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Home Arizona readies for the Waste Management Phoenix Open

Its been dubbed “the greatest show on grass,” while others know it as the Waste Management Phoenix Open. To those who call the Valley of the Sun home, it is THE place to be AND be seen. The proof is in the numbers, as hundreds of wmpothousands annually migrate to the event that resembles an enormous block party with a golf tournament in the middle of it. Golf is a focal point but not the only one, which makes the event quite unique.

Make no mistake about it; the PGA TOUR is big business. Multi-million dollar purses each week have become the norm. While that might sound crazy for chasing after a little white ball to some, the mere fact that prize money defies gravity, in both good and bad economies, is even more absurd. In the past 17 years, since Tim Finchem became PGA TOUR Commissioner, the annual amount available for players to earn has risen from $56 million in 1994 to $280 million last season. Good work if you can get it, as they say. Meanwhile, each and every event, including the Waste Management Phoenix Open, has to pull its weight.

By in large, the focus week in and week out is on the players, venue, and sponsors. The players represent the product, while the sponsors are attributed to the funding that goes part and parcel with each and every event. However, there is more than what meets the eye, as the tournament organizers often appear invisible. However, without them there wouldn’t be a tournament in the first place.

The Thunderbirds, a philanthropic organization, represents the glue that makes the Waste Management Phoenix Open happen each year. It has flown under the radar screen of nearly everyone for more than 77 years even as the product it annually hosts remains irresistibly popular. The Waste Management Phoenix Open boasts consistently the highest attendance level of any PGA TOUR event by a long shot. The high water mark was set in 2008, when a staggering 538,356 fans attended it. Six different times in its history, the tournament has received more than a half a million fans in attendance during one week. Tournament officials believe if the weather holds true to form, the event should see another half million visitors this week.

Managing thousands of fans, which often swells in excess of 100,00 in the third round each year, is clearly no small undertaking. For example, the build out for the event begins in October at the TPC Scottsdale and it continues right up until tournament week. It takes about four months of preparations from a logistical standpoint to create it and then another two months to tear it back down. Therefore, roughly half of each year there are reminders of what is either to come or has taken place at the venue.

The 16th hole, which has taken on a life of its own especially for those that make a point to enjoy themselves from this unique vantage point, is the equivalent of a town within a city. A total of 125 truckloads of scaffolding, wood and materials are required to build the 16th-hole coliseum. All of the materials afterwards are recycled and reused. There will be 155 Skyboxes on the 16th hole this year and approximately 15,000 fans gathered around it during the third round alone. There are 210 Skyboxes in total at the 2012 Waste Management Phoenix Open (155 on 16, 29 on the 17th hole and 26 on the 18th hole). The event will rely on the assistance of 4,000 volunteers helping out this year. Finding volunteers can be a challenge in its own right. This sheds some light on the magnitude and the undertaking of the event from a logistical standpoint. For the Thunderbirds, the tournament is a 12-month proposition, that repeats itself year over year.

The 2012 Tournament Chairman is Alex Clark, who in the real world is a partner with B.D Baker Company, a commercial real estate firm in Scottsdale. The position of Tournament Chairman represents a one-year commitment and the demands are significant. “It started the day after the (2011) tournament ended for me,” Clark explained. “It began with a laundry list of emails from our executive director, John Bridger. Quite frankly I don’t know how we do it without him. He is the backbone of this deal. He is a Thunderbird and in the know on everything from contracts to vendors to volunteers. It’s a yearlong process to plan because there is a lot of behind the scene things. We have 25 different venue chairmen from volunteers to concessions to house and grounds, to Birds Nest, programs and pairings, caddies and carts and range, members club, skybox, which is probably our biggest chairman. House and grounds is huge too,” Clark continued. His time is spent overseeing his fellow Thunderbirds progress but includes many other tasks such as handling media requests leading up and during the event. There are a few of those since the 2012 Waste Management Phoenix Open has 489 credentialed media members in attendance.

The Thunderbirds operate the tournament for the purpose of generating funds earmarked towards charity. But it’s a business, meaning there are expenses incurred in order to make the final product and experience first class. As with any business, managing expenses after revenues are what allow the organization to annually deliver dollars to local charities in need. Last year alone, it distributed nearly $4.5 million through proceeds raised from the 2010 tournament. Therefore, part of the package for any Thunderbird that signs on is generating revenues for its prestigious event. A difficult economy doesn’t help anyone’s cause, let a lone the efforts of a not for profit. Therefore on top of creating a first class event, the Thunderbirds had to find ways to grow revenues, especially in these economic challenged times, in order to meet expenses as well as reach its goals towards charitable contributions.

