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Expanded Q & A: Jon Miller

Jon Miller is the President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN.  He was responsible for creating what is now called the American Century Celebrity Championship, televised each summer from Lake Tahoe.  The 2019 edition will be the 30th, with coverage on NBC and related NBC Sports platforms the weekend of July 13-14. 

Q: How has the Lake Tahoe community embraced the event?

A: It’s a huge celebration for them. But what it's enabled us to do is really give back to the community, and we've done everything from buy an ambulance, a paramedic unit, we built shelters for Boys and Girls Clubs, we invested in all kinds of medical equipment and things like that for the community. When there were terrible wildfires out there a few years back, we gave an enormous amount of money to the fire department, as did a lot of our players. Charles Barkley wrote checks of $100,000 himself, and he threw huge parties and dinners for all the firefighters and their families out here. He is maybe one of the most generous, great people -- not just athletes, but great people -- I've ever met in my career.

We've given money to the Fallen Patriot Fund after 9/11. We did a whole program with the firefighters of New York to give money there. Mark Cuban helped us raise money, donated his plane and stuff like that for his charities.  Autism Speaks was the beneficiary for several years. So there have been several big national charities who benefitted, as well as a lot of local charities.  Where a lot of that funding comes from is that the players get to choose before they start if they want to become professional or remain amateur [which lets them to play in events like the AT&T Pro-Am].  First prize is now $125,000.  And so there are a lot of players like Tony Romo, who won last year, who choose to stay amateur. And all that money that Tony won went to charity.

Q: The event seems to just keep growing, doesn’t it?

A: We've gone from 4,500-5,000 attendance that first year to 2018 when we broke a record with 55,000 people. [For a] remote location, that's pretty good. I used to feel that if we didn't get Michael [Jordan] that we were really going to be hurt, ticket-sales-wise. And the funny thing is Michael hasn't played since 2012-13, but we've been able to continue to enhance the field with Justin Timberlake and Aaron Rodgers, to the point now where we have agents calling us and they're trying to get their guys in. And while we'd love to be able to accommodate 144 players, we just can't.

We've had players who show up who were not invited, who literally stalk us, hoping for a cancellation.  And then there are players who just assume that they're invited and show up and go to the first tee, and they're not in the field. We had that happen one year with Ray Romano. And Ray's been great for the tournament now, he comes every year -- and really, one of the nice things about the format is you can have some fun, you don't have to take yourself so seriously.

Q: You mentioned that the shift to Modified Stableford scoring was partly because nobody wants to see anyone shoot 110…

A: Charles [Barkley] being the exception, obviously. Charles loves the game so much and loves being there. And the funny thing is, I was there in the mid ‘90s, late ‘90s, when Charles was a 12-handicap.  Charles would shoot low to mid 80s.  I think it's one of the most painful things he deals with because he so loves the game and so would love to get back there… And every year I have a crew shoot him on the driving range, because he stripes it on the driving range.  And Roger Maltbie, Gary Koch, Dan Hicks, Jimmy Roberts, Notah Begay -- all of our talent is out there watching him, seeing him perform brilliantly on the range, but for some reason when he takes it to the first tee – like most of us -- it's a little bit different when the cameras start.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the event?

A: You know, we have this unbelievable gathering of some of the most iconic big names you have from sports, entertainment, politics.  My favorite moment of the week is before the tournament starts on Wednesday night, we have a players-only meeting.  The first year we did it,   I got up to welcome people at that first event and I looked down and I saw Joe Namath, John Elway, Dan Marino, Michael, Frankie Avalon, Fred “the Hammer” Williamson -- all these people sitting in the room. And I was blown away. And they didn't know me from the hole in the wall, I was 31 years old, 32 years old. And now when I get up in front of this group I’m like the leader of summer camp here, and these guys are screaming and hollering and throwing stuff at me, and Timberlake [heckles] up in the upper deck, but it's great. 

Funny story: American Century has a business conference out there to coincide with this. They bring out two different groups of 300 clients or so from Tuesday to Thursday and Friday to Sunday, and they do seminars and lectures and Speaker Series. Two years ago, they brought out President Clinton. And one of the players in our event is Lisa Cornwell, very talented anchor on Golf Channel who happens to be a cousin of Bill Clinton’s. She heard that Clinton was coming to speak to American Century, and she mentioned that, you know, there's a player meeting, come in, check it out.

