The Events Man: From Sports To Concert events, Mickey Graham Is On A Mission To Redefine TC’s Events Scene

“I’m not a baseball guy.” So proclaimed Mickey Graham in the November press release that announced his hiring as the first-ever director of sports and events for Traverse City Tourism (TCT). The statement was surprising, if only because Graham was coming off a three-plus-year stint as general manager of the Traverse City Pit Spitters – a job he took in early 2019 after two decades as a staffer for another Minior League Baseball organization, the West Michigan Whitecaps.

As Graham sees it, though, he’s not just a baseball guy, but an events man. And now, Graham isn’t just the events man for a single venue, but for all of Traverse City. In his newly-created role at TCT, Graham acts as a “catalyst” to bring more events to northern Michigan – from athletic tournaments to concerts to extreme sports. The Ticker caught up with Graham in December to learn more about the job, the events he’s targeting, the balancing act of attracting more tourism while also planning events that appeal to locals, and how his efforts could transform the athletic and entertainment landscapes in northern Michigan .

Ticker: You’ve been on the job for about a month now. What are your initial takeaways from those first few weeks?

Graham: I’m learning a lot. I moved to town in the spring of 2019 to take over the baseball team and stadium. So I’ve been in town for a few years, but I didn’t know a lot of people. I had one focus: keeping the stadium up and running where we thought it should be. So now I’m meeting a lot of people and learning a lot. In particular, there are a lot of events in town that I wasn’t always necessarily aware of. So I’m learning about those and then talking to a ton of different people. Meeting different promoters in town, learning about all the venues we have in town. I’m trying to get a handle on all that, because the primary job I have now is to be a catalyst for new events coming to town.

Ticker: Most locals know you best for your role with the Pit Spitters, but you said when you came to TCT you’re not necessarily just a baseball guy…

Graham: I’ve worked in Minor League Baseball since I graduated college,’ so people look at that and say, ‘Oh, it’s a sports background.’ But that’s really not the case. You talk to anybody who works in that industry and they’ll tell you that it’s not just about the event on the field; it’s about everything goes on off the field, too. So, my event background is pretty extensive. Even with the Pit Spitters – sure, we did 36 games a year just, but we also did another dozen or so events off the field. And every one of those events is a big undertaking.

In the fall of 2021, for instance, we got the country band Old Dominion to come to the park for a concert. That kind of event takes a long time to get organized. It’s not just about saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this concert here in two months!’ A big concert like that sometimes takes years of planning. But also, one of my main goals was turning that venue into something outside of just the baseball stadium, which we were able to do with that concert. And then two weeks later, we had an event called Nitro Circus, which is a big-name action sports show. So, within that two-week span, we were able to host the two largest events in Turtle Creek Stadium history. Those were great events, and it was very fulfilling to see them come to fruition after working so hard on them for so long.

Ticker: What kind of programming are you looking to bring to the area now?

Graham: We want to make sure the events align with the community and its values, and that they are things that not only help attract visitors but are also things for the locals to do. So, I’d say we’re open to a lot of different options right now. We’re just getting this up and running; we’ve got some lines in the water, and we’re just trying to figure out what we can do and what will work here. As I said, there are just so many different venues where it would work to put things, so we’re working right now to find promoters and people who want to work on new events, and then we’ll figure out the best way to get those events to come to town and have them be successful.

Ticker: One of the things that [TCT President] Trevor Tkach has said that ‘summer takes care of itself’ as far as tourism goes, and that TCT’s is really about bringing people here in the fall, winter, and spring so that Traverse City’s economy can be a year-round machine. Where do we have infrastructure for winter events in particular, and where could we see some of this stuff taking place?

Graham: The hockey arenas are good indoor spaces. Grand Traverse Resort has a lot of indoor areas; their schedule is pretty tight, but we can maybe work with them here and there on a few things. And then there’s just a ton of outdoor space as well, especially at ski hills and ski resorts, so we’re also asking how we can help attract some winter events for those venues.

