Case in point is the recently concluded American Celebrity Championship (ACC) golf tournament at South Shore Tahoe’s Edgewood golf course.
Though well over the hill as far as their playing days are concerned, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are still strong enough to draw thousands of fans to the lakeside course.
Current big names like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo also add nicely to the mix of about 90 competitors. Even a recent college basketball phenom, Brigham Young’s Jimmer Fredette, had a strong following.
Proof of the drawing power of big names was given when the tournament sponsor released the attendance figures for this year, showing a record-breaking 40,000 paid admissions. Add the fact that most of the competitors are not great golfers and it shows that a treasured autograph from a sports hero is much more important that witnessing top flight golf. Again, big names mean big business. Many of the superstars are super gamblers and the “party time” has been rated “the best sports event in the country, including the Superbowl,” by no less than a feature article in a recent issue of ESPN magazine.
In those halcyon days of the ‘60s, a newcomer to the scene, Newt Crumley, purchased the former Holiday hotel (now the Siena) and initiated celebrity golf tournaments as one of his most successful promotions. His event was called “The Mug Hunt” and it featured former baseball greats, many of whom were in the Hall of Fame. For his tournament chairman, Newt called on local sporting goods store owner Link Piazzo. The personable Piazzo set the tone for treating celebs well and that type of tournament spread to Harrah’s, the Mapes and eventually John Ascuaga’s Nugget.
For Harrah’s golf outings, Bill Harrah called on golf pro Alex Stewart, who, with baseballer Jackie Jensen, owned the small golf course just outside Truckee, Calif. Jensen, a former all-star with the Boston Red Sox and an owner of a top restaurant call The Bow and Bell in the Bay Area, could call on many of his former associates in the majors to attend the Reno tournaments.
In fact, Jensen, Joe DiMaggio and Lefty O’Doul were such crowd favorites here they were invariably invited to all four of the major local outings.
Harrah’s concentrated on sending its players to the Tahoe area where they could be entertained in style, not unlike the situation that now exists for the ACC. For celebrity drawing power Harrah’s had an almost equal mix of sports figures and high profile entertainers. The two Harrah’s employees most connected with Harah’s golf were the late Lee DeLauer and the late Lee Frankovick, bothmasters of personal public relations.
When Charles Mapes got the celebrity tourney “bug” he was able to inveigle Stewart to share some of his expertise in staging the initial offering. For his tourney chairman Mapes selected the late Ben Dasher, one of the most prominent insurance executives in town and an avid golfer.
Trying to top the celebrity list of the Holiday and the Harrah’s golf events Mapes was able to recruit the local chamber of commerce’s top salesman, Don Burke, a veteran of the NFL who played for the early-day San Francisco 49ers. Because of Burke’s connections, names like Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie, “Dandy” Don Meredith, Doak Walker, Jack Snow, Daryl Lamonica, Red Sanders and many other pro players came to the Mapes tournament. The trio of DiMaggio, O’Doul and Jensen were all players in all of the Mapes events. Jensen, in particular, fit in nicely with the NFL stars since he had been an All-American football player at the University of California before choosing baseball for a sports career. Through the good offices of the Mapes Entertainment Agent, Pierre Cossette, several top entertainers were also lured to the Mapes. Most prominent among them were probably Andy Williams and Billy Eckstine.
Reno’s current major golf attraction is the Reno Tahoe Open (RTO), a Professional Golfer’s Association event. While it doesn’t feature the top tier of professional golfers, this year’s version of the RTO, scheduled for Aug. 1-7, does have some recognizable former stars like David Duval and John Daly. Strangely enough, the top “name” as far as drawing spectators was a lady golfer named Michelle Wie when she appeared here in the RTO several years ago. However, when she failed to make the cut, attendance dropped off dramatically.
Adding to the statement that celebrities are still in vogue in the area is the fact that in the several days following the completion of the ACC tourney, a number of TV news stories reported the minor limousine accident that hospitalized longtime NFL quarterback Jim McMahon.
Celebrities will always mean big business for the tourism-based economy of northern Nevada.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.