Atlantic County is notorious for its lack of support for sports franchises, events and tournaments.
The Atlantic City Surf wiped out after 11 seasons. It wasn’t long before the Boardwalk Bullies were skating on thin ice and then moving to California.
The Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament bounced out of Boardwalk Hall a few years back, along with several other respected college basketball events. Ditto for the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour stop and most recently the Atlantic City Offshore Grand Prix powerboat race.
Even boxing, which was once the premier sport in town, has been on the ropes for a while. That became painfully apparent during last Sunday’s Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame banquet. A town that once rivaled Las Vegas as the boxing capital of the world hasn’t hosted a major fight in three years.
The lone exception to the trend is the ShopRite LPGA Classic, which will hold its 29th tournament this weekend on the Bay Course at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway Township.
“I just think it’s the right fit for the area,” ShopRite Classic executive director Tim Erensen said. “The LPGA as a whole seems to thrive in what you would call triple-A sports markets. The Atlantic County market is the right size for this. It allows us to be a big fish in a smaller pond.”
In terms of popularity, the tournament has become a great white shark, golf’s version of Mary Lee.
Actually, they have a lot in common. Mary Lee, a 16-foot, 3,500-pound great white who spent Memorial Day weekend off the coast of Cape May, has more than 110,000 Twitter followers.
The ShopRite Classic relied on a Twitter poll to determine a spot in its 144-player field for this weekend. India native Sharmila Nicollet earned the berth.
Year after year, fans line the fairways and pack the grandstands behind the 18th green to see the world’s top women’s golfers. Although the tournament doesn’t keep official attendance figures, it routinely draws more than 50,000 people.
The galleries have always been large, even those years when the breeze wasn’t blowing off the bay and greenheads the size of seagulls descended on players and spectators.
“My honest opinion is that it’s so popular because once you come to the tournament, you can’t wait to go back again,” tournament director Bill Hansen said. “It’s free for most people, it’s inexpensive and it’s a lot of fun. Even non-golf fans seem to enjoy coming here.”
I think the players also have a lot to do with the popularity.
In general, LPGA players are the most accessible and cooperative professional athletes. Before and after their rounds, they spend a lot of time interacting with fans by signing autographs, posing for selfies, even visiting nearby schools and hospitals.
“As far as interacting with fans, I’d say the LPGA player is probably the best in all of professional sports in that regard,” Hansen said.
It appears as if the players also enjoy coming here.
In most years, the tournament draws an interesting mix of successful and popular players. Six of the top 10 players on the money list are here this year. Top Americans such as Paula Creamer, two-time champion Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie draw huge galleries.
“I put our fields up against any tournament,” Erensen said. “We always get our share of top players, and it’s because of how they’re treated here. We have an average purse ($1.5 million this year) at best, but the fact they come every year speaks to the quality of the course and the reputation of the event.”
If you’ve never been, do yourself a favor and grab a can of bug spray and maybe an umbrella and head over to check it out.
I’ve committed to jumping off the Cape May-Lewes Ferry for the Escape the Cape Triathlon again Sunday morning, but I’m still hoping to make it to the tournament.
Hopefully, Mary Lee won’t be swimming with me in the Delaware Bay.
(David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.)