It started, as so many things do these days, with a social media video. This one showed an NCAA official—rather callously, it must be said—telling a group of young women about the “gut-wrenching” decision he’d just been a part of.
“Even though the course is playable,” he says from a staircase at The University Club in Baton Rouge, La., which was battered with seven inches of rain over the preceding few days, “it is not playable at a championship level.”
And, just like that, the NCAA Women’s Regional had been cancelled. The top six seeds coming into the event—LSU, Missisippi, Baylor, Oregon, Maryland and Alabama—would advance to the national championship without hitting a shot. The other 12 teams in the field? Try again next year.
Just as the news sets in, one distraught voice emerges from the rest. Her oh my gaah! struck at the soul of any athlete who has poured everything they have into their sport.
Sam “Riggs” Bozoian was one of those people once. This was before Barstool, before he emerged as the face of New Golf Media, before his contact list was a who’s who of PGA Tour pros. Riggs played hockey at this small school in Boston—yes, it’s the one you’re thinking of—and so he knows first-hand the inimitable bond college athletes share.
“Those are the people that you become best friends with,” Riggs tells Golf Digest, “that you travel across the country with, you ride in vans for hours and hours with, you share hotel rooms with. Those are your people that you remember your college experience by.
“You should be able to go out competing alongside them like you’ve worked so hard towards. You shouldn’t go out on a negative, where you feel like people that are supposed to be in a position to help you out let you down. You’re supposed to go out competing alongside your teammates.”
That, on its own, wasn’t a unique position—that video accomplished the impossible: uniting Golf Twitter. It devolved into a dunk-on fest; one prominent account after another hammering the NCAA for yet another head-scratching decision. Why not let the women at least try to play? Try to find an alternative venue? Something, anything, other than this?
Strong-worded tweets are all fine and dandy, but they don’t accomplish much in the way of solutions. What distinguished Riggs from the cacophony of outrage: He had the capacity to do something about it.
Riggs is the commissioner of the Barstool Classic, a nationwide two-man tournament. Now in its third year, the Classic has grown to 20-plus qualifying sites and, for those that make it through, a four-day golf bonanza at Pinehurst to crown a winner. So the Barstool team had plenty of experience ironing out the logistics of hosting a golf tournament—unsexy details like signage, financials and how to deal with host venues.
“We do this frequently, so that got the wheels spinning a little bit. Then I got a text from Dave Portnoy early Thursday saying you really should put on a tournament for these girls. He said you have the full backing of Barstool Sports, do whatever needs to be done. That was the green light.”
Next came the phone-call stage—first, to Barstool CEO Erika Nardini, who echoed Portnoy’s sentiment. Then it was Lisa Litvak, the unsung hero in charge of Barstool’s robust live events operation. Barstool’s merchandise team sprung into action, whipping up a name (Let Them Play) and a logo and getting clothes to market to help offset costs. With the full Barstool team locked and loaded, there were still two challenges to confront: finding a golf course and jumping through the NCAA compliance hoops.
“We knew we could come up with the money to cover expenses, that’s not a problem. We knew we could put on a golf tournament, that’s not a problem. We knew we could get it exposure. It was really just ensuring that if we’re going to put on a golf tournament in five to seven days, we’re going to need to make sure that no one gets in trouble.”
The golf course part came easy. Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., offered its facilities for May 20-21 free of charge. That shaved roughly $20,000 off the balance sheet. At this stage, it became clear that there would indeed be a golf tournament. But the idea was for the women to be able to compete as their college teams—to wear their uniforms, to have their coaches on-site, like a normal college event.
In order for that to happen, Let Them Play needed a waiver from the NCAA. College teams are limited under NCAA regulations in how many days they can compete, and with the regional coming at the end of the year, most of these teams had used up their allotment. If they didn’t get a waiver, Let Them Play would technically be an amateur event that the women could compete in as individuals, similar to a state amateur. But it wouldn’t be a team event. They needed that waiver.
Enter Steven Smith, the associate athletic director for compliance at Mississippi State, one of the “other” 12 schools who had their seasons abruptly end that day. Or so they thought.
“Charlie [Ewing, head coach of the Mississippi State women’s golf team] told me there’s this guy at Barstool Sports who wanted to put on a tournament,” Smith tells Golf Digest. “I had no idea who Riggs was. He says, ‘How do we make this happen?’ And I’m thinking, My gosh, this is going to be impossible. When does he want to do it? Next week? No way.”
Undeterred, Smith mobilized. He reached out to compliance officers from other schools involved in the cancellation, and they began working with—not against—the NCAA in order to allow these women to compete with their teammates once more. No detail was too small: How would Barstool make sure every team received the same financial assistance? What awards would they be providing? Smith and crew filed the waiver request on Friday afternoon; by Monday morning, it had been granted.
“Our kids are so excited,” Smith said. “As soon as the news got out that they could go as a team, they were all texting. I just got back from the airport, seeing them off, they were smiling, thanking us for everything we’ve done. They are pumped. They just want to play golf.”
And so, five days after the video hit the interwebs, Let Them Play was a go. The final price tag, to be covered by a combination of sponsors and merchandise sales, was just shy of $100,000. As of Tuesday morning, 45 athletes representing 13 schools had committed to playing, and none of them will pay a cent.
As this all unfolded, and right on schedule, the cynics arrived. It happens anytime Barstool gets involved in … well, anything. The site has rankled more than a few feathers in its 20-year history, and there were more than a few suggesting the whole Let Them Play thing was a mere publicity stunt—a chance for Barstool to parachute in, play hero and pat themselves on the back for it.
“If you’re getting good PR for something, it’s probably because you’re doing something good,” Riggs says with a laugh. “People are laughing at me because I’m a bit of a crier, and I’m going to cry all over the place this week. If people think that’s just a publicity stunt, then I gotta be Leonardo DiCaprio or something. I know we’re doing it for the right reasons. The messages and notes that we’ve gotten from the players and coaches is more than enough for us.”