Stick it in your ear

Frank Mitchell thought he was a made man in the all-powerful 'family' that controls professional golf. Then the PGA Tour shoved him out into the cold.

The teeming masses turned out in record numbers, a quarter-million strong, for last weekend's Byron Nelson golf tournament, lining the fairways and craning for a glimpse of rookie phenomenon Tiger Woods. The fans will rise early again this week to stake out spots at the Colonial, the second round in North Texas' annual two-week binge of professional golf.

Tightly controlled--and run with the determination of Peruvian commandos--the PGA Tour is a traveling money machine, raking in millions of dollars for those lucky enough to be let in on the game. Not the money paid in winners' purses, but the bounty generated as some of the world's biggest corporations jockey to advertise cars, golf clubs, insurance, televisions, beer, shoes, and countless other products to all the eager, relatively affluent golf fans. Professional golf doesn't draw the cheap-seats baseball crowd, and sponsors pay good money to slap their names on everything from soda cups to sweat rags at events like the Nelson and Colonial, turning them into testimonials to conspicuous consumption.

Only one gateway opens to this playland of potential riches, and it is fiercely guarded by the PGA Tour, which typically exacts a hefty admission fee. A nonprofit, tax-exempt organization headquartered in Florida, the Tour lords over one of the most carefully constructed monopolies in professional sports, a monopoly so complete that it was the target of a federal investigation into anti-competitive practices several years ago.

There are no official cars or sports drinks without the Tour's blessing. Indeed, there are no tournaments without the Tour's blessing. Golfers don't play professionally in the United States unless they sign contracts with the Tour, and the Tour owns most every image you see of the players after they set foot on the course. You undoubtedly remember the scene of Woods pumping his arm after winning the Masters. Nike paid Woods to wear one of its caps that day, but the PGA owns that image. As Woods draws more and more fans to the sport, the PGA's money machine promises to churn even faster.

For a brief, exhilarating moment, Dallas businessman Frank Mitchell was allowed onto the Tour's gold-paved road. In 1986, Mitchell and his old high school buddy, Theis Rice, approached the Tour with an idea for a new promotion at PGA events--a high-end, state-of-the-art plan to reshape the way golf tournaments are broadcast over the radio that promised to open a rich new vein of sponsorship cash.

It was a good idea--so good, in fact, that the Tour is still pursuing it. But Mitchell and Rice claim that after they spent at least $4 million developing their notion and proving it would work, after they shared their business plans with Tour officials and showed there was money to be made, the Tour cut them off cold.

For five years now, Mitchell has been locked in a protracted and expensive legal battle, pursuing two lawsuits in federal court in Dallas. Mitchell claims that the Tour copped his idea and shut him out of the profits.

His quest has not been particularly successful. A jury in one of the cases found that the Tour breached its contract with Mitchell and awarded him almost a million dollars in damages, but a federal judge later overturned the award. The second lawsuit is not set for trial until next year.

The Tour has hired some of the pricier legal guns in Dallas to fight the suits, maintaining that Mitchell was simply a bad businessman who botched the opportunity to make his idea work. John Morris, the Tour's vice president of communications, calls Mitchell's lawsuits "frivolous."

PGA officials frequently refer to their business as a "family," where bonds of faith and trust intertwine with the colder realities of making money. If so, Mitchell is the child cast out.

"Those guys, they ruined me," Mitchell says. "The only thing I ever did is everything those guys asked or demanded of me.

"Then they said, 'Stick it in your ear.'"
Sticking it in your ear, in fact, is the very idea Mitchell and Rice once believed would make them a lot of money.

Here's the way Frank Mitchell saw it: Tens of thousands of fans are packed onto a golf course, but at any time they can only watch the play taking place at one hole (if they can even see that through the throng). What if each of those fans were carrying a little radio with an earplug? And what if that radio picked up closed-circuit broadcasts of the action from all the other holes? Would thousands of fans pay to rent those radios? Might companies then buy advertising time on the broadcasts, or even pay to have their corporate logo slapped onto the radios themselves?

That idea was the genesis of the Sportsband Network.
Mitchell, Tulsa-born but Dallas-raised, is a graduate of St. Mark's and W.T. White High School with a business degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a golf fan and tennis player with some experience promoting pro tennis events with John McEnroe.

Mitchell and his high school buddy, lawyer Theis Rice, knocked around the Oklahoma oil fields during the early 1980s, but like so many others, after the mid-'80s bust they were looking for more promising pursuits.

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