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Selling the U.S. Open at Merion to corporate America

Thinking outside the box was the only way to make golf's signature event in the United States a financial success.

One in a series of articles getting you ready for the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, June 13-16.

THE UNITED STATES Golf Association will conduct 15 national championships or team events this year. Only one of them is a money-maker. That, of course, would be the U.S. Open, which is returning to Merion next month after a 32-year absence.

So the organization's marquee competition obviously needs to produce enough revenue to support everything else that the game's governing body in this country has to get done. Much of that comes from ticket and merchandise sales.

But another significant part of the equation is the corporate side. And that's where Mimi Griffin and her Allentown-based company - MSG Promotions Inc. - comes into play.

Especially this year. Because sometimes the job is harder than others. Or at least more outside the box.

From her standpoint, Merion presented a logistical puzzle. All she had to do was solve it. Good thing she started early enough. As in a decade ago, when she made her first site survey to see if it was actually feasible.

And you figured that getting a 7,000-yard golf course situated on only 110 acres in Ardmore ready for the best players of this era was the USGA's biggest headache?

"It just takes time, especially for a place that you haven't been to in a long time or is brand new," said Griffin, who did her first major in 1992 at the Senior Open at Bethlehem's Saucon Valley, her home club. "There's a lot of going back and forth on how will the pieces fit."

With Merion, traditional thinking simply wasn't going to get it done, just because the available space is so limited. Which is part of the reason it took the USGA this long to return to a venue that has hosted more of its events (this makes 19, with five Opens) than any other.

It didn't hurt that the Open is going to Pinehurst No. 2 next June, and has just been to Congressional and the Olympic Club. Those locations are highly profitable. So it's a balancing act. Because even USGA executive director Mike Davis has said that Merion, which he called the "Boutique" Open, most likely will be a break-even financial proposition at best.

"Merion's an anomaly to recent U.S. Opens," said Griffin, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, played basketball at Pitt and was an analyst for ESPN and CBS for both women and men's college hoops from 1983-99. "It speaks to the purity of the USGA's intentions. They knew the quality and history of the golf course was enough to see if we could make all the rest of it work."

To that end, two components became necessary. One was securing the use of the grounds at Haverford College, which is approximately a long par 4 from the 18th hole. A large bulk of the corporate hospitality (as well as parking) will be situated there, which isn't the norm for a major since paying customers want to be as close to the action as possible. The other was being able to rent the front yards of a good handful of residential properties along Golf House Road adjacent to the 14th and 15th holes for hospitality.

Put those together and you've got a plan you can sell. And selling is her charge. Under Griffin's leadership the USGA's corporate hospitality program has produced in excess of $165 million since 1995. That'll support, well, a whole bunch of stuff.

Griffin and her nine-person staff (they'll also use twice that many interns during Open week) have worked 19 USGA championships, and are contracted through the 2018 Open. They also did the Eagles' Super Bowl in Jacksonville.

"The '92 Senior Open was vastly more successful than any other in history," said Griffin, who got into the golf-tournament business in the 1980s at the PGA Tour's Westchester Classic in Harrison, N.Y. "They wanted to know how we did it in little Lehigh Valley. The funny thing is, Lehigh Valley's the perfect market for a Senior Open. It's sports crazy, and they were starved for any kind of big-time event. That's how we got the '95 Open [at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island]. It went well, and after that the USGA started taking over the U.S. Open in earnest."

Merion presented a challenge from several perspectives, not the least of which was having fewer tent packages to offer. Nonetheless, or maybe in part because of that, the process turned out to be a gimme.

"We're probably 20 percent higher than what our expectations were," Griffin acknowledged. "The fact that it hasn't been here in so long is a huge factor. Philly sports fans will embrace anything as long as it's major league. We saw from the beginning that they just squeezed the heck out of it.

"I think what was important was we were able to give them options. For corporate America, that's the way business is done. It's relationship building, and entertaining. But it's not the same as it used to be. Not in this economic environment. There's much more scrutiny about return on investments and how it actually helps their bottom line. We weren't sure if the corporate base within Philadelphia would be able to support some of our higher-end offerings. We had to find a sweet spot. One thing we highly encouraged people to think about was sharing facilities with compatible companies that couldn't step up or didn't need that number of tickets a day. We found they were willing to do that to get what they wanted. So everyone wins."

You want amenities? Well, for an investment of $275,000 - plus all applicable taxes and exclusive of catering fees - you could get exclusive use of a 30 -by -40-foot tent with seating for 70 on Golf House Road. That includes 100 daily tickets, 40 VIP parking passes (no minor consideration) and participation for four in a pre-Open golf outing on the East course. Other details are included, such as the exclusive opportunity to purchase co-branded merchandise bearing your company name or logo with the U.S. Open brand, but you get the idea.

Other packages ranging from $175,000-$40,000 were also available. We say were because they have been sold out for some time. There are still a few that can be had for $5,900 to $11,500, at Haverford, mostly for the practice rounds. Sound like a lot?

"Here's the important thing to consider," Griffin said. "Break it down to the cost per person. If you spend less than $500 on a client who may bring you tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of business in the next year, that's a no-brainer. When you talk about the comparison between a U.S. Open and even an Eagles or Phillies box or suite, or something like it, it's so reasonable. This is an event that comes maybe once in a decade if you're lucky. In this case it's been three decades. When you look at the cost per person for a Super Bowl, you're talking about something that's a tenth of that. And this is the most coveted title in golf, the premiere sporting event, our national championship. You have to break it down like that. You're giving someone the experience of a lifetime. That's not worth it? They'll never stop talking about it.

"Maybe you can go to 80 more Phillies games. There's so many of them, it dilutes the specialness of it. That's not the case here. It's not even close."

Interestingly, the people on Golf House Road will be closer to the action than if they were actually on the course. And those at Haverford will have a common patio area replete with Jumbotrons, something that's seen at British Opens and creates a carnival atmosphere.

If nothing else, it'll be different.

"In 2006 Phil [Mickelson] hit it into one of our tents [on the 72nd hole]," Griffin said. "How about this? Where they're putting the 14th tee and the rope line, you could actually hit it onto one of our patios. Just imagine. You think that's not worth $500 a person. That's crazy."

Griffin and her people will be on site 3 weeks in advance, 100 percent of the time, putting in 12-to-14-hour days. They'll manage the construction, with the vendors, to make sure every client gets what they paid for. And when it's finally over they'll spend a day or two loading everyone out. Then they can begin to fully focus on 2014 and Pinehurst, which is hosting both the men's and women's Opens in back-to-back weeks, an historic first.

OK, maybe they'll sneak in a short vacation before moving on.

"It does sort of sneak up on you," Griffin said. "Once it's there you're like, 'Holy Moly, fasten the seat belt.' "

Not that she'd want to be doing anything else.

"Are you kidding me?" she said. "Honestly, I couldn't dream up a better job. It is one of the greatest gigs in America. And we don't take that for granted. We work our tails off, try to go beyond what's expected of us because we love it so much.

"Because we go to all these different places, it stays fresh. It unites a few of my passions: the ability to work as a team, with another group. The USGA staff treats us like we are USGA staff. We're so involved and close. At this point it's just a real well-oiled machine. And the Open's their bread and butter. We've grown and evolved, morphed into where it's one of those things - like a great basketball team - that you don't even need to know where the other person is to pass them the ball."

Gentlemen, play away. And somebody please pass another one of those cold beverages.