The Stars & Stripes Tournament has caught a large reputation: one of the biggest and best fishing-focused philanthropic events in the world.
This year marked the 25th for the event, which was held June 22 to June 26 at the Hilton Los Cabos in Cabo San Lucas.
More than 850 people came together for a long weekend of deep-sea fishing, high-end golf, top-tier musical performances, luxurious accommodations and more.
The event netted a record $5 million this year to support child-oriented charities.
Stars & Stripes has raised $45 million since its inception, all of it given to organizations changing the lives of children.
The group’s foundation is based in Irvine, and a good portion of its leadership, backing and beneficiaries come from Orange County.
Plan It, They Will Come
The Stars & Stripes Tournament was the inspiration of Dick Gebhard and his wife, Debbie, of Santa Ana-based Pinnacle Landscape Management, and in part stemmed from Gebhard’s time on the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County & the Inland Empire.
Gebhard, a charismatic man whose brain, as his close friend and fellow Big Brothers board member at the time, Baldwin & Sons founder Al Baldwin, attests, is always “going the other way,” wanted to come up with a new fundraiser to benefit BBBSOC.
The son of a commercial fisherman, Gebhard had first picked up the sport as a young boy. He’d spent time in Cabo San Lucas in the ’60s and ’70s when it was known as a sleepy seaside fishing village, then inspiration struck: a fishing tournament-fundraiser.
“At first, no one thought it was going to happen,” Gebhard said.
“There were all kind of challenges—companies didn’t want to sponsor a big party in another country, and the logistics were insane.”
Undaunted, Gebhard flew down to Mexico and talked with the manager at the Hotel Cabo San Lucas, Mitch Parr. Parr loved the idea.
After brainstorming, they decided to call the tournament Stars & Stripes.
“The ‘stars’ are the kids, who really are the stars of this event,” said Gebhard, “And the stripes—well, that’s for all the striped marlin we were going to catch!”
To get the tournament off the ground, Gebhard had to reserve the space in advance. He reserved 50 rooms at the hotel, putting them all on his credit card. He did the same with the airline tickets and the boat charters. He estimated 100 people would come, but when he put his card on the table, only one—Baldwin—had committed.
The founder of the Newport Beach-based homebuilder also wanted to bring down some of the children served by the local Big Brothers organization, along with a parent, so they could experience something unforgettable.
Gebhard spent most of the next year working on the tournament while running his company.
“I asked everyone I knew to participate,” he recalled. “If they said ‘No,” I just asked them again. I think I asked everyone about five times.”
Gebhard secured his 100th participant with two weeks to go.
Dancing Horse to Knights
Stars & Stripes raised $16,000 in its first year.
Gebhard didn’t think he wanted to do it again, but then people started asking about the second year. Why not? Gephard thought.
The first two years, it was a fishing tournament. The third year, they added golf. The fourth year they decided to add entertainment—a dancing horse.
“It cost $1,000,” Gebhard said. “The horse was led out to the sand, and it danced to the song ‘La Bamba.’ That was it. One song. People were delighted.”
Over the next few years, the tournament grew bit by bit. A live auction was added, with Baldwin taking on the role of auctioneer.
Year six brought a breakthrough. Erik Anderson, president of Irvine’s Anderson Financial, told Gebhard if Stars & Stripes raised $500,000, his foundation would match it.
The event raised $1 million that year.
“That was our defining moment,” Gebhard said.
In year 10, Gebhard decided to create his own 501c3 organization, the Stars & Stripes Children’s Foundation. He then created the Knights, essentially a board of directors with nine members. It was a simple thing to get folks to join the Knights, he remembered. They had been coming to the event for years and had the same passion for helping children that he did.
Among these newly minted Knights were Baldwin and Anderson, as well as Charles Ruck, managing partner at the local office of Latham & Watkins, and Tim Ryan, then the president and CEO of the Honda Center, and now executive director of the OC Vibe development in Anaheim. Gebhard also created the Ladies of the Knights.
“My wife, Michele, and I went down to the event the first time as spectators about 18 to 20 years ago,” said Ryan, who also serves on the local Big Brothers board of directors. “We became deeply involved.”
“All the Knights are businesspeople,” Baldwin said. “We take the same entrepreneur spirit to the event. When you get a set of business managers, you sit down to plan something, you have a certain number of juices that flow. The event gets better and better. You either improve or you go stale.”
