Will The LPGA Return To Ann Arbor In 2019?

Will The LPGA Return To Ann Arbor In 2019?
Don Shin, president of Volvik USA; Keith Karbo, Volvik LPGA Championship Director and LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan at a recent press conference.

 

Will The LPGA Return To Ann Arbor In 2019? It seems like a strong possibility.

Volvik’s three year agreement with the LPGA ends this year, and thus far there has been no announcement from the golf ball manufacturer that it will extend it support beyond 2018. However, a press conference just before the tournament with LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, Volvik USA Chairman Don Shin and LPGA Volvik Tournament Director Keith Karbo offered a ray of hope. Whan and Karbo had good things to say about the community and the tournament. And Shin, for his part, was not entirely ruling out the possibility of a return. Even if Volvik does not, however, Ann Arbor tournament organizers seem to have a Plan B.

Whan seemed enthusiastic about keeping the LPGA in Ann Arbor.

I can’t tell you the specifics about how we’re going to do that, but all of these events are like making a cake.  You’ve got to get all the right ingredients together before you put the thing in the oven.  And the ingredients of this event are strong.  We love this community.  I love the fact that so many of my players are staying in host housing.  The members of this course have been unbelievable to us.

And so we’ve got a lot to figure out in terms of how we make it all getting together. I mean, so I feel comfortable about our plans here long term.  I don’t have anything to announce this week and we’re not telling you about what our X number of years is, but I think the LPGA and Ann Arbor probably have a long history together, we just have some work to do in the months that follow this event.

Volvik Chairman Don Shin said all the right things, but cautiously.

As Mike Whan and Keith have mentioned, this is a true global local event and I know well to sit here in the state of Michigan and also in Ann Arbor but also everywhere else in the world.  We have distributors from U.K. to Australia, Japan, Korea.  They’re all here this week and they’re really enjoying and truly interacting with the players, and those are the true assets that we really embrace.

It’s been our third year and we’re more excited every year and we look forward to continuing our relationship with the tournament and with the LPGA as well.  As of now, we just don’t have a firm answer to give you, but we’ll be involved in some capacity, whether it’s a title, co‑title, or a presenting, we would definitely like to be involved with this tournament, for sure.

I think the fact that Shin was willing to participate in the joint press conference was interesting. If Volvik had no intention of returning in any capacity, Shin could have easily ducked the press on this one. The question is in what capacity?

The entrance to the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The entrance to the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

For his part, Karbo was enthusiastic about the progress the tournament has made, and about the championship’s 95 corporate partners.

The vision for this tournament was to do something great for the community, not only Ann Arbor but southeast Michigan, the whole state of Michigan.  I think we’ve accomplished that.  And that’s not us talking, that’s the players talking, that’s the Golf Channel, that’s our fans.  We’ve grown every year in spectators; we’re expecting about 35,000 fans this week.  Our volunteer numbers are up; we have over 575 volunteers.  And ticket sales have been strong since day one.  Our sponsorships have grown, too.  We have 95 corporate partners and we’re very excited about that.

We’ve really tried to embrace the community and we figured if we focused inward on being the best that we could be here, that good things would happen.  And I think that what has happened is we’ve done the best that we can do and I think we’re going to see a great crowd this week.

I do not know how many corporate sponsors a tournament typically have, but 95 seems like a sizable number. Still, I happen to know that the LPGA Volvik Championship is running on a shoestring budget that is said to be less than half that of the Meijer LPGA Classic down the road in Grand Rapids. A new Title or Presenting sponsor might address that imbalance.

And speaking of the Meijer LPGA … there also is the issue of the newly announced Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational. Assuming that nothing changes, that makes three LPGA and two Symetra Tour (LPGA minor leagues) tournaments in 2019. Far from being worried, Commissioner Whan is actually is enthusiastic about so many tournaments in Michigan:

I love the fact that for the first time in nine years somebody was concerned we’re playing too many times.

