Larry Bohannan, The Desert Sun
The desert’s PGA Tour event is bringing back a familiar name and an all-too-familiar situation: looking for a new title sponsor.
CareerBuilder, the title sponsor of the La Quinta-based tournament since 2016, is taking its name off the 2019 event. The 60-year-old tournament, to be played Jan. 17-20, will be renamed the Desert Classic, a throwback to when the event was called the Bob Hope Desert Classic from the 1960s to the 1980s.
With CareerBuilder’s departure, tournament officials say they now have a chance to find a new title sponsor that can help take the tournament to new heights.
“We are one great partner away from taking this event to the highest level it has been at in many, many years,” Jeff Sanders, the executive director of the event for tournament operator Lagardere Sports, told The Desert Sun in an exclusive interview. “The most important thing right now is to find that passionate title sponsor. Carefully make sure the title sponsor is committed, is all in and really excited about where this event can go.”
This marks the third time in 10 years the desert tournament has searched for a new title sponsor. Following Chrysler’s departure after the 2008 tournament, the event was played without a sponsor for three years. Humana agreed to an eight-year deal to sponsor the event starting in 2012 with the Clinton Foundation's involvement, but left after the 2015 tournament. CareerBuilder’s five-year deal started in 2016.
CareerBuilder is still contractually obligated to fund the 2019 tournament, meaning the event will still have a $5.9 million purse, will still be broadcast on Golf Channel all four days and will be able to fund its charitable donations which reached $1 million from the 2018 event. But Sanders sees a chance to start the search for what he calls the right sponsor for 2020 earlier than if CareerBuilder was still involved through the 2019 tournament.
“This opportunity came to us less than two weeks ago. I’ve had a number of conversations with clients of ours who spend money in golf,” Sanders said. “They understand the power of the business of golf. I have had fantastic response. I am not surprised. I don’t think that this property will be available very long.”
Sanders said CareerBuilder’s departure has nothing to do with the company’s displeasure with the tournament, but changes in CareerBuilder ownership. A Chicago-based online employment and human resources company, CareerBuilder was purchased in 2017 by a group led by private equity firm Apollo Global Management.
“That private equity firm has made a decision to not continue, which by the way happens all the time. This isn’t that CareerBuilder doesn’t like this tournament,” Sanders said. “They were bought. And their new owner, as a private equity firm, does not need to have a golf tournament.”
While not common, PGA Tour events can be played without title sponsors for short periods of time. The Desert Classic went three years from 2009 through 2011 without a title sponsor, funded by its own reserves and supplemental funds from the PGA Tour.
In the 2017-18 tour season, events in Houston, Fort Worth and White Sulpher Springs, Va., were played without title sponsors. Tournaments can’t survive long without a title sponsor and the money they bring to an event, generally between $6 million to $10 million a year depending on the tournament.
Lagardere and the PGA Tour are already looking for that new sponsor for 2020, and Sanders has a profile of a sponsor in mind.
“Ideally, the perfect new title sponsor for the Desert Classic would be a company who is headquartered in Southern California, maybe Northern California or up and down the West Coast, with a couple of hour’s plane right down the corridor, where they could access this desert in January, start their year, look forward to starting their year here,” Sanders said.
While the Desert Classic doesn’t have the advantage of potential sponsors with corporate headquarters based in the Coachella Valley, like FedEx with the Memphis PGA Tour stop or Valero Energy with the San Antonio tournament, Sanders says there are attractions to the desert tournament to lure a corporation to the event as a sponsor.
“Selling a PGA Tour title sponsorship in some parts of the country would be extremely challenging,” Sanders said. “Here in La Quinta in January, with all the history here, the built-ins, the weather, the courses, I’m not going to say it’s easy, but once Corporate America knows this tournament is available for someone to come in, we’ll have a sponsor.
"A major corporation to come in and kick off their year with meetings and entertain their customers with this pro-am," he said. "There is no better experience on the PGA Tour than the pro-am here, where you can play for three days with six different PGA Tour players.”
Lagardere took over the tournament operations from tournament contract holder Desert Classic Charities for the 2018 tournament and quickly instituted changes including adding two concerts during the week by Huey Lewis and the News and Goo Goo Dolls. The tournament added hospitality areas for fans on the 16th, 17th and 18th holes of the host Stadium Course at PGA West and reduced ticket prices to an all-inclusive $30 per day. The result, Sanders says, was selling four times more tickets than from the previous year.
“Actually we are on an upswing, we are on an incline,” he said. “Everything about this new model is working. We just ran into a company where the title sponsor got purchased. And when that happens, change occurs.”
Sanders said hospitality areas will be expanded for 2019 and two concerts will be held on Friday and Saturday of tournament week. The concerts are expected to be announced next week. Other aspects of the tournament, including the three-course rotation, the pro-am format of 156 pros and 156 amateurs and the Stadium Course as the host course will remain the same in 2019.
Phil Mickelson, who has served as the tournament ambassador for the last two years, will reprise that role in 2019. Jon Rahm is the defending champion and has committed to defend his title.
“The tournament has never been stronger and has made tremendous strides over the past several years, notably by elevating the fan experience through the upgraded food and entertainment venues and the staging of concerts,” a statement from the PGA Tour said. “The Desert Classic has a long, proud history on the PGA Tour and remains a highlight of the schedule. While CareerBuilder has informed us that it no longer will sponsor the tournament, the tour, DCC and Lagardere Sports are working closely to secure a new title sponsor for 2020 and beyond and are fully confident that we will be successful.”
As for the Desert Classic name, the tournament was known as either the Bob Hope Desert Classic or the Bob Hope Classic from 1965 through 1985, with Chrysler’s name added to the title in 1986. The Challenge part of the title was added when Humana took over the title sponsorship role in 2012. Sanders said the tournament board is happy to bring the Desert Classic name back.
“That’s where the brand equity is. It’s where the legacy is,” Sanders said. “That’s where everything is. This is the Desert Classic. It’s sunny skies with palm trees around beautiful golf courses surrounded by mountains. This is the Desert Classic.”