Corporate Spectators

January17/ 2000

.. With the US Open at Pinehurst this week, it is a perfect opportunity to discuss the phenomenon of “corporate spectators” at major sports events.  These “fans” are invited due to the amount of widgets they are buying or might buy from the Widget Company that is a sponsor of the event.  Grand Slam golf, NASCAR, Super Bowls, Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, et al are popular venues for corporate entertaining.  Is this a “good thing”, a “bad thing” or, like the designated hitter, just a rubber bone to gnaw on?   

   I was in Rochester NY earlier this week for their annual LPGA event.  A spectator asked me how an amateur gets to play in the Pro-Am, assuming there was some sort of rigorous qualifying involved.  Any “qualifying” is done by accounts receivable clerks.  I have been involved with “Pro-Ams” for twenty years.  Each one will sell an individual spot in the field at anywhere from $500 – $5,000 depending upon the event.  There might be 3-4 such cases in a typical field of 200 amateur players, the rest of the field are customers, vendors, suppliers of the various corporate sponsors of the event.  An individual’s golfing ability is not even a minor consideration. 

    Why a 120+ duffer would publicly embarrass himself, his company, and his future grandchildren is beyond me.  Every LPGA, PGA, Champions Tour player has their collection of horror stories. But Pro Ams are not the subject here, although it is related to the issue.

   A handful of sports events transcend their sport to be “I am cool because I was there” occasions.  Any golf grand slam event, The Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Daytona, Indy, Wimbledon, and various others. To be invited to attend one of these occasions’ means someone with access to tickets appreciates you or at least appreciates the business you bring or could bring to their business.  The wheels of commerce are greased in such a fashion.

   Is there anything “wrong” with this practice?  No as long as everyone involved understands “the game”.  That “game” has nothing to do with the “game” of golf, tennis, football, etc.  Some companies do not allow their executives to accept such “freebies” fearing that it could impair their judgement when making buying/selling decisions.  The inviting companies certainly hope that IS the result.  We will leave that ethics debate to MBA classroom discussion.

   The evolution of “be our guests at ____” simply evolved after years of using liquor, cigars, fancy dinners, and the occasional skanky female companionship to try and achieve the same cozy relationship between buyers and sellers.

   What do you think drives sports team owners to demand new stadiums/arenas with “more suites”.  It’s the skyboxes and suite concourses that drive these facilities.  Witness the recent announcement of the new Yankee Stadium.  Witness Vaughan Towers at Carter-Finley.  Lease the suites to companies for X $$$, then the extra complement of tickets, not to mention the ubiquitous shrimp, wings, and nachos which MUST be purchased from the venues food service at a premium price.  Companies could not justify that expense if it is not traced to bottom line revenues.

   NASCAR made a quantum leap from rednecks throwing chicken bones to Corporate America thanks to Bruton Smith adding suite concourses and “hospitality villages” at each of his tracks.  His rival, Bill France, followed suit.  The corporate clientele is now as important to a track operator as is Joe Six-Pack. 

    There is a pecking order to all this. Getting a couple of tickets and an invitation to “drop by our tent” should not be confused with “join us in the suite”.  Test driving a Lexus might earn you a “tent invite”.  Buy a fleet of 30 loaded Lexuses and you get into “the suite” complete with a name tag and a pretty hostess telling you where the restroom is (THE most asked question in a suite BTW)

   Do “corporate fans” take away from the feel of an event.  Absolutely says Joe Six-Pack who is enduring the weather du jour in the exposed grandstand and enviously eyeing the “swells” behind the glass on suite row.  It’s a variation of the UNC wine & cheese class envy situation.  It’s unlikely that the jealous rabble will storm the Bastille (aka “the lower level of the Dean Dome”) any time soon so worry of a “real fan” revolt is needless.

   An event like the US Open is ideal for corporate entertaining.  It extends over multiple days so daily tickets can be given out using that aforementioned pecking order.  Any one “in the suite” at #18 on Sunday is on a first name basis with the CEO.   Golf involves a familiar country club sport.  The participants are well known and can be chatted about by even the most vacuous guest with a first name familiarity.  “Do you think Phil’s short game gives him an advantage?”  “Have you seen Elin?”  It allows guests and hosts to “dress up”. The choice to leave the comforts of the suite and mingle with the untermench (aka great unwashed) is up to you.   

    Are corporate spectators even “real fans”?  Probably not as defined by the forever-grousing Joe Six-Pack and his crowd.  Their definition involves getting pie-eyed drunk, taking off one’s shirt, and screaming F-bombs at coaches, opposing players, ADs, and the family with 3 small children two rows in front of you.  I confess, I have never witnessed that level of behavior in any corporate suite I have ever been in. 

   My best “corporate spectator” story involves Ross Perot Jr’s suite at Texas Motor Speedway.  Ross’ fru fru high society chums come because Ross invites them PERIOD.  I actually heard a Ft Worth grand dame ask “could those cars drive quieter” so she and her friends could chat.  She was in a totally enclosed, 3,000 sq ft, air conditioned suite. Ross Jr, bless his heart, sent a minion next door to ask Bruton if indeed the cars might quieten down.  

   My prize for Oddest Suite Crowd goes to The Chancellor’s Box at Kenan Stadium.  It was the GaTech game several years ago.  How I got that invite would indict half the Board of Trustees.  Of the several 100 people in attendance I doubt you could find a dozen who even knew who was playing.  “Which team is Carolina?” … swear to God I heard that from one guest.  Meezie was wearing a “Go Cornhuskers” button … it was a hoot.

   The Masters is as prestigious as any sports event in the world.  There are zero corporate suites or hospitality tents on the grounds of Augusta National – ZERO.  Now that week there are tons of Masters-related hospitality events and corporate hobnobbing going on within a 50-mile radius of Magnolia Drive, but Hootie and his buddies will have no such on their property.

   Which is worse … the pomposity “inside” the suites or the jealous venom expelled by those “outside” the suites.  A pox on both their silly camps.

   I go to sports events to be entertained.  I’ve achieved that on chicken bone alley at a race track and in opulent corporate suites.  The BEST time I’ve had at any sports event in recent years was a Texas Ranger baseball game last summer with Henderson’s Tommy Frazier and his son  … club level behind 3rd base … we shared a giant bag of peanuts and nine innings of laughs.  


 Swagger’s Stumper

What is the link between Pinehurst #2 

and Butch & Sundance’s gal pal?


   N E S T L E S Nestles makes the very best CHAAACC Let (snap!) … FarFel’s jaw snaps shut on the end of chocolate.

    “Elin” (see above) is Tiger’s most hottie wife.  An “Elin spotting” at a Major is a uniting element for both “suities” and “real fans”.  “Suities”, however, usually don’t ask her to sign downloaded nude pictures.

    Veteran Ref John Clougherty has been named to the Fred Barakat Scapegoat position in the ACC.  John has been a respected NCAA super ref for 30 years … BUT his son played baseball for NCSU so he is OBVIOUSLY a lyin’ no-good wuffie-lovin’ SOB.  Salary was not announced but “it’s not enough” for the abuse he and his family will endure.

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