Stars of golf born because of Karvellas
STATELINE – Earlier this year celebrity golf lost its founding fathers.
Without the persistence and foresight of Jim Karvellas, Lake Tahoe could have continued to remain a jewel that was only seen in person and best promoted by word of mouth. Thus, celebrities would have been relegated to fighting for spots in the AT&T National Pro-Am.
Karvellas, 71, who gained fame on radio for his effervescent tales of New York Knicks and Baltimore Bullets’ games, passed away on Jan. 1 due to complications from prostate cancer. It was Karvellas who hatched the idea of giving celebrities an opportunity to compete in a sport outside of their area of expertise.
“He was a pioneer as far as this,” said former hockey player Dan Quinn. “He didn’t want it to be AT&T; he wanted it to be golf. His idea in 1990 was we had a lot of guys who were active and at the top of their game and some of the best ever in Jordan, Elway and Marino. It was very creative, and here we are 18 years later.”
Karvellas, however, needed a powerful playing partner and found it in NBC following a one-year courtship. NBC was searching for programming to soften the blow of losing Major League Baseball to another network.
“It came together relatively quickly,” said Jon Miller, executive vice president of NBC Sports, who was involved with the celebrity championship from day one. “At the time we weren’t renting properties. We wanted something to grow and build, and if they were successful, they couldn’t be taken away from us.
When the dealing was done, NBC controlled 50 percent of the championship and Karvellas and Michael Trager of Sports Marketing and Television International the other 50 percent.
NBC Sports launched a star-studded future for celebrity golf with the first Celebrity Golf Championship July 12-15, 1990, at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course.
The allure of the first celebrity tournament was the PGA-style tournament, complete with 54 holes, TV coverage and paying customers.
“It may interest you to know that every celebrity in this field is here without being paid an appearance fees,” Karvellas told the Tribune back in 1990. “They are here at Caesars Tahoe this week, because they believe in the concept, they love the game of golf and they like to compete. I shall be forever indebted to them for that.”
Lacking a major sponsor and uncertain of how the public would receive the new creation, the first championship attracted 59 players, including Lawrence Taylor, Mike Schmidt, Kenny Rogers, Randy Quaid, Jim Rice, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Michael Jordan, John Havlicek, John Elway, Bob Cousy, Ernie Banks, Rick Barry, Danny Ainge and Jack Wagner.
“It was his baby; he was proud of it. He had his whole family working it,” said Rick Rhoden, who was given the green light to play in the event’s second year. “He got it rolling and tried to get it from being giggle golf to real golf. His vision was that if you had a chance to play guys who were competitive, they would get better. And that’s what happened.”
The Karvellas-NBC partnership didn’t survive the decade. Karvellas and NBC reportedly didn’t agree on the appeal of celebrity golf had in other markets.
“Jim felt very strongly that this had legs and could become a tour that could compete with the other professional golf tours,” Miller said. “We didn’t have the appetite or agree in the direction he wanted to go.”
Eventually a deal was worked out that gave Karvellas rights to 10 other celebrity golf tour events while NBC gained total control of the Lake Tahoe tournament. The parties never exchanged money, Miller said.
“He ran some other events, then he got sick. Some of the people running the events didn’t always do right by him,” Miller said.
Miller said NBC planned to honor Karvellas during a player party and then recognize his contributions to celebrity golf during its weekend TV coverage.
“It’s important that Jimmy get the credit and what not,” Miller said.