The following is a conversation with Miss America CEO Sam Haskell published Sept. 1, 2013.
Haskell wants Miss America, Atlantic City to stay together
'A conversation with...' is an occasional interview with people who are making an impact on South Jersey.
Sam Haskell III, 58, took over as CEO of the Miss America Organization in May. The Mississippi native, who has an extensive background in television, has never before been behind the scenes of an Atlantic City-based Miss America Competition. He insists that coming to New Jersey was the right move for Miss America and has plans for the competition to remain in the resort long after its three-year deal.
Q: What's been the biggest challenge in preparing for this year?
A: When I think about the challenges of 2013, the biggest challenge is producing two extravaganzas in one eight-month period. That's what's been the challenge. When you look at preparation aspects of what it takes to put on a parade that's going to be viewed by 200,000 people and then a pageant that's going to be viewed by millions and millions of people, you have a lot of pressure that's self-imposed because you want everything to be fabulous.
But I'm very lucky, you see, because I have this partner named Sharon Pearce, who is the president of our organization, and a staff of 12 incredible people. We all monitor thousands of volunteers -- not only around the Atlantic City area, but across this great country -- who are going to be pouring into Atlantic City to help us execute the vision that we've come up with.
Q: Just how much time is being spent and how many people are working on preparation for the pageant? What kinds of things are going on behind the scenes right now?
A: We are focusing right now on organizing and getting our volunteers in place to help us execute what I consider a great vision for this year's 2014 telecast and 2014 revival of the Miss America Show (Us) Your Shoes Parade. We have hundreds of volunteers that are coming forward to help us, everything from the parade to hostesses to handling the judges.
I have 16 members on my board who will be flying in Sept. 2 to join me here to help organize their various committees, all the responsibilities that they have to help us execute the vision. Then we have state organizers from the state pageants all over the country who come in and help us with badges and registration and all the different activities. ... It's all coming together beautifully, and I couldn't be more proud.
Q: You've talked a lot about the positive feeling in coming back to Atlantic City. What about financial implications as far as Miss America's scholarship mission? Does coming back to New Jersey leave you in a better position to do what you want to do?
A: Being in New Jersey absolutely leaves me in a position to do more of what I want to do. It's been a growing process. It's been a process that had to have a plan and had to have a future. ... But because we're coming back to Atlantic City and because we have financial support to do so ... more sponsors are coming forward now. It's making it so that we can provide even more scholarships.
In fact, I can tell you today that we have an understanding with the U.S. Secretary of Education and the Department of Education in Washington on Capitol Hill. We are starting a program in sync with them on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Thirty-five percent of our contestants this year are in medical, science, technology, engineering or math fields. We hope that through this association that we can bring more attention to young women participating in these kind of programs.
To that end we're going to be awarding two $5,000 scholarships separate and apart from the Miss America scholarships based on how they place and finish in the competition -- two $5,000 STEM scholarships to those who are most outstanding in that area. The Department of Education is coming down to judge those contestants and be a part of that with us. As we grow and as our financial stability grows, we will also be able to award more money to these young women.
Q: The contestants arrive in town Sept. 3. How much are we going to see them doing in the city in the days leading up to the pageant?
A: They arrive on Sept. 3 for the arrival ceremony, which is going to be spectacular. The lieutenant governor is going to be here to host that with me and with Sharon (Pearce) as we present our contestants and have a few surprises to share with the community that day. They will be very visible. All 53 of them will be very visible all during the two weeks leading up to the actual pageant finals that will be televised on ABC Sept. 15.
We have our preliminary shows, which allow all 53 of our contestants to compete in evening gown, swimsuit, talent and on-stage question. We also have an incredible opening that we're doing this year to showcase Atlantic City. The eight-minute opening parade of states will focus on all the contestants in different locations around this great city and will give us a chance to not only show off our contestants in a beautiful light outdoors, but to produce them in beautiful settings here in Atlantic City.
That production will be going on -- because obviously we can't do it live -- that production will be going on the week before. So you're going to see Miss America contestants everywhere, everywhere from Steel Pier to White House Subs. White House Subs is my favorite.
Q: You're trying some different things this year with the parade in terms of doing performances in front of Boardwalk Hall and using more extravagant floats. What work is going on to make all of that a reality?
A: We have a wonderful parade producer named John Best, who has worked with some of the biggest and best parades in our country. He has come on board to help us produce this. We have over 140 units in our parade. We have all the contestants, obviously our Miss America, Mallory Hagan, will be featured on the Miss America float. All the casinos have gotten involved.