No, I think at the end of the day, most of these are great hometown events, right?  I mean, if you’re in Grand Rapids, it’s really all about Miejer, what we’re doing, bringing their customers together with the community.  I’m pretty sure Midland, Michigan’s, going to be the same kind of thing together with Dow.  We really view this as our Ann Arbor, Detroit gathering and so I know we have fans that come from all over and will continue to.

But I would just tell you, in the world of the LPGA, we talk about the LPGA fan base, there’s nowhere better than the midwest and there’s nowhere better than that than in Michigan.  So I feel confident we’re going to see the same volunteers in two or three different markets.  We’re going to see a lot of the fans in the same markets, and I can’t see that as a bad thing, especially because we took a lot of years where we weren’t coming to Michigan at all, so I feel like we have some catching up to do anyway.

To be fair, though, Whan’s primary job as commissioner is to increase — or at least keep stable — the number of tournaments. If there was sufficient money to stage ten tournaments in Michigan, he would do so. Dow has deep pockets and likely is willing to spend a considerable amount of money for the benefit of Midland and for the good PR it could generate.

Around the 18th green at the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Around the 18th green at the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan

 

Still, Ann Arbor and the Travis Pointe Country club is an attractive destination for the LPGA.  Many of the players stay with area families, and after three years there is a comfortable familiarity. Karbo noted:

We have a significant number of them that stay with local families, but we try to treat them as if they were one of our own and they appreciate that.  I’ve had the pleasure of going to other LPGA tournaments to see what the other tournaments have done and along the way the players stop me every time and say, “We can’t wait to come back to Ann Arbor, we love Michigan.”    And again, I think it’s just that midwest feel.

Whan added to the praise for Ann Arbor:

I can add to that.  Last night at the pro‑am party at the Big House (Michigan Stadium), it’s the first time in my nine years that I have been kicked out of a pro‑am party at the end.

These kids — and a lot of them are kids — are sports nuts, too.  To be in the Big House last night is a huge advantage.  I think a lot of ‑‑ in just a couple of years, we have a lot of players that have really formed family relationships with host families.  And a lot of members at Travis Pointe host these athletes and that’s pretty exciting.

I said this to Mike Tirico last year when I saw him, downtown Ann Arbor is a gem, a hidden gem.  I walked around there yesterday and bought things at a men’s apparel shop, I went to Cottage Inn for pizza like I knew where I was going.  I’m staying at The Graduate, I’m going to the Cottage Inn, I go to that same Van Boven men’s store.  I don’t have that on Tour every week.  I don’t have the places where I know I’m looking forward to, and I think the players feel that, too.  It just really feels like home here.  When you travel 35 weeks a year and zip and unzip your bag every Sunday night, home is harder to come by.  So staying in homes like this, having a venue like this to play, being treated the way we’re treated at U of M, and even the hospital experiences the players had earlier in the week.

It was neat for me last night to have so many players come up and tell me about Mott Children’s Hospital.  That’s not an every week event where players are telling you about impact in the marketplace.  It’s special here.  It feels special, it feels like home.

Enthusiasm for the town, and for the venue is not enough, however. In the end, it comes down to money. At one point during the press conference,  LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan let slip a number that may indicate how much it would cost to keep Volvik and the LPGA in Ann Arbor: seven and a half million a year. The reference was framed as a joke, but from what I have heard at both the Volvik and Meijer LPGA media days, it is likely not far off.

One of the problems for an LPGA Tournament is that they must pay for television coverage. Every LPGA tournament broadcast is essentially an infomercial. I know that flies in the face of logic, but it is a fact of life for the LPGA. Television coverage is an expense, not a source of revenue.

Corporate partners and charity partners at the LPVA Volvik Championship In Ann Arbor, Michigan
Corporate partners and charity partners at the LPVA Volvik Championship In Ann Arbor, Michigan

The good news is that all that money does not have to come from a single source. As Mike Whan said: “It’s just a total expense number you have to make sure you can cover.”

