The mister behind the Misses

Sam Haskell's imprint on the Miss America world

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In 2005, Sam Haskell III was planning to take it easy. He had just stepped down as the worldwide head of television for the William Morris Agency, one of the longest-running entertainment talent agencies. He wanted to play a lot of golf. Maybe lose some weight.

Then he got the call.

Phyllis George, the 50th Miss America, told Haskell that ABC had dropped the Miss America pageant due to low ratings. Haskell, a director of the Miss University of Mississippi pageant in college, was the only one who understood the pageant, television and the scholarship, George told him.

“Please come help us,” she said, according to Haskell.

Haskell said he would, but just for one year. That one year has turned into 10.

In a decade as CEO, Haskell led the Miss America Organization through many changes and challenges. He got the contest broadcast on ABC again. He moved the pageant back to Atlantic City. He navigated the organization through the fallout from comedian John Oliver’s criticism of the organization’s scholarship claims. And now, with Miss America’s contract in Atlantic City expiring, Haskell — the Mister behind Misses — will play a large role in determining whether the pageant stays in the city of its birth.

“It’s been an incredible journey for me,” Haskell said.

After it was dropped from ABC, Miss America found itself moving from one niche-oriented cable channel to another. The first stop was CMT, where it aired for two years with just 2 million viewers. From there, it went to TLC, where Haskell agreed to do a reality TV show to promote the pageant, called “Miss America: Reality Check.”

“The criticism was great, but after two years of the reality show, the median-aged viewer for Miss America had dropped from age 59 to 37, and that’s how I got the attention of ABC,” Haskell said.

In its 2011 return to ABC, Miss America saw a 47 percent increase in its ratings. But last year’s pageant saw its ratings drop 15 percent from 2013, which Haskell attributes to competition from a Sunday night football game. Still, the show brought in 6.7 million viewers, topping Miss USA by 1.1 million.

The next big move by Haskell was back to Atlantic City. The pageant had spent eight years in Las Vegas.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said in December 2012, just after Hurricane Sandy, that Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson called Gov. Chris Christie, telling him there was an opportunity to get the pageant back.

Since Guadagno’s role as lieutenant governor is to manage the state’s economic development, Christie asked her to follow up on it. She set up a meeting with the Miss America Organization, where she would meet Haskell for the first time.

“Haskell said, ‘I want to bring Miss America home,’ and he did,” Guadagno said during the contestants’ debut on the Boardwalk earlier this month.

By Valentine’s Day 2013, Guadagno said, the state was delighted to announce the competition was coming back to Atlantic City.

“It was a very bright story in what was otherwise a very hard winter in New Jersey,” she said.

Haskell said he never felt Las Vegas was the right place to be.

“I always felt we should return home to Atlantic City, the birthplace of Miss America,” Haskell said.

But Miss America’s future in Atlantic City is up in the air again. The contract with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority expires this year, so Haskell will again play a large role in determining whether the pageant stays in the city.

The CRDA has given the pageant nearly $5 million in subsidies over the past three years. Another agency, the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, provided $2.3 million for the pageant’s production costs. The CRDA and ACCVA have since been merged.

A contract extension for Miss America is likely to be complicated by a new economic aid package designed to stabilize Atlantic City’s finances. A key part of the plan will divert $25 million to $30 million in CRDA funding each year to the city to help pay off municipal debt. Gov. Chris Christie still must sign it into law.

The CRDA and Miss America Organization met in July to “frame the issues,” Elaine Zamansky, a CRDA spokeswoman, said last week. The two groups intend to meet again before the end of September, she said. Haskell also said negotiations will continue to extend the contract.

“We’re a little bit busy right now,” he said during Day One of the preliminary competition Tuesday.

Perhaps Haskell’s most public challenge as CEO came from Oliver, who dedicated a segment of his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” in September 2014 to criticizing the organization’s scholarship claims. Miss America routinely referenced $45 million in scholarship money it “made available” each year.

Haskell described the situation as “uncomfortable” and a “great stress.” But in hindsight, Haskell said, it was probably good that Oliver “stepped out and said that.”

“Now we have become transparent,” Haskell said. “We now know exactly what we’re giving out and awarding, and we’re changing our language. We will never again say $45 million is available. We’re just going to talk about what’s awarded. So thank you, John Oliver.”

Haskell’s days are full. In addition to CEO, Haskell took on the role of executive chairman this year. But he said the job title change doesn’t mean much, as the job itself hasn’t changed.

“I’m still in charge of everything,” he said.

Haskell credits his leadership team for helping him run the organization. He said he’s built “three tentpoles” within the organization: Lynn Hackerman Weidner, chairwoman of the Board of Directors; Josh Randle, chief operating officer; and Regina Hopper, chairwoman of the Miss America Foundation Board of Trustees.

“As executive chairman, I have three incredible people reporting to me, and they come in with their own set of strengths and their own talents and their own incredible contributions to what makes things work for me,” Haskell said.

Randle, one of those tentpoles, said the organization is fortunate to have Haskell.

“When you look at what he inherited, being back on ABC, celebrating the third year back in Atlantic City where it began, it shows how far he’s taken us,” Randle said.

Considering all that’s happened in his 10 years with the organization, Haskell, surprisingly, said the most important thing he’s helped facilitate is its partnership with Dick Clark Productions.

“It is not only benefiting the production of our telecast but the actual booking of our Miss America on high-profile television shows,” Haskell said. “It’s been incredible exposure for Miss America.”

Haskell is married to Mary, a former Miss Mississippi. Back when he was running the Miss University of Mississippi pageant, he helped her win the state crown in 1977.

Years later, when George called for Haskell’s help, Mary told Haskell, quoting the Bible, “You were prepared for such a time as this.”

“It was Mary’s words that made me finally say yes,” Haskell said. “I did it because Miss America is an American icon. I did it because Miss America was about to go away. And I did it because it was something worth saving.”

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