship is the departure of Samsung, which did not renew its patron-level partnership after last year.

Despite the move away from the large tent displays, both Omega and Mercedes will activate heavily at the PGA Championship.

Mercedes will have fleet displays inside the merchandise tent and at various locations at Quail Hollow, as well as hospitality and a loyalty parking lot for Mercedes car owners. The company will host a VIP experience with private hospitality along the 18th green, and will host about 150 dealers and top customers per day at the tournament. Engine Shop is handling the on-site activation for Mercedes, which has been a PGA of America sponsor since 2009.

Omega’s new activation efforts this year include branding around the entrance of the merchandise tent, an Omega shop inside that tent, an on-course chipping challenge, and the completion of its inaugural yearlong Omega Golf Trophy sweepstakes where winners will attend the tournament. In addition, Omega endorsers Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia will be included in an activation that has a lunar rover golf buggy moving around various locations at the Quail Hollow Club. Omega, which has been a PGA of America sponsor since 2011, would not disclose which agency is handling its on-site activation.

“This year we felt it was better to bring Omega to where the action is,” said Omega President and CEO Raynald Aeschlimann in an email. “We wanted to move the activation closer to the fans, so it felt more connected to the whole PGA experience. The event is all about what happens on course and we wanted to be a part of that buzz, not removed from it. This will certainly have more impact.”

In our First Look podcast, SBJ’s Abe Madkour, Bill King and John Lombardo discuss some of the issues in sports business this week, including:

Quail Hollow in the spotlight: PGA Championship in Charlotte poised for revenue record.

The NBA in August?: Offseason news and notes with teams, players and facilities.

Real Madrid’s match against Barcelona attracted more than 66,000 fans to Hard Rock Stadium.
GETTY IMAGES
For Charlie Stillitano, the easiest way to see that this year’s International Champions Cup was different was to read tournament coverage by newspapers across Europe.

“Whether it was the front-page stories leading up to the matches with Barcelona, Madrid or Manchester, the whole tenor was like it was a regular-season match,” said Stillitano, chairman and co-founder of Relevent Sports, which operates the tournament. “I don’t pretend that they said this was a Champions League final, but to me, it was the first time that they took this tournament as a serious tournament with serious preparation from the teams, the managers and players.”

The 2017 U.S. edition of the ICC, the fifth year of the tournament, was headlined by the first U.S. editions of two of the sport’s most classic derbies, or rivalry matchups — Barcelona versus Real Madrid, and Manchester United versus Manchester City, which drew more than 66,000 and 67,000 fans in Miami and Houston, respectively. Combined, the tournament’s 12 matches in 10 markets drew more than 680,000 attendees.

Even as the event has consistently drawn the biggest clubs in Europe, many have viewed the ICC as more of a collection of friendly matches as opposed to a competition.

Stillitano said the enhanced view of the tournament by international media, the increased support from corporations and media rights partner ESPN, and the continued interest of the clubs to participate, make this a seminal moment for the ICC’s growth. Club managers also are taking the matches more seriously, playing their stars more often and for more minutes.

He said the tournament is now profitable and is looking at new initiatives and strategies to build out its reach during the actual matches, and into the other 11 months of the year. The ICC has been supported by more than $100 million in investment over its history by Stephen Ross, the chairman and co-founder of parent company RSE Ventures. RSE runs and operates all aspects of the ICC, for which teams are paid millions to participate.

To chart future growth, Relevent Sports has promoted Daniel Sillman as its new CEO. Sillman, the director of business development for RSE Ventures where he’s helped lead new investments for the company since 2014, was previously the CEO and founder of Compass Management Group, a business and lifestyle management firm for athletes and entertainers. David Tyler, Relevent’s former CEO, will stay with the company as a strategic adviser from Europe.

For this year’s ICC, Sillman focused on building the event week around the two key matchups, which included everything from collaborations with local artists and businesses to Drake and DJ Khaled concerts.

“When I look back at all those activations that went on and the energy it helped to create, for me it really showed where this business could go in terms of entertainment,” Sillman said. “I think there is an opportunity to make this a location-based entertainment business, with the sporting component in the middle but with a festival-type atmosphere around our matches.”

Part of building the ICC brand will include other ancillary programming to make the ICC a 12-month event. Relevent Sports is working on a youth tournament akin to the Little League World Series that could see months of qualifying for U.S.-based teams, culminating in a tournament that would see those academies face off against ones from the ICC competitors.

It also will entail better harnessing the entertainment and music worlds to build out the days around the matches in all cities.

“We have a blank canvas to tell the story of the world’s sport in the biggest sports and entertainment market in the world,” Sillman said. “We’ve done a tremendous job these last five years, but I think this year shows that this can be a tipping point to grow even further.”

Complicating that growth next year will be the 2018 World Cup, which may keep many of soccer’s biggest stars out of the U.S. However, Stillitano said the tournament may shift dates later into August and may be even more compacted to ensure that more players would be available for the matches.

“These teams know how sophisticated the fans that come to the stadium and watch on TV are in this country,” Stillitano said. “The U.S. market matters to all of these clubs, and not only do we not want to be in a position where teams are coming and they don’t have their stars, but they realize they don’t want that either, as their brands will suffer just as much as ours would.”