Clearly, a lot of our winter event space is outdoors right now. But looking into the future, I’m sure you’re aware of the indoor sports facility that’s been bandied about. We’re still interested in helping with that project and being the catalyst to get that moving forward. Because if that can happen, that’s big news for everyone. First, it’s great for the locals, because there’s so much demand for indoor sports facilities from the teams in town, the schools in town. If we can help jumpstart that project and get that moving, we’re living up to our goal of providing things that the locals can enjoy.

But then a new indoor sports complex could also be another attractive piece for out-of-town groups that are looking to come to town – to have a volleyball tournament, or a basketball tournament, or things like that. And that then helps us in spreading the tourism business in Traverse City out beyond those 2-3 months of summer.

Ticker: A new indoor sports complex has been discussed for a long time. Any update on where that project stands?

Graham: No, I don’t think there’s any real update. There’s a group that’s been meeting about it, and I know that group has had a few meetings recently, but I don’t think there are any major updates. I know it’s a project this group really sees as an important piece to the region, and they’ve been working hard trying to see how they can get it done.

Ticker: You’ve talked about the balancing act of drawing tourists to the region while also making sure that some of these events offer something for locals…

Graham: We really are trying to do both. If we’re doing a sports tournament where we get a bunch of kids from across the state to come in to play here for the weekend, that’s something most locals may not even notice is happening. And that’s not a bad thing! But we also want to figure out some events that will appeal to locals. So, whether that’s something like an Ironman or putting on more concerts out at Turtle Creek Stadium, we think there are types of events that locals are probably clamoring for that could also attract a couple thousand people from outside of the region.

Ticker: Northern Michigan has definitely grown as a live music draw in recent years, with Interlochen and Cherry Festival drawing bigger names than they did 15 or 20 years ago. But we’re also located in an area that makes routing difficult for touring acts. How do you get around that hurdle when trying to attract events?

Graham: It’s really about looking at what the event is. If it’s a weekend athletic tournament, boy, we’ve got lots to sell. We’ve got the venues, we’ve got the water, we’ve got great restaurants, we’ve got the wineries, we’ve got the outdoor attractions. We have everything that your group needs, not only to put on a great event but also to have great time outside your event.

When it comes to touring events more like the Old Dominion concert or the Nitro Circus event, now it becomes a little bit more of a challenge, because like you said, it’s all about the routing. If you were in Lansing or Grand Rapids, and there’s a band that’s playing Chicago and then going to Detroit, then it’s an easier sell to get them to stop in your city. Traverse City is more out of the way. But I also think that a lot of the same things that are beneficial for attracting groups for weekend events are also selling points for these bands or touring events. It’s a new market for a lot of them; it’s beautiful, so they can spend a couple of days up here if they want to; and I think we showed with those events at Turtle Creek Stadium that there’s a market for those types of things here.

And it’s not just Traverse City residents that will attend those types of events. People from all over northern Michigan will come to these things. So, you just look at the population of Grand Traverse County, Leelanau County, Antrim, Kalkaska, and that’s a huge amount of potential. And especially in the concert world, once you have a show like we did with Old Dominion, bands and promoters can then look at attendance numbers and say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot bigger than we thought.’ And then maybe they start to look at us more seriously as part of their routing.

Ticker: Last question: What’s one tangible goal you want to accomplish in your first year on the job?

Graham: I would love to have at least one other large event in town this year that’s like an Ironman, where we can point to it and say, ‘We’re gonna try to do this every year.’ And I want it to be an event that the community is really excited about. I would also love to have a dozen or so events scheduled either in late 2023 or throughout 2024 that are going to bring several thousand people to town each and help with our local economy, especially in those off-seasons. I think if we can get a good base of events on the books in the next year and a half, that gives us some momentum to build upon throughout 2024, 2025, and 2026.

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