Ep. 9: Sanford International, from clinic to course

Sanford Health Executive VP Micah Aberson talks growth of golf tournament

Episode Transcript

Simon Floss (Host):  Hello and welcome to Innovations, a brand-new podcast series brought to you by the experts at Sanford Health. You’re listening to our twelfth episode From the Clinic to the Course, the Story of the Sanford International. I’m your host Simon Floss with Sanford Health News. The practice of medicine goes far beyond clinic walls. The Innovations podcast looks at the biggest issues facing healthcare today. Each episode offers the opportunity to see the ever-changing world of health and wellness through new eyes. Our leaders offer out of the box solutions to some nagging questions.

Today, we’re talking with Executive Vice President of Sanford Health, Micah Aberson, who will give us insight into the story of the Sanford International and talk why it’s so important to the business of healthcare and the community. Micah, thanks for joining us today and nice shirt.

Micah Aberson (Guest):  Yeah, you too Simon. Great fashion sense.

Host:  Well we didn’t plan this. We did not plan this at all. We are both wearing the same shirt for those who can’t see us right now. Yeah, we’re doing really well when it comes to that fashion sense.

Aberson:  Exactly. Looks great.

Host:  The branding is fantastic. Let’s tee things off here today, 2020 will be the third annual Sanford International but let’s start at the beginning. How did this come to be? How did this start?

Aberson:  Yeah, so the story behind how the Sanford International came to be starts probably three or four years ago. Andy North who is on our Board of Trustees now, was at the time, chairing the Sanford International Board. Of course, two-time U.S. open champion, a great enthusiast of the game, commentates still on ESPN now and covers golf started to really encourage us to think about having a champions tour event. Sioux Falls is a unique market. It’s a market size that fits the footprint of real successful champions tournament events. We don’t have any other real professional sports here. I mean we’ve got minor league teams but sort of on that — on the big stage, we don’t have anything like this. the Summit League Tournament is probably the closest.

And so, we started having a conversation with Andy and then that led to some discussions down in Ponte Vedra which is where the PGA is headquartered with Miller Brady who is the commissioner of the champions tour and we took a look at it and said, you know what, let’s do this. I think it’s the right thing for the community of Sioux Falls. It’s the right thing for the Sanford Health brand. It’s something that we can do to really lean into the game of golf and hopefully provide some benefit to the people of this area.

So, we consummated the deal. I remember pretty vividly folks from the PGA tour coming up to look at the golf course at Minnehaha Country Club which is where we hold the event because they wanted to make sure that everything was set up appropriately and if they needed to add some distance or reduce some things, just look at sort of the topography of the golf course. And it was a brutal winter day. I think it was probably early March.

Host:  Which happens around here.

Aberson:  Absolutely. They were out marching along the golf course, deciding how they were going to adjust things, where things were going to be and so that’s the whole backstory and we couldn’t be happier with how things have gone.

Host:  And when it comes to weather, that first year in particular, we had quite the weather what was it, the week leading up to where we used a helicopter to dry off the course. So, we have had our hands full when it comes to the weather and this tournament. But every year since has gone off without a hitch. I want to talk about you mentioned, the market size of Sioux Falls was the right market. Some people might think, well Sioux Falls, it’s 200,000 people, it’s a little small. How did they come to that decision that it was a good size market for a tour of this magnitude?

Aberson:  Yeah, so the PGA Tour of Champions has of course tournaments throughout the country, but I think they find their most success, the most engagement from both sponsors and fans when they go to sort of these B-level markets by way of size. So, they’ve got an event down in Madison, Wisconsin that’s very successful. They’ve got an event in Des Moines, Iowa that’s very successful. Detroit. So, it’s kind of these smaller intimate market sizes that really — the fans really come out and gravitate towards the Champions Tour. There’s not quite as much competition. You’re not deciding am I going to go to a major league baseball game tonight or an NFL game this weekend. Really, it allows us to be the only game in town by way of major sporting events that are happening. And that has really played to our benefit.

Host:  Let’s talk about the why behind the tournament. It’s about much more than the game of golf. It’s about community which is a huge part of Sanford’s DNA. Speak to that a little bit.

Aberson:  Yeah, there are certainly various components as sort of the why behind the event for us. We call it the Sanford International because in part, we wanted to put a spotlight on our international agenda. We now have in excess of 100 locations in ten different countries from Ghana to New Zealand to Costa Rica, to Mexico and places in between. And so, we really wanted to be able to put a spotlight on that and really showcase to the world what Sanford Health is up to especially with our international footprint. We also wanted to do something for the region, something to sort of give back and invest in this community. And so, to provide a recreational opportunity for people to come and watch an event like this and interact with these players is something that we take great pride in.