We have an incredible sponsor for the parade, Pink & Pepper shoes, who will be the title sponsor. Many other organizations around the city have stepped up to help us. They'll also be a part of the telecast, the first-ever telecast of the Show Us Your Shoes Parade at the Philadelphia ABC affiliate. It's going to be broadcast three times along the Eastern Seaboard prior to our live telecast of the finals on Sept. 15.
Q: Some people have questioned how many people are going to be drawn to Atlantic City for the competition. The parade lineup predicts 200,000 people for the parade. What indications do you have that that's an accurate crowd prediction? Do you think Boardwalk Hall will be sold out?
A: I think Boardwalk Hall will be sold out on Sept. 15, absolutely. The trending of the ticket sales is unbelievable right now. Now that single tickets are on sale for the final night, I really believe that it's going to sell out easily. We'll probably have a waiting list. The preliminary tickets are still available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but Sunday night will be sold out.
As far as predicting how many people will be at the parade, we're basing that on how many people were at the last one. We believe that because there is more excitement in 2013 than there was in 2004 that it will surpass more than 200,000. ... This parade has involved more volunteers in the area. We have children's groups from Atlantic City, glee clubs, choirs. The performance aspect of the parade is amazing. We're trying to feature as many local people as we can.
This is about Atlantic City and Miss America being synergized together completely in sync to make something truly wonderful happen. I often liken it to the story behind "Brigadoon, " where everyone puts their negative baggage at the door and they come in to have this perfect weekend. Thousands and thousands of people will be coming from outside of Atlantic City. Then hundreds of thousands from this area will all be part of our "Brigadoon."
Q: Now that you've had time to spend planning out here, what opportunities do you think you have in Atlantic City that you wouldn't have had in Las Vegas?
A: The first opportunity we have comes from people like you who are interested in telling our story. We didn't have that in Las Vegas because there were 30 events a week, 30 big events a week in Las Vegas. Obviously, Las Vegas made it very easy for us to come there from a financial point of view, but we never got the attention that we get from Atlantic City.
While Atlantic City is a metropolitan area, it still has a small-town feel. Miss America is a child of Atlantic City. Returning that child home has created such a sensation that it allows people like you and many, many others to tell our story and to get it out there. We never had that in Las Vegas. That's the number-one and probably main reason that I consider this to be the preferred (location).
Q: An ongoing theme with Miss America for years has been the struggle to stay relevant as a pageant competition. Atlantic City is struggling as well to remain relevant as a tourist destination. What makes this a winning pairing?
A: From the Atlantic City point of view, when you have thousands of people from all over the country coming to be here and you see a broadcast that features Atlantic City all the way through it, you see a parade that's going to be televised for the very first time about Atlantic City and all the excitement in Atlantic City, it's going to make Atlantic City look very relevant.
In terms of the Miss America Organization, the return to Atlantic City is not the beginning of our pursuit of relevance. We started this some eight years ago when I took the helm. I knew that we had to find a way to appeal to a younger audience.
I took a big hit in 2007 when we made a deal with The Learning Channel, TLC, to do a six-episode reality series. My daughter even called and said, "Daddy, these girls didn't sign up to do this kind of thing, relay races and scavenger hunts." But this generation of young women, young kids, boys and girls, have grown up with reality television.
While I took a lot of hits professionally and personally among my constituents about doing that reality show, guess what? After two years of doing the reality show, the median-aged viewer of Miss America dropped from 58 to 37. That's what helped me get ABC's attention. There was a method to my madness, and it worked.
Now, I don't need to go do a reality show anymore. But the relevance continues through our use of really great music selections, how we present the girls. Obviously, there's a lot of tradition we want to hold on to, and we're probably going to have more of our tradition this year than ever before because of the return to Atlantic City.
You're still going to feel the relevance and the 2013 factor through our music choices, the choreography. Our choreographer is U2's choreographer, Barry Lather. We're going to be doing a fantastic opening number after the parade of states around town. We're going to be using that fabulous 50-yard runway, which is back. We never had that in Las Vegas, either. I think there are probably more people excited about the return of the runway than almost anything about our production. Q: Do you want to see the Miss America Competition continue to be here beyond the three-year contract?
A: That's the plan. I want to celebrate our 100th anniversary in seven years right here in Atlantic City. I can't think of us being anywhere else. Yesterday ... when I walked into the hall and I saw them rigging the lights and hanging all the trappings of the beginning of production. I took a couple of pictures and tweeted them out. My Twitter blew up. And so it begins, I said: Miss America's return to Atlantic City.