Charity, crowds add up to an impressive score for AmFam Championship | Golf

Before PGA Tour Champions president Greg McLaughlin started into a list of measurables that the tour uses to gauge the health of its annual events, he stopped to preview the scoring.

In every one of the areas he was about to cite, the American Family Insurance Championship got a 10 out of 10 from McLaughlin for its first two years at University Ridge Golf Course.

Having a title sponsor that can be activated on behalf of the tournament year round is a major component of success, McLaughlin said, even if it isn’t easily quantifiable.

Crowd size may only be estimates, but they provide indicators on the viability and buzz around an event.

Woven into attendance and sponsorship is the amount of money raised for charity, a point of pride for some tournament organizers.

“There’s just so many positives that come from this event,” McLaughlin said. “The list kind of goes on and on. …

“You could write a 6,000-word article if you wanted about all the great things. I can’t say that about every event — I really can’t. It’s a really well-done event in every respect.”

True comparables are hard to come by in a numerical sense for Champions tournaments, the circuit for players who have reached age 50. With attendance, for instance, some tournaments don’t keep an accurate count because it trails in priority to, say, charitable giving.

Other tournaments don’t announce the figures to put the public focus of the tournament on the golf. The tour doesn’t make them publicly available.

The scattered reports that have been released, however, back McLaughlin up in putting the American Family Championship among the most successful of recently launched senior tournaments.


Stricker-Couples photo 1

Steve Stricker, who finished the 2017 AmFam Championship in third place, walks with 2017 champion Fred Couples on the 18th hole during the final round last year at University Ridge. Asked afterward if he would return in 2018, Couples replied: “I will be here for sure, knock on wood. Even if I didn’t win, I would be back. It’s a very good course for me. And, of course, we don’t play in front of a lot of people, but you have a ton of people here. It’s a really nice environment.”

The third event takes place Monday through Sunday, with the three-day tournament playing Friday through Sunday after preliminary events that include pro-ams and a concert.

Between 2008 and 2017, 15 cities were new sites for Champions events, excluding traveling majors and playoffs. Including Madison, six of them are still on the schedule in 2018.

Others are in Biloxi, Mississippi (started in 2010); Duluth, Georgia (2013); Calgary, Alberta (2013); Ridgedale, Missouri (2014); and Tucson, Arizona (2015).

Of data disclosed by that group of six, Madison is the only stop where attendance exceeded 50,000 and charitable giving was higher than $1 million in each of the first two years.

The week of the inaugural AmFam event in 2016 drew crowds estimated by organizers at 56,000 and produced more than $1.08 million to be distributed to the American Family Children’s Hospital and charitable organizations.

The totals grew to 65,000 and $1.625 million in 2017.

“From a standpoint of pure charitable impact, we’re right at the top with those that have been around 10-plus years,” tournament director Nate Pokrass said. “So that’s a strong indicator (that) we have a positive path ahead of us.”

Pokrass said tournament officials also use volunteer count, sponsorship support and the quality of the playing field in assessing the event’s status.

Attendance compares favorably

Attendance, he said, can be challenging to measure because spectators are spread throughout an 18-hole layout instead of in one stadium setting. But the Madison tournament has enjoyed success there compared to the other recently created tournaments.

“Our attendance numbers have been good, but we don’t even compare to what they’re doing up there,” said Kirk Elmquist, the tournament director for the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale.

Elmquist said he and his tournament staff consider attendance and charitable giving numbers to be a priority but don’t disclose them publicly.


Derek Jeter photo

Derek Jeter makes a shot to the 18th hole while Brett Favre, center left, waits his turn during the 2017 celebrity foursome at University Ridge that included Madison native and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North and singer-songwriter Darius Rucker. The event, along with a pre-tournament concert, has helped attract fans to the tournament. 

The Biloxi tournament was reported to have an annual attendance around 50,000, according to local tourism officials. Tucson’s event started at that same level in 2015.

In Calgary, attendance has been announced at between 38,000 and 45,250 over the first five years.

