The $200,000 Gene Mische American Invitational, a fixture in Tampa for 41 years, will be making what is practically a last-minute move across Florida to the SunLife stadium in Miami this April, EquiSearch confirmed exclusively today.
The event billed as "The Super Bowl of Show Jumping" will be held April 5 in Sun Life Stadium, where the Miami Dolphins NFL team plays, rather than Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Michael Morrissey, head of Stadium Jumping Inc., which puts on the class, explained the move to a more prosperous area is an effort to increase backing and crowds. The stadium is approximately an hour's drive south of Wellington, home of the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival.
"I can garner sponsorship and try to put more people in the stadium so I can keep the event going," said Michael, who noted that in recent years, the Invitational was losing $300,000 annually. Despite heroic efforts to attract sponsors and crowds, "marketing something in Tampa has been difficult at best," he told me. He hopes to get a crowd of 10,000 in the 75,000-seat Sun Life stadium, compared with the approximately 7,000 who had been coming to Raymond James.
Although the stadium contract is only for a year, Michael noted the facility has given him a staff of eight people to help with marketing and ticket sales through Ticketmaster.com.
"They want to make it work," he maintained.
For decades, the Invitational was the crown jewel of the WEF, held in Wellington and Tampa. The top money winning jumper riders qualified for the Invitational, and the affluent circuit put on the no-entry fee class as a thank you to its stars.
"That's what used to support the Invitational and make it work," Michael pointed out.
But since 2008, when Equestrian Sport Productions took over the WEF, Stadium Jumping presented only a few relatively small Tampa shows at the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center as a lead-in to the Invitational. Budweiser, which had sponsored the Invitational for years, dropped out after the 2009 edition. In 2010, Michael's terminally ill uncle, Gene Mische, took his final bow at the event that was renamed for him.
Despite the odds, Michael was dedicated to making sure the Invitational would continue in the memory of Gene, its founder and the creator of the WEF. Michael he struggled for six years to make sure the class was presented, despite long odds.
Moving the class, "is absolutely the only way I could keep it going," Michael said.
The Invitational is the only U.S. grand prix in a major football stadium, which adds to its drama and allure. Its winners include legends of the sport, from Rodney Jenkins, who took the inaugural Invitational on Idle Dice in 1973, to U.S. show jumping coach Robert Ridland (Southside), Melanie Smith (Calypso), Greg Best and Gem Twist, Beezie Madden (Authentic), Michael Matz (Rhum IV) Ian Millar (Big Ben), 2013 victor McLain Ward (Rothchild) who earned the title three times.
The move became a possibility after Michael was approached by a sponsor who said "they didn't want to spend their marketing dollars in Tampa, but if it were in a different market, like Miami," they'd be interested, Michael recalled. As he started looking at venues, what was uppermost in his mind was "the integrity of the American Invitational." He was helped in securing the stadium by former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese and his wife, Shay, a member of the group that owns Margie Engle's mount, Indigo. Michael didn't want to reveal the name of the title sponsor until the contract is signed, but he noted presenting sponsor G&C Farm is "more than doubling" its contribution and getting entertainment for the intermission show and the post-show party in the stadium.
"Grand prix riders are ecstatic about it," said Michael, who at some point in the future would like to see the prize money escalate into the $300,000-$350,000 range.
"I think it's phenomenal," grand prix rider Jimmy Torano, a resident of south Florida, commented about the move.
"I talked with them early on about moving it there. I think they're really going to get a good crowd down there."
He remembered the positive reaction of fans in 2000 when the $100,000 Mayor's U.S. Open Jumper Championship was held in the American Airlines arena in downtown Miami, the city's first grand prix.
"If they get the word out with the right publicity I think it can be a great class in that stadium," he said.
Jimmy noted there is a lot of interest in horses in the area, going all the way up to Palm Beach County. Miami has a large Latino population, and he thinks they will come and watch the riders from Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico.
"Latins are different. If there's one Latin person in there, they'll bring a whole fleet of people," he stated.
Brianne Goutal, who was number one on the qualifying list for the Invitational, said she understood the need for more spectators and sponsors.
"It was starting to struggle," she conceded, but added, "it never lost its prestige. We were always dying to qualify it," she said.
"Tampa was really special. That stadium had a lot of respect from the riders," Brianne said, but she's looking forward to riding in Miami.
"That class is such an institution," she said. "It's wonderful we can have this opportunity."
Brianne last year won another Stadium Jumping fixture, the American Gold Cup, that had a successful move and perhaps set a precedent for its sister competition. A switch to Westchester County, N.Y., put new life into that fixture -- which was a forerunner of the Invitational in Tampa -- before heading to Pennsylvania and then Ohio, where it had problems and was cancelled in 2009.
Not surprisingly, though, rumors that the Invitational was leaving Tampa upset longtime fans.
"I'm extremely disappointed," said Reggie Sayet, a professional horsewoman from Riverview, Fla., who has only missed one edition of the Invitational in the last 42 years.
Her students looked forward to competing at the Tampa shows, which she fears will be the next to go, and qualifying for the parade of champions traditionally held at Raymond James before the Invitational.
"These kids had the opportunity to see all these grand prix riders they don't normally get to see," said Reggie, explaining how important the Invitational and the Tampa shows were to her students. But her group likely has watched the class in person for the last time.
"I doubt anybody will go to Miami," she said. "It's too far away, four hours."
One Tampa Bay area resident who will be going to Miami, however, is Gina Johnson, a member of the Invitational's committee and a relentless marketer of the event who worked in sponsor relations.
"It's been a part of my life forever," said Gina.
"The Invitational was the dream, the pinnacle of every horse owner to have a grand prix horse that qualified for the Invitational," she enthused, noting regretfully that her horses had come close, but never quite made the cut.
Even so, the Invitational has a special place in her heart.
"I'll follow it anywhere if I can be a part of it and throw whatever enthusiasm and knowledge I have about it into the ring, I'm thrilled to go, and I'm really excited."
On a personal note, I'll miss Tampa. I covered my first Invitational there in 1984, when it was in the old Tampa Stadium, and I was awestruck. I've seen every Invitational since.
It's easy to understand the reason for the move, however, and while I love tradition, it's much more important that the Invitational continue, whatever the location, as long as it's a place that can insure maximum sponsorship and fan support. So it's on to Miami and a new start for a great institution.—Nancy