Certainly, the economic benefit has been significant for this region. The tournament generates every single year, in excess of 20 million dollars in direct economic benefit back into the community with restaurant sales and hotel sales and everything in between which is something we feel great about. And then it also is something nice that we can do for our people, our employees, our physicians, our nurses et cetera to give them an opportunity to come out, feel good and proud about the Sanford Health brand, their participation in it. And then ultimately, to be philanthropic. The tournament operates as its own independent unique 501(c)(3), meaning every dollar that we are able to save from a revenue over expense standpoint, goes back into some philanthropic activity.

The Sanford Health Foundation is a beneficiary of that, and it goes to support and has built out — has paid for an ambulance that’s now being driven around the country of Ghana for example. It also goes to help our children’s initiatives over at the Children’s Hospital. And then we’ve also been very intentional about engaging the community, have been able to reward Make-A-Wish with some resources, the First Tee of South Dakota and some other local nonprofits.

Host:  You mentioned the economic impact here in Sioux Falls specifically. And you touched a little bit upon the recognition that Sanford gets not only in Sioux Falls but as we’ve talked about before, people are going to be watching this tournament. It’s going to be on the PGA’s television channel and they’re going to be watching it from across the country, across the world and with Sanford in that backdrop, they’ll be thinking, who is Sanford. So, this can really help out the entire footprint recognition and potentially the economic impact in those other locations as well.

Aberson:  Yeah, that’s exactly right. The Golf Channel covers it and I think the numbers are something in excess of 330 million households throughout the world that have access to the Golf Channel. And for us to be able to demonstrate from a marketing standpoint and sort of put the Sanford Health name and brand in that type of an environment, across the world is something we can take great pride in and certainly represents the organization well throughout the world.

Host:  We got to talk about COVID. It’s changed the way many businesses are operating. How has the pandemic changed this tournament?

Aberson:  Yeah, so interestingly, as we’ve continued to move through, and the PGA Tour has started their events back up; we’ve been very close with them. We are actually doing the testing for the PGA Tour but relative to our event, I think, as it stands right now, we’re going to be the first event to actually have fans back on the golf course. As they have been getting tournaments back up and running, of course the PGA Tour hasn’t had fans at any of their events just yet. The Champions Tour just started their events but are doing it sans fans for the time being. But we really feel like we can have the tournament in an extremely safe environment, making sure that precautions appropriately are taken to ensure the safety of all of the players and the spectators that are going to come.

We’ve been working very closely with a team of Sanford physicians to make sure that we’ve got appropriate protocols in place to hold the tournament safely. The players will operate in sort of a quasi-bubble if you will. So, all of the players will be tested before competition to make sure that none of them are positive with COVID. And then once they get on site, the interaction and sort of their proximity to fans will be a little more reduced than it otherwise has been in previous years so that there’s not that direct fan interaction. And then for all the fans that come, we think that there’s no greater venue than a wide-open golf course to be able to socially distance and if you are feeling uncomfortable, spend some time away from folks. Certainly, there’s kind of an epicenter of activity around the golf course, around the 16, 17 and 18th holes but I like to take Sunday morning walks as we get to the end of tournament week and just walk the golf course and once you — when you get out to the 13th and the 14th hole, you’re a three wood away from anybody else.

And so, if you’re uncomfortable, or just want to spend a little time away from folks, you’ve got that opportunity on the canvas of a golf course.

Host:  The last time that we chatted was talking about our partnership with the PGA Tour as far as being the official testing partner for COVID-19. And so that recently announced partnership with the PGA Tour, when we talked with you last, I’ve heard you say we’ve been on offense against COVID rather than playing defense. I’m going to read off a quote from what Kelby our CEO has had to say about that specific partnership, then I kind of want to hear your thoughts. He said, “Let’s not underestimate in a family discussion the sophistication, the work and the weight of what it takes to put something like that together.” Talking about that partnership. “Our laboratory, our pharmacy management and our technicians, they all have to be brought together to impress an outside organization from something that is regarded as where a lot of cattle and buffalo are to provide the most sophisticated, most responsive testing for the most challenging virus in the world today. That doesn’t just happen because we fell out of bed around here. You got to give a lot of people a lot of credit.” What are your thoughts to that?

