Tony Finau has played nearly 200 events in an eight-year career on the PGA Tour, so he knows what can make a tournament successful.
“What makes it special is kind of what happens during the week,” said Finau, a two-time tour winner and three-time U.S. Ryder Cup player who will be one of the high-profile names in The American Express in La Quinta this week. “To have concerts like that and meet the great people at the pro-am, it is a different field than most events we have. You meet people I have maybe admired or looked up to in music or the entertainment industry. So I have those opportunities during this event. And I love the golf courses that we play.”
None of the things Finau loves about The American Express can happen without the backing of a title sponsor like American Express. One of the largest financial corporations in the world, American Express has had two years as sponsor of the desert’s PGA Tour event, but those years have hardly been normal years by sports sponsorship standards.
American Express joined the desert tournament just four months before the January 2020 event, meaning most of the plans for that year were already in place. In 2021, the second of the five-year deal between American Express and the tournament, the marketing and hospitality opportunities a sponsor like American Express craves were wiped out when the event’s three-day pro-am was canceled and no gallery was allowed on the two courses used for the event because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It certainly has been an interesting two years in the world for all of us, hasn’t it," said Bess Spaeth, senior vice president, global brand media and experiences for American Express. “Fortunately, we have been able to lay the groundwork on what we set out to do with our partnership, driving fan excitement on and off the course and giving back to the local community.”
With fans back at the tournament this week and with the pro-am and two nights of concerts restored, American Express has its first real chance in 2022 to make an imprint on the 63-year-old desert tournament. From a major purse increase to a shift in the musical acts in the concert series, American Express is creating a new buzz around the tournament.
“Given the ever-changing environment, planning and preparation these days involves being more nimble than ever,” Spaeth said. “However, from bringing in world-renowned artists to elevate the long-standing concert series, to attracting one of the strongest professional field of players in recent years, we are consistently bringing to life experiences that show fans, cardmembers and the local community how we’ve enhanced The American Express through our partnership.”
Reviving the tournament
It’s possible to argue that the desert’s PGA Tour event might not still exist without American Express striking a deal with the tournament and the PGA Tour to become the title sponsor in September 2019. The desert event was struggling at that time, with CareerBuilder dropping its name off the tournament earlier that year as it ended its sponsorship deal early while still providing the millions of dollars needed to operate and televise a tournament.
The 2019 tournament was called the Desert Classic, but the local event was not assured a life beyond the 2020 event before American Express stepped in.
“They are a fantastic title sponsor on so many fronts,” said Pat McCabe, executive director of the tournament for management company SportFive. “We wouldn’t be here without them. We wouldn’t be here without their vision and guidance and desires to elevate the experience.”
The desert tournament is hardly American Express’ first venture into golf. From 1999 through 2006, the global financial company was the title sponsor of a World Golf Championship event that was played first in Spain, then Ireland and later the United States. Since then, American Express has been a corporate sponsor for the United States Golf Association, including having a large presence at the U.S. Open.
American Express’ impact on the 2022 event can be seen in several areas. The purse for this year has been increased to $7.6 million, up $900,000 from last year’s event that was played with no ticket sales and no pro-am.
The concert series also has changed with an emphasis on attracting a younger audience. That series featured classic rock acts in 2018 and 2019 with Sammy Hagar and Huey Lewis and the News as well as Stevie Nicks and country star Luke Bryan in 2020. This year’s series includes rock act Maroon 5 with lead singer Adam Levine on Friday and country star Brad Paisley on Saturday.
“When we became title sponsor of The American Express, we knew we wanted to bring exciting experiences to fans and cardmembers because creating these special moments for our cardmembers is how we show customers life is better with AmEx,” Spaeth said. “And we plan on providing great experiences at the tournament in the Coachella Valley for years to come. Between the concert series, on-site activations, and having some of the best golfers in the world participating, there’s something for all fans at this year’s event.”
Cardholders with American Express receive extra benefits at the tournament, from a 20% discount on tickets to special seating areas for the concerts.
Another key to American Express’ sponsorship has been local charitable contributions. With no revenue from ticket sales or pro-am sales in 2021, the tournament through The Mickelson Foundation, the overseeing organization of the event, still donated $1.1 million to 36 desert charities in November. McCabe said that was mostly because of American Express.
“They are adamant about small businesses here in the community,” McCabe said. “They are adamant about keeping money here in the community. That is super important to them.”
“Supporting local communities is a key pillar at American Express and the foremost mission of the tournament is being able to give back to the Coachella Valley community,” Spaeth said. “While COVID-19 caused the tournament to make some changes last year, our joint priority was still to support the local Coachella Valley community.”
For Finau, who is one of several golfers who represent American Express on the PGA Tour, what the company adds to a tournament makes the desert tournament worth playing.
“You kind of mash it all up and that’s the reason I continue to come back and play the American Express,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Golf: In 2022, Amex finally has chance to put its mark on PGA Tour