It’s hard to overestimate the shock the Mobile sports landscape felt with the announcement last week that Phil Savage was out as the executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
Perhaps only Mayor Sandy Stimpson could have made bigger news by relinquishing his position. That’s how big the Senior Bowl is to the identity of the city and the region.
Some lifelong residents of the Gulf Coast may have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. When I was growing up in Birmingham I knew only one thing about Mobile. I’d never heard of Mardi Gras. I never knew a Distinguished Young Woman. I didn’t even know the city had a university, I was only halfway paying attention in my third-grade Alabama history class when we were supposed to be learning about the Port of Mobile.
But the Senior Bowl was the center of my universe for one week every year. I knew that, like clockwork, I could pick up the Birmingham News and veteran columnist Alf Van Hoose would give me a daily report from the exotic locale of Mobile. Back then, in the 1970s, those reports from the Senior Bowl were the only news I ever got about whether Pat Sullivan and Johnny Musso were going to be first-round NFL draft picks or undrafted free agents.
The coverage of the NFL draft has certainly changed since then, just like everything else in the media. The Senior Bowl has changed right along with it, of course, including during the period Savage was the executive director.
This I can say without hesitation: The Senior Bowl is far better off today for having Savage as its executive director. Whoever takes over will find an all-star bowl game that faces challenges but is in much better shape on many fronts than what Savage inherited six years ago.
The game needed exactly what Savage was uniquely qualified to deliver — a respected presence among college coaches, scouts, the NFL and the media. With those connections he was able to make the game the first stop on the Triple Crown of the draft, followed by the NFL Scouting Combine and pro days at universities.
Being able to do the dance with so many disparate groups requires a person who is not only skilled but comfortable in various settings. Savage was an A+ in all those areas.
Still, the game faces challenges that were never even thought of back when Van Hoose and five minutes on the local nightly news were my only real connection to sports coverage.
Today, to convince me to spend a Saturday every January at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, you first have to convince me to leave the best seat in the house — my own house. The quality and quantity of television coverage has forced promoters of every live sporting event to think creatively when it comes to getting people in the seats.
The Senior Bowl has certainly not been immune to that problem.
At this year’s game, bad weather was certainly an issue and the continued debate about aging Ladd-Peebles and its surroundings does nothing but convince potential customers that the experience at the stadium is far worse than it really is. For instance, the idea that fans exiting the stadium are dodging muggers like a running back dodging tacklers is ridiculous and refuted by all the facts.
But there is no question that when you look at that Triple Crown, Ladd-Peebles Stadium is not in the same galaxy as the quality offered at the sites of those other events.
Does that mean Mobile could lose the Senior Bowl? No.
Does that mean Mobile could lose the Senior Bowl as we know it? That’s a different question.
The Senior Bowl is not going anywhere. I know that because the game is owned and operated by the city and the Mobile Arts and Sports Association. There would be no motivation to move the game.
But the success of the event relies on two components. The first is the support of the NFL, which provides coaching staffs for the game. The league doesn’t control the game, but the supplying of coaches and the stamp of approval that implies keeps the game 10 steps ahead of all the other all-star games. There is absolutely no evidence that the NFL is anything but pleased with the operation of the Senior Bowl. That’s a good thing. The next executive director needs to have the same kind of cachet with the league Savage enjoyed to help ensure that doesn’t change.
The second measuring stick for success of the game is the support and enthusiasm the local community shows for the event.
For the next executive director to be an expert in all the areas crucial to keeping the product on the field at a peak level while also being a master marketer in town is probably too much to ask.
I believe the MASA board would be making a home-run hire if it could find somebody to fill Savage’s shoes in terms of finding and recruiting players, dealing with the NFL and agents, and promoting the event nationally.
Asking that same person to spend 365 days a year dedicated to making sure the Gulf Coast is fired up about the game-day experience is probably too much to ask.
In this changing climate, it may take two people with very different skills to accomplish what the Senior Bowl needs to thrive for decades to come. But for the health of the marquee event on all of the Gulf Coast, it’s a possibility worth considering.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.