The event “has a way of getting under your skin,” said Michele Ryan, who recently joined the Knights as its first female member after being part of the Ladies of the Knights for years.
“I really wanted to help and saw how some improvements to the auctions could amplify the money being raised.”
She built a silent auction committee, knowing they could grow their advocacy in the process.
“The unexpected and beautiful result was how the committee members, many of whom were barely acquainted, grew to be friends and became connectors to the nonprofits,” she said.
“I’ve been in the event business for over 45 years, and [Stars & Stripes] is an event where so many people deserve so much credit,” Ryan said.
The silent and live auctions exemplify how the event pulls talent from across the board.
The Ladies of the Knights focus on the silent auction, securing a wide a range of items.
Baldwin oversees the live auction, which is now hosted by Sean Parr, the announcer for The Academy of Country Music Awards and the Golden Globes, who also acts as emcee for Stars & Stripes.
“Everyone works on getting auction items that can go for $15,000 or more,” Baldwin says. “We focus on experiences. One experience was a private flight for 12 to Arizona for a river rafting trip. That one went twice, so we raised $30,000.”
Other experiences have included driving a tank and spending a weekend with the Anaheim Ducks, flying with them to games.
“This year, the live auction raised just over $1 million,” Baldwin says.
It was around 2010 when the tournament expanded its beneficiaries beyond the Big Brothers organization to include five more: Miracles for Kids; Orangewood Foundation; Tilly’s Life Center; SBCS, formerly South Bay Community Services; Unlimited Possibilities (UP); and Building Baja’s Future.
The Stars & Stripes Children’s Foundation has a unique fundraising model that evolved over the event’s 25-year history.
“It takes event production completely out of the hands of the nonprofits,” Baldwin says. “That allows them to do what they do best—raise money.”
The foundation requires the charities it raises money for to be an active participant in the tournament by providing volunteers for the event, promoting the event and, in some cases, providing silent auction items. The charities are challenged to raise $250,000 on their own, and if they do, the Stars & Stripes Children’s Foundation matches it. In addition, any money that is raised by the auction items they provide goes back to the charity.
“Big Brothers Big Sister was the original beneficiary 25 years ago,” said Sloane Keane, chief executive of the nonprofit. “It all started with a dream, an idea and a credit card.”
Keane says Stars & Stripes’ support is integral in allowing the organization to function as successfully as it does.
“Our last building was paid for by the Stars & Stripes donations,” she said. “When we outgrew that building, we were able to sell it and put that money toward the purchase of our new facility. We would not have been able to purchase new office without that building, which was made possible by Stars & Stripes.”
More than half of the Knights have served on the board of the local Big Brothers chapter.
Miracles for Kids has been a lead charitable partner since 2010; the organization has received nearly $5 million in donations from Stars & Stripes since.
“It’s such a blessing to be part of an event that impact children like this one does,” co-founder and CEO Autumn Strier said.
For the last 10-plus years, all the money raised by Stars & Stripes for Orangewood Foundation has gone into the capital campaign for building the Samueli Academy, a free public charter school for all students that started more than 20 years ago.
CEO Chris Simonson has been to the tournament every year since Orangewood Foundation joined as one of the charities.
“You can’t describe it,” he said. “The way you ‘get it’ is by going. We’re extraordinarily grateful to have been invited 15 years ago. We love our relationships with Stars & Stripes.”
The Stars & Stripes Tournament is also an event for families—Baldwin, for example, has brought all 13 of his grandchildren to the event. Since the very first year of the tournament, children from the participating charities join in as well, along with members of their families.
Except for golf, kids can take part in any of the activities. They especially seem to enjoy swimming with the dolphins, Baldwin says. Each year, the even hopes to bring more children and their families.
Having Fun While Doing Good
From a fleet of a hundred chartered fishing boats taking off in the pre-dawn hours to live music concerts featuring bands like the Goo Goo Dolls and Rascal Flatts, the Stars & Stripes Tournament is, as Michelle Ryan put it, “just something you have to experience.”
For those who have, either as an attendee or as a beneficiary, such as the students who attend the Samuel Academy, the Stars & Stripes Tournament changes lives, participants say.
“It’s the most fun you can have, while doing the most good,” Ryan said.