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54 Sports creates peak experiences for their clients’ events

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/25/22/16/EO6Vt.Em.138.jpeg|210
    - 54 SPORTS
    Partners of 54 Sports Robert Miller, left, and Mark Surles, right, met with Hall-of-Fame golfer Johnny Miller at the Masters last year. Their company creates customized experiences at high-profile sporting events for Fortune 500 companies such as AT&T and General Electric that are entertaining other executives.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/25/22/16/T5oTe.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - 54 SPORTS
    Here’s the hospitality house where 54 Sports directed their clients during the Masters last year.

You may not know Robert Miller, Brandon Woods and Mark Surles.

But if you’re about to be entertained at a high-profile sporting event by a company that has hired their business, 54 Sports, it’s their job to know about you – from your food allergies and favorite drinks to your penchant for tuning into CNN when you wake up in the morning.

“We sit around and brainstorm and say, ‘What could we do to make this event over the top?’ ” said Miller.

The three partners co-founded 54 Sports, a Charlotte-based sports and entertainment management firm, in June 2013. Corporations such as AT&T, Waste Management and General Electric that entertain clients at events such as the Masters, Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and Grand Slam tennis tournaments, hire 54 Sports to create a world-class experience.

For example, guests don’t usually stay in hotels, but rather in rented six-bedroom homes with a private chef. They don’t wait for shuttles; they have on-call chauffeurs.

And if there’s a VIP pass to be had – whether it’s time spent “inside the ropes” or at a celebrity meet and greet– 54 Sports will make it happen.

Clients pay 54 Sports anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 a person per event, Miller said, but when big companies have deals worth millions of dollars on the line, that kind of cash is an easy investment.

‘Got it figured out’: Miller and Woods both spent years with The PGA Tour Club, a private membership group that offered luxury experiences to corporations and individuals at PGA Tour events.

In the wake of the recession, they noticed a shift in corporate entertaining. Companies that routinely hosted 150 people at an event before the recession, were now opting to entertain just high-level executives in small groups of eight to 15, he said.

“(Woods) and I looked at each other one day and said, ‘We can do this on our own,’ ” Miller said.

A lesson in saying no: Miller said he learned to say no in business when he first tried his hand at entrepreneurship decades earlier. He founded a tennis apparel company called Ah-Bon Athletics, and after about 18 months, a large sporting goods company placed one of the biggest orders for sweatshirts, shorts and T-shirts that Ah-Bon had ever gotten.

It seemed too much to handle, but Miller didn’t want to turn down big business. He was devastated when, after shipping the clothes, he found out that the sporting goods company had declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It never paid.

Ah-Bon folded soon after. The lesson: Don’t grow too big too fast, Miller said.

In light of that, Miller said, “If a client came to us and said, ‘We want you to do our 500-person incentives trip … to Europe.’ … We would probably need to stay away from that.”

Shooting for ideal: The name 54 Sports comes from the golfing world, where a birdie on every hole of a par-72 course – a great round – yields a score of 54.

To create an ideal experience for a spectator, Miller and his partners ask their clients for even the most minute details about those they’ll be entertaining, and they canvass those people’s profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for more clues about preferences.

“When the guy gets there and opens the fridge, he’s not going to say, ‘Where’s my chocolate milk?’ ” Miller said.

“But when they open the door and say, ‘Chocolate milk – I love that. How did they know?’ Little things like that make people walk away and say, ‘These guys got it figured out.’ 

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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