So about an hour before the player meeting, Gary and I get calls from an unknown caller. It’s from the Secret Service, saying they'd like to come over and check out our area because there's a chance that President Clinton may stop by.  We of course said, love to have him, and they said, “Well, this isn't going to work, you're gonna have to move this location.” We said, Sorry, we're not moving this location, if he wants to come by he can.  They’re, “We don't know if this is a secure area, egress is not great,” etc.   I said “I'm sorry, we understand, but we've got 85 players coming to this in 45 minutes, there's no way to get to everybody and there's no other facility, and I'm really sorry if he can't make it.”

So they go back and tell him, and he tells them, “I don't care about that. I'm definitely going.” The player meeting starts, and about halfway through I'm speaking and giving my spiel, introducing the new players and whatnot, and he comes in from behind and all of a sudden I see everybody's attention move away from me to him. And he just stands there. And then he gets up and speaks and talks for 20 minutes, half an hour, and the players are completely engaged, whether they’re Republican, Democrat, whatever -- and this is pre-election, the summer of 2016. 

When it was over, we have a pairings party where all of our clients and customers gather for about 400 or 500 people. So we were busy trying to usher everybody over there, get all the players to go, and none of the players would leave and he wouldn't leave. He stood there and talked with every player, anyone who wanted to talk to him, took a picture, a selfie with everybody. He probably stayed an hour to almost an hour and a half after he was done speaking. That was really very cool.

Q: Do they all still pay their own way there?

A: They pay their own way. We don't pay anybody's way there. We put them up, the hotels provide rooms, there's a function every night for the players to come to with their families.

So you get there on your own; once you're there, you're our responsibility. We transport you, we feed you, we get you back to the airport when it's time to leave.

With the continuity of sponsors and partners for such a long period of time, they get to know the celebrities and there’s a bond that develops.  And the celebrities know that the most important thing they can do is be kind and nice to the sponsors’ guests -- it's just putting your arm around somebody or shaking their hand, taking a photo with them and being nice to them goes a long way. And that's really helped us.

Q: And I would imagine if there are people who don't really accept that …

A: They’re gone. We have a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior. And we have even reached out to a player in the middle of a tournament to his agent and said, if your guy doesn't want to be here, then he doesn't have to be here, he can withdraw and we will understand --  but we're not going to tolerate people being rude to volunteers. We're not going to tolerate people being mean to kids, There's an autograph policy: We understand if you don't want to sign while you're walking, but there's a place to come afterwards to sign autographs and stuff like that. [Spectators may ask for autographs and take photos with point-and-shoot cameras from Tuesday to Thursday.  No sports memorabilia is permitted on the property.]

There are a few stories that obviously we can't share that make it an interesting week. But I think my favorite story, a story that he would not object to us sharing with you, is the Jack Wagner story.

Jack is a tremendous entertainer, celebrity, star.  And also one of the best golfers we’ve had.  We brought Jack to another event we were doing in Florida called The Skills Challenge. We used to bring celebrities down to fill out our pro-am field and make it more of an appealing event for the sponsor. And Jack, unfortunately, during the cocktail hour had just a little bit too much to drink.  And part of Jack's problem in Tahoe [where he hadn’t won] was that he would be the leader going into Saturday night, he would play great Friday and Saturday, and he would hammer it Saturday night; on Sunday he’d throw off a 78 and he’d just drop down.

So at The Skills Challenge he had a little bit too much to drink and was acting inappropriately at a cocktail reception, and we basically asked him to go to his room. Sent him home. And we realized we weren't doing him any favors by bringing him out to Tahoe. We didn't invite him. And he called up at the beginning of the year, he noticed that he wasn't invited and he asked why. And we just said, “Jack, you know, we’re clearly not doing you any favors by having you out in this environment.” And he took exception to it. He said, “Nobody talks to me that way.”  We said, “Sorry, but after what happened [in Florida], it's just not good for you, and it’s not good for us.”

So June rolls around, and he called back and he tells us he’s gone into rehab for the last however many months, and he’d like a second chance.  I said. “Look, everybody deserves a second chance. And this is it.”  And he came out and he won the event for the first time. And on the 18th green, I forget who was interviewing him, he said, “I'd like to thank Jon Miller and [Miller’s right-hand man] Gary Quinn for saving my life.” And he has been sober ever since.

He said to me afterwards, “I can’t believe you talked to me the way you did, nobody has ever talked to me like that,” and I said, “Look, I'm not in your business.  But I have a responsibility to the eventsand to our sponsors, and to NBC, that I just couldn't ever afford to put anybody like at risk.” And he said, “I realized I had to get my life in order and I needed a kick in the pants to do it, and this was it.” And he is now a model citizen and we love having him there.

Read more about Jon Miller in the June/July 2019 Met Golfer