From what Elmquist has seen in the Madison tournament, it’s playing to its market well. That’s important in connecting with sponsors and spectators.

“I sit in tournament director meetings, and they’re making spectacular growth moves in their early stages,” Elmquist said. “I watched them improve their charity numbers over the year before. I watched them improve their attendance numbers. They are a prime, prime quality event. They get it.”

Four-pronged formula

Golf tournaments that become long-term success stories have some common reasons why. McLaughlin, who joined the PGA Tour in 2014 after running the Tiger Woods Foundation for 14 years, said the AmFam tournament and Madison fit into those in four ways.

Having an engaged title sponsor that can be visible in the market throughout the year makes an important connection, he said.

“That’s probably the No. 1 ingredient for success,” McLaughlin said. “And, certainly, American Family Insurance is very engaged. It’s become part of the culture of the company. It’s supported and the success acknowledged from the CEO all the way down.”

Second on McLaughlin’s list is having a market where the event can be front and center. The June date provides cover from being eclipsed by University of Wisconsin sports or the Green Bay Packers.

Third, he said, is the connections made in charity and community economic support.

The AmFam tournament had nearly 1,000 volunteers in 2017, according to officials, and an estimated economic impact of $14 million.

In making ties to the organizations that receive grants from proceeds, the tournament gets extra outreach opportunities.

Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin has received both monetary support and food donations from the event. President and CEO Dan Stein, who helps run the pro-am for two days during the week, pointed to Pokrass and volunteer coordinator Gail Perla as driving forces behind the tournament becoming such a success so fast.

“They did have weather problems and parking issues which they learned from, but the thing is that they had people with tremendous experience that they put in key places to make sure this went really well,” said Stein, whose organization has around 25 volunteers at the tournament.

McLaughlin’s fourth bullet point is name recognition in the community with a key player. Here, that’s tournament host Steve Stricker.

“That formula is a winning formula in any market,” McLaughlin said. “And we’re trying to replicate it to the extent that we can.”

Outside factors

PGA Tour Champions events are united by golf and charity. Beyond that, they have their own touches that play to their individual markets.

In Ridgedale, the Bass Pro Shops title sponsorship means the Pro-Am also has fishing and shooting components. Celebrity events can get more traction when they have a local connection.

The AmFam tournament has featured a celebrity foursome that included former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

But Pokrass said the tour events that last and get stronger have outside elements that help drive success.

A pre-tournament concert at Breese Stevens Field was added in 2017. Pokrass said organizers are looking at the potential for a 5K run — perhaps using UW cross country’s adjacent Thomas Zimmer Championship Course — or a bike race to bring more people in.

On the grounds, the next evolution in golf spectating might involve a festival atmosphere with food trucks that can bring the local flavor of the market into the tournament.

“So that’s where you see if you’re continually doing those and the fans respond to that, then you know you’re on that right track,” Pokrass said. “If you’re doing that and the fans fall off, that’s where you start to see some tournaments start to wane because the sponsors are looking at that the fans aren’t coming or their clients don’t want to attend the tournaments.”

Positive signs

Pokrass said the indicators for Madison are positive so far.

“This will be a big year for us,” he said, referencing that the event benefited from first-year excitement in 2016 and wasn’t negatively impacted by the U.S. Open being held in Kohler a week before in 2017.

“So for us as a tournament team, we get into that operational rhythm,” Pokrass said. “The community’s starting to become really aware. Ticket sales are all pointing in a really good direction that we should be continuing that climb and — knock on wood — don’t have that opposite happen.”

UW, which owns University Ridge, and the tournament are investing in the course by rebuilding bunkers. Course general manager Mike Gaspard said the feedback from players and the PGA Tour was the hazards have been too soft, and heavy rains have displaced a lot of sand.

In the world of successful pro golf tournaments, that kind of evolution is a constant, McLaughlin said.

“You really have to get to a place where you’re always trying to improve yourself,” he said. “I think that each one of those tournaments that are successful on our tour, that’s what they do. So there is no status quo.”

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