That, then, is why the 95 corporate partners are so important. Volvik has said that they would like to come back as title sponsor, co-title sponsor or presenting sponsor, so the task for Tournament Director Keith Karbo is to make up the difference from other sources. Karbo sounded hopeful at the press conference:

What we have to do is be prepared for them (Volvik) to be a partner at some level as they’ve committed to us, whether that be renewing as a title sponsor, being a co-title sponsor with another business partner, presenting sponsor, or an official partner of ours.  So we’re very confident that they’ll be back at one of those levels.

At the same time, because of what we’ve accomplished here, our phones have been ringing from other corporate partners local and national that say, “Hey, we like what we see there, we have some prospects in town this week to take a look.”  I think we’ve got a good track record now, so I think we’re an attractive property for them for all the right reasons, whether that be the global nature of the LPGA, whether that be the local nature of the Detroit area and Ann Arbor and Michigan overall.  

So what we’re trying to do is find that right corporate partner, whether that be Volvik or somebody else, or a partnership of that.

In spite of Volvik saying all the right things about being involved going forward, the “somebody else” might very well indicate that the Ann Arbor event already is making plans to move on.

In any case, Whan concurred about the possibility of putting together a deal with some combination of sponsors and creating a long-term solution for the Ann Arbor tournament.

When you get 95 players from the marketplace and the money involved that we’ve been able to generate locally, whether you talk about a partner like Volvik that I know will be involved in this tournament at any number of various levels and the number of people we’re talking to that want to take on a real significant role here, I think all the ingredients are here for a long-term solution.

 

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital skybox at the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Most of the speculation centers around the tournament’s future partnership with the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital. The PGA TOUR has the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open. Why not a Mott Children’s Hospital Open, presented by some corporate entity.

A partnership with a world-renowned hospital would likely attract some desirable corporate sponsors.

Karbo may have let something slip on that:

If you talk about C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, they had a private pro-am on Monday to raise awareness and dollars for the congenital heart center.  It was a huge success. People like Mike Tirico played in it, people like Brian Rooney of the Rooney family from the Steelers, and they’ve been a great partner of ours this year.  

And then we’ve realized that it’s partners like that; it’s not just the corporate partners, it’s the charity partners that make a difference in these type of events.

The view from the Titos Vodka Grandstands at the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The view from the Titos Vodka Grandstands at the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

For its part, Travis Pointe is apparently on board with remaining the tournament venue. Karbo said:

We talk with Travis Pointe Country Club every week; we have a meeting with them.  Their board is very supportive of the tournament.  The staff here is fantastic, they have a great superintendent, great head pro, great general manager.  They see the value of the tournament.  They’re very proud of the tournament.

And yes, they want to have the tournament back.  Operationally it’s a fantastic venue for us; parking is close, plenty of space for spectators.  What we’ve tried to do is grow the event each year organically, so year one we had no grandstands, year two we had two, year three we had three grandstands and we enhanced the first two.  So each year we’ve tried to do something bigger and better.  We haven’t tried to have, you know, the Super Bowl of golf tournaments all at once.  What we’ve tried to do is just tried to grow organically, just communicate with our spectators, communicate with our sponsors, and try to find out creatively what we can do to enhance the experience overall.  We plan to continue to do that with Travis Pointe.

The tournament actually has found an ideal venue in Travis Pointe. The club is adjacent to vast amounts of parking at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds, and bus rides (in nice U of M buses) are just a couple of minutes long.  The layout of the course, and location of grandstands means that fans can concentrate in a relatively small area and see Holes 1, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 18, along with the driving range and putting green. The confluence of those holes coincides with plenty of space for corporate tent-booths, shopping, food and beverage vendors, the beer garden and more. There is also lots of room for expansion of facilities, especially to the right of the 16th hole.

All that said, will the LPGA return to Ann Arbor in 2019? My own guess is that the answer is yes.  I have heard nothing from tournament organizers (with whom I have spoken off the record) that suggests otherwise.  The tournament has grown each of the three years of its existence in terms of spectators, entertainment value, charity partners and corporate sponsors.

It is just a matter of money. Can enough be cobbed together? Will it be Volvik going forward or another sponsor?

We will know for sure in November, when the official LPGA schedule is released.

 

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