“We increased our Skyboxes this year alone by 43 boxes and that’s with an effort from a lot of different people,” Clark revealed. “Clearly a plan had to be put into place. We wanted to grow the Skyboxes because that’s the bread and butter for our ultimate goal of putting more money back to the community through charities. If you can grow that corporate sponsor, its huge in the bottom line for this business and this business is raising money, selling sponsorships but ultimately giving the proceeds from the tournament back to the community. There are a 150 deserving charities that frankly need our support,” he said.

The economy hasn’t been friendly to many businesses lately let alone non-profit organizations that perhaps feel it even more during these stressful times. However, the Thunderbirds decided to attack the challenge head on. “We had a heavy sales contest that started on May 1st and went to August 31st. We were really focused on selling our major sponsorships, skyboxes, food vendors, Birds Nest sponsors, and so we work on a lot of different things. We had a contest that was called, ‘Never Life’ last year,” Clark explained. “We have 55 active guys (in the Thunderbirds) and obviously we touch a lot of people. But we have 275 really, really capable Life guys that are so huge in our group and if we don’t use them as resources and get them involved its easy for them to fade away, not in the respect that they are not going to remain being Thunderbirds.” The organization has a rule that once a member reaches the age of 45, they migrate into becoming a Life member, whether they like it or not. “It was 55 (Thunderbirds) when our attendance was 100,00 people, It is 55 when our attendance is 500,000. We look for prospective members that can handle and deal with that. You become an expert at time management,” said Tom Altieri, the 2013 Tournament Chairman and a First Vice President, SBA Lending Manager at MidFirst Bank.

Using some internal resources and especially their networking capabilities, the Thunderbirds found a way to grow this year’s sponsorship revenues. “We increased our sales team from 55 guys (active Thunderbirds) to 105 guys. We drafted 50 Life guys into sales teams and the peer pressure alone, since they were part of a team, drove these guys to sell 15, 20, 30 and sometimes 50% more. We sold 43 more skyboxes from last year to this year and in my business, I can tell you the economy hasn’t picked up that much. But to sell 20% more skyboxes, our biggest venue of upwards of $41,000 per box, is massive. Our top two sales guys were Life guys. Top three or four might be Life guys,” said Clark.

The added resources and revenues have allowed the Waste Management Phoenix Open to maintain its high quality and standards. For example, the always-popular 2012 Coors Light Birds Nest (an after hours party) boasts Grammy-award winning artists the Goo Goo Dolls along with of the Black Eyed Peas, who will be performing a special DJ set, that headline this year’s entertainment line-up. The Goo Goo Dolls have sold more than ten million albums worldwide, while of The Black Eyed Peas has sold an estimated 56 million records worldwide. Its safe to say either of these acts doesn’t come on the cheap or for that matter extends a significant price break since the event is a non-for profit venture. Nevertheless, it’s the standard that has been set from year to year for the thousands that make a point to attend.

“At the end of the day, my whole goal was to enhance the experience of the sponsor and the patron. At #16 we went from kind of archaic TVs to flat screens and we are going to have concierge folks there. Our Skybox chairman and his two assistants, all the Lifebirds that work the Skybox will have first hand knowledge of who the decision maker is in the box and know who the right person is to go to for any of their needs. Its a little more attention to detail,” said Clark.

As with all businesses, there can be a few unexpected surprises along the way. Last year, the Valley of the Sun experienced weather delays that lead to a Monday finish. It represented a curve ball for the host organization that it hadn’t experienced before. “ Last year we didn’t have a weather contingency plan for a Monday finish for our concession vendors. It hadn’t happened in 25 years. Now we do,” said Clark. “Last year we didn’t have concessions on Monday because we didn’t have licenses.” John Bridger, executive director of the Thunderbirds, added, “You can’t anticipate or build a book to say starting on the Tuesday after the event finishes, here is everything that is going to happen. We sit here every morning and go what’s on the list today. For us our vendors and reps are the key. Last year with a Monday finish, our biggest issue was volunteers. They had plans on that Monday, for example.”