Aberson:  Well first of all, Kelby always has a colorful way of describing things which I love about him. Yeah, I tell you what, the partnership with the PGA Tour came together quickly and was a marriage that just made so much sense as we started to explore the opportunity. So, once again, our matchmaker, Andy North, called one day, having just participated in a conversation with some Tour officials on what their return to golf plan is going to look like, which included the proactive testing of every athlete before competitive golf started or even they are allowed access onto the grounds during their practice rounds.

And he called and said hey is there any way that we could potentially be assistive in this regard. And we had just converted a couple of mobile trucks that we previously purchased to send up into the Bakken Oil Field in Western North Dakota as sort of a mobile clinic. And we had converted those into COVID testing units that we could take out to hot spot employers that sort of thing and so, we got around a table and said we think we can put a shoulder to this. We were able to secure some additional testing reagents which was very important to us, so we weren’t going to disaffect or cannibalize an existing cache of resources that we needed for our critical patient populations back home. And so, when we were able to secure those additional resources, we gave a call to the PGA Tour and said hey, we’d love to help you with this if you need the help. And they found themselves in their own conversations, having a discussion about not disaffecting local supplies as they went from tournament to tournament and then just the logistical challenges of trying to set up a unique and different testing environment at each tour stop.

And so, we had a couple of conversations and before you knew it, we had started up. The first tournament was down in Dallas, Fort Worth and since then, we’ve had three trucks on the road 24/7 moving from site A to site B to site C and testing every player before tournament play starts. And it’s been fun just to hear feedback from players. We, of course organizationally have a great relationship with Bernard Langer who is wonderful Champions Tour Player, Master’s Champion et cetera and he’s been a couple of PGA Tour stops and to get a text from Bernard saying hey, I just went through my testing and can’t tell you how proud I am to be associated with Sanford Health, in your ability and our ability to help get competitive golf back up and running on a national landscape.

Host:  So, you, yourself are an avid golfer. What excites you about seeing these players compete in a tournament in your hometown, with the Sanford brand in the backdrop and what’s that feeling like on Sunday, after we have a winner and you see the Championship trophy raised on the 18th green?

Aberson:  Yeah, I grew up playing the game of golf. I love golf. I love this organization at Sanford Health, and I love our community. And so, the ability to sort of bring all three of those things together has been sort of a dream assignment in my career. It’s a lot of fun. On Sunday, I tape delay the Golf Channel coverage and after everything is said and done, I get to go home and sit on my couch and watch the Golf Channel coverage and see all the amazing things that have happened at Minnehaha Country Club to really update that facility and the things that the Club has done to be a great partner to us has been fantastic. Certainly, to help demonstrate and showcase the Sanford Health brand to an international audience is something that anyone can take some professional pride in. And then to have it all come together around the game of golf, a sport that I’ve grown to love over the years has just been a lot of fun for me.

Host:  I was going to ask do you give yourself I mean even at least a week to enjoy what you just accomplished before you start thinking about next year? And after that if we could pull off a golf tournament of this magnitude during a pandemic, what’s next for Sanford Health?

Aberson:  Yeah, so to the first question of whether or not you take any time off. The answer is no. pretty definitively in fact, we’re already having conversations now about what the future looks like after our initial agreement with the PGA Tour of Champions which was a five-year sponsorship agreement. And so we’re having discussions about what the potential extension of that could be, what the sort of the life trajectory of the golf tournament could be into the future. And so, those conversations have happened already now. And we’re excited about what the future could hold.

I think one of the unique hallmarks of Sanford Health is that we’re never resting, we’re never stopping and saying we did it as well as we could do it. there’s always something that we could do better or different and so, there’s a constant iteration and innovation process with the tournament on how can we make it friendlier for the fans. How can we bring more value to our sponsors? Like Cambria, who signed up day one with us even before we announced it and have been just an awesome presenting sponsor to us. And so, there’s just — there’s a constant process of trying to figure out how can we do it bigger and better, perhaps we can introduce a concert into the event in future years. Certainly, we’ve had the Legends Series with Jack Nicklaus and some of his friends coming out to play. And so, we’re just in a constant process of figuring out how can we make it bigger and better next year.

Host:  Well Micah, thank you again so much for joining us and we’ll catch you out on the greens.

Aberson:  Thanks so much.

Host:  Before we wrap up, a reminder that Sanford Health Innovations podcast is now available on your favorite podcast apps like Apple and Spotify as well as our website news.sanfordhealth.org. If you enjoyed this conversation, follow us, give us a thumbs up, and share your comments. We love hearing from you and hope you find these conversations insightful. Thanks for listening. I’m Simon Floss with Sanford Health News.

Posted In Community, Company News, Corporate Services & Administration, Golf, Innovations, Sanford International, Sioux Falls