Q&A: Mimi Griffin | MSG Promotions founder / president / CEO

If you've enjoyed a U.S. Open experience since 1995, there's a strong likelihood it was shaped by Griffin, who offers her insight on the golf hospitality industry

Mimi Griffin may be in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, but she has also carved out quite a stellar behind-the-scenes presence in the game of golf on some of the biggest stages for three decades.

Griffin served as the face for women’s basketball in its early television exposure, helping lay the foundation and groundwork for coverage in the years to come. In 1990, she became the first woman to serve as a color analyst for a men’s NCAA tournament game on ESPN and in 1991 was the first woman to broadcast the first two rounds of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament on CBS Sports.

In addition to her broadcasting work, Griffin has owned and operated MSG Promotions Inc. since its inception in 1983, serving as president and CEO. Her extensive experience in the sports and event management fields has facilitated MSG’s successful execution of many prestigious events, specifically for the United States Golf Association, which has selected MSG to manage the corporate hospitality sales, fulfillment and operations for the U.S. Open Championships each year since 1995.

Griffin also served as championship director for the 1992 and 2000 U.S. Senior Opens and the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open, which were all hosted by Saucon Valley Country Club, her home club. She returns this week for yet another U.S. Senior Open in her home state of Pennsylvania and offers her insights and thoughts on the golf hospitality industry.

Mimi Griffin
Mimi Griffin prepares for her fourth USGA championship at Saucon Valley Country Club.

The First Call: You have such a strong background in basketball, so how did you get involved in golf?
Mimi Griffin: I often tell people basketball is my passion and golf is my living. Basketball is just the greatest sport there is, but for golf it was totally one of those in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time stories. In the early 1980s when I graduated from graduate school [at Lehigh University] I had the opportunity to go work for Manufacturers Hanover Trust, which was one of the largest banks at the time in the country in New York City. They were one of a handful of companies at the time that had an in-house sports marketing department. I mean it was unheard of at that point and we sponsored the Westchester Golf Classic and I had the greatest job in America. My job was to travel all over the country and go to PGA Tour events to talk to the pros and develop a relationship with them because back in the day you couldn’t use any player’s image or name in promoting your event unless they had already committed. So the bank was really smart, sending me and others out to try and develop personal relationships so they would see us as people and not just another event and they would commit early, which would allow us to really market the heck out of the event.

TFC: How did the 1992 U.S. Senior Open piece come together for you and your company now three decades ago?
MG: At the time, my husband and I had applied for membership at Saucon Valley, but there was like a three-year waiting list at the time. But they expedited our membership because they knew about my background. They didn’t have anybody familiar with running golf events so they made us members right away and they asked if I just wanted to do the marketing end of it. I said "no I want to run the whole thing," which I honestly had no business saying at the time.

But I love putting puzzle pieces together and thinking in advance and working like hell to put a plan in place and then just working the plan and seeing it come to fruition. It was a wonderful experience and an unbelievable opportunity. We were so wildly successful making three times more than any other club had made hosting the U.S. Senior Open. David Fay, who at the time was the head of the USGA, called me into his office and asked "how did we do that in little Lehigh Valley?" I told him that little Lehigh Valley was a perfect market for a Senior Open. At the time we didn’t have minor league baseball or hockey, which we have now, so we were the biggest show in town and everybody was on board. We were over $2 million in ticket sales. That senior event in 1992 was magical.

TFC: What do you enjoy about working a major USGA event?
MG: I love how appreciative the fans are. At a major, people almost revere what’s happening on the golf course. It’s a wonderful environment and from my standpoint as someone who works with the corporate clients I love the fact that it’s one of the only sporting events where you can truly have quality time with your guests because there are 10-12-15 minutes between groups. It’s exciting and a wonderful experience to go to a Major League Baseball, NFL or NBA event, but it’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s distracting. Golf is different. It provides corporate clients almost an unprecedented opportunity to visit but also see the best in the world compete.

TFC: What’s different about the golf hospitality world from maybe a decade or so ago? 
MG: Well, companies prior to the Great Recession in 2009 would bring in guests from all over the world and they would pay all of their expenses — their travel, their hotel, entertainment on site — everything. Now, that is not the case. What has happened is mostly clients now entertain on a local and regional basis instead of having people come in from all over the country. Certainly the USGA national partners are an anomaly because mostly they have a pretty good footprint in that market. But take some of the big banks, for example. If they won’t have as big a presence in the market they will still participate, but they may take a table or a smaller tent instead of the larger sized tents. There has been much more of a downsizing to accommodate what is applicable to a specific market.

TFC: You’ve worked so many USGA events over the years so do you have a favorite?
MG: I’ve worked on the U.S. Open for 28 years in the corporate hospitality space and I love the magnitude of the U.S. Open. It truly is just the greatest event in the world in terms of competition. And the Women’s Open will always have a special place in my heart, just because I love women’s athletics dating back to my involvement with women’s basketball. But the U.S. Senior Open is unique because the guys are really much more laid back, they have fun, and because they are having fun the gallery has fun. Don’t get me wrong, they still like the attention, it’s a good chance to grab some ego gratification, but it’s doing something they love even though they may not be at the top of their game anymore, however they understand that the fans are the ones who made them rich. I find these guys give back to the fans far more than on the regular tour because those guys are focused more since they are still climbing.

TFC: Can you explain to some golf fans who have never been in a hospitality tent or suite what kind of experience it is and how special it is? 
MG: We have clients who will spend $90 per head on food and beverage and that includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then we have clients who are spending $350-$400 per head, so you can imagine the high end liquor that is being served. There are CEOs who want Diet Coke instead of Diet Pepsi or Dr. Pepper and it’s nowhere on site but we’ve got to make sure it’s on hand for them. We’re pretty uniform in what we offer. There hasn’t been anything that has been over the top. We don’t allow that because it could get out of hand pretty quickly because everybody is into "mine is bigger than yours or can you top this" sort of atmosphere. That’s why I really respect the way the USGA operates because everything on the outside is completely uniform and nobody has any identification or signage or anything so it’s a very clean look. Then on the inside — not so much. The food and beverage doesn’t get as crazy as on the decor side where we have people spending as little as $5,000 and as much as $300,000 on the décor in their tent for a week. My house costs a fraction of that and they are spending that on decor for a week. It’s really something what each client finds to be their hot button and of most value to them.

TFC: What is the one key to your business success in golf?
MG: Even before the basketball broadcasting I understood how important and literally critical good and clear communication is. That’s No. 1. But from having played basketball and then announcing everything is about teamwork. I’ve got a group of people I’ve worked with on the golf side on average 15 years, and some that have been with me for 30 years. We are such a finely tuned team and we can finish each other’s sentences and we know what each other’s strengths are, and we know how we complement each other and all of that came from playing basketball. And communication is the thread that ties it all together.