The Thunderbirds also have another partner along with Waste Management that it has to respect with its business dealings and that is the PGA TOUR. “Every host organization is significantly different. A lot of these different charity organizations (that host PGA TOUR events) are structured differently and organized differently,” explained Bridger. “They (the PGA TOUR) want a certain amount of it (events) to look and feel the same. The difference is that not every event is played at the same venue. The TOUR is trying, to some extent, to say we can’t get all 47 events in an absolutely perfect box, but if we can start to get them to do the same things and that’s kind of where they are coming from most times other than the normal rules and regs like mobile device policy, for example,” he continued and provided an instance where the Thunderbirds have been able to operate ahead of the curve, so to speak. “That’s a good example of the TOUR creating these call zones for people they can go to, they were trying to figure out a way to maybe sell this on a global basis,” Bridger said. “They haven’t quite gotten it together. In the meantime we didn’t stop because of that, we went out and found a partner. We got Verizon to step up and sponsor the Verizon call zones. Now the TOUR is looking at that and asking how did we do it, what’s the package look like, knowing they may try and sell it on national level. The TOUR looks at certain organizations and I think we are one of them, and says these guys are always kind of pushing our product for us.” The Thunderbirds have a mobile app this year for smart phone owners. One of the features is a car finder that let’s fans know where they parked their car. It is available for a free download on both the Android and iPhone mobile devices. “Obviously, they have rules and regulations and we try our best to live by them,” Clark added. “We have quarterly calls related to our sales and how they are going. The TOUR is on top of everything, but they also treat us a little differently, I think, because they know we have this well-oiled machine. They know that we’re driven by giving money to the community and they know we have a passion for it.” Altieri, 2013 Chairman, added, “One of the things I was surprised by when I started attending these calls with our Tour representative (Stephanie McNeil), was how much she asked about our group. She would ask about the Life guys selling or how is the sales contest going, which I was shocked to hear her ask but I thought was awesome. She has a connection in a community event.”

While the business often dictates the charity funding, the Thunderbirds have a few lottery tickets they hold in the form of player exemption opportunities. It sounds like an exciting proposition, but again it isn’t exactly what it might appear. The first exemption went to three-time tournament champion Mark Calcavecchia, the second went to PGA TOUR rookie Harris English and the third went to TOUR veteran Fred Couples. Jeff Quinney, a 2001 graduate of Arizona State University and a former USGA US Amateur Champion received the fourth, which left Clark holding one last spot. “I have 65-75 requests for a sponsors exemption, probably 40 wins and 10 majors,” said Clark. “Todd Hamilton wants an exemption and he won the British Open. There are a lot of talented guys in need of a spot. David Duval, former #1 player in the world wants a spot. Its not a fun position to be in. You do your best. You want to please everyone but you can’t.” Bridger echoed the thoughts. “Its the most difficult decision he (Tournament Chairman) has is exemptions. We’re (Thunderbirds) probably going to feel worse, in some regards than they (TOUR players) do because they are on to the next guy after this. Its the most grueling decision, especially the last one,” he said. Clark chose Scottsdale resident Matt Jones with his fifth and final sponsor exemption. “He finished 133rd on the 2011 TOUR Money List and tied for 38th at Q-school. I’m hoping this exemption will help launch his 2012 season,” Clark said about the decision.

Keep in mind, for the Thunderbirds this is all in the name of charity. In its history, dating back to 1932, the Phoenix Open has raised more than $70.3 million for charities in Arizona. Since October 2003, The Thunderbirds and the Open have raised more than $42.3 million ($42,358,736). However, there could always be more and in part its what fuels the Thunderbirds’ passion each and every year. “Anytime you turn down a charity, it doesn’t feel good,” said Clark. “We give money to over 100 different charities and there is another 100 that get turned down,” said Bridger. “They write great requests every day and next year they will be right back at the table. We know we can’t hit all of them, every one you visit is worthy.”

Once the event concludes, it will still be a few months before the final numbers are known, Clark said. “Probably in May when we announce our charitable number and we have a good grasp on our expenses,” he said, which also allows the organization to assess its overall success of the 2012 event. “We definitely have a process and I learned it this year and Tom (Altieri) will for next year, by sitting on the charitable board. We have three non-Thunderbirds on the board as well as some Thunderbirds that sit on it. There is a process involved to make an application. You have to be a 501(3)(c) for a number of years before you can apply for a donation. It was an eye opener for me quite frankly, it was awesome though. We do a lot of due diligence when we give away the money. Some of them have unbelievable balance statements. We look at whether a charity is really in need of funding this year or could we give it to someone else that is in greater need. It’s really the fun part. I went to three site visits for check presentations and it’s an eye opener. But we are doing a lot of good, that’s the key.” The Thunderbirds have begun inviting some of the sponsors to the check presentation events as a way to show how their involvement reaches beyond those that attend the “the greatest show on grass.”

After the winner has been decided and the PGA TOUR moves on to its next stop, this year it’s on to Pebble Beach, Clark will pass the baton to Altieri. The challenges are many but the rewards justify the effort. “Every guy that gets into the (Thunderbird) group, I don’t want say its elite, but because there is only 55, it’s not the easiest thing to become a member of,” explained Clark. “Once you’re in, you kind of have to carry the torch. After 77 years, we’ve created this legacy and a legacy organization and we talk (internally) about being the stewards of that organizations.” Altieri explained why the Thunderbirds go to such great lengths each and every year to organize the Waste Management Phoenix Open. “It is the love of the game. It is the love to be able to give to charity and it’s the love of the group,” he said.  A tagline for 2012 is “Who knew having so much fun could do so much good?” That pretty much sums it all up.