Teeing off in Detroit: PGA Tour comes to the Motor City
Quicken Loans became a PGA Tour tournament title sponsor in 2014 with the Quicken Loans National in Washington, D.C., but even then, the grand plan was to bring pro golf to the city of Detroit as part of company founder Dan Gilbert’s economic revitalization efforts in Motown.
This week, thanks to the tour’s new schedule and an unwavering commitment from Quicken executives, the Rocket Mortgage Classic debuts as one of the most intriguing tournaments on the 2019 tour. The event, to be played June 27-30 at the venerable Detroit Golf Club, puts professional golf within Detroit’s city limits for the first time and brings the PGA Tour back to the local market for the first time since 2009, when the Buick Open was played in suburban Grand Blanc.
While the new tournament is surely about extending Quicken Loans’ Rocket Mortgage brand, community development is a major part of the event for the company, which has a deep investment in Detroit. Based in downtown Detroit, Quicken is one of the city’s biggest employers, and under Gilbert, the company has taken an aggressive approach in redeveloping the downtown area.
Rocket Mortgage Classic
When: June 27-30
Where: Detroit Golf Club
The skinny: Rocket Mortgage is a brand of Quicken Loans, which is headquartered in downtown Detroit. Quicken is owned by Dan Gilbert and the company employs about 17,000 people in the city. Gilbert, who also owns the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, has invested heavily in the revitalization of Detroit through his Bedrock real estate firm. Bedrock and its affiliates have invested and committed more than $5.6 billion to acquire and develop more than 100 properties in downtown Detroit, totaling more than 18 million square feet.
Adding a PGA Tour event, company officials believe, will elevate the city’s national profile and funnel money to local charities. Because total tournament revenue is not yet known, officials are not disclosing the expected charitable impact, but local organizations targeted to benefit are The First Tee of Greater Detroit, Detroit Children’s Fund, Midnight Golf Program, Detroit Golf Club Caddie Scholarship Foundation, Greater Palmer Park Community and Community Solutions.
“We have been thinking about this north of five years,” said Jay Farner, Quicken Loans CEO. “D.C. was a place for us to start, but right from the beginning we wanted to bring golf to Detroit proper. Our focus is Detroit. We firmly believe that to have a strong region you need a strong anchor city. Having this in the city was important and it also allows us to have an impact.”
Securing a Detroit date on the PGA Tour schedule helps fulfill Quicken’s sports marketing ambitions, but with the opportunity also comes a challenge.
When Farner called Jason Langwell on April 30 last year with the news that the tour was coming to Detroit, the significance was obvious to the executive with Chicago-based marketing agency Intersport, which has partnered with Quicken to run the tournament. But so was the challenge of organizing the tournament in a relatively short runway — it typically takes between 20 and 24 months to organize a PGA Tour event.
“We were only 13 months out,” said Langwell, executive director of the tournament and executive vice president for Intersport.
It took only about a week to secure Detroit Golf Club as the venue. The deal was sealed in the basement of the Chrysler House in downtown Detroit, where Gilbert’s Quicken Loans employs some 17,000 people. Despite the rarity of holding a tour event in an urban location, there was little or no consideration to put the event anywhere else but the club, which is about nine miles from downtown. “It was, ‘Let’s figure out a way to do this,’” Langwell said.
“Once we got it done and approved, then we had to go into high gear,” Farner said.
Langwell immediately built a 12-person sales team and hired Global Golf Management to help with event operations, including tenting and other course build-outs needed to host the tournament. The club’s tight footprint added to the challenges. “[Global Golf] came in for operations support so we could focus on sales and marketing,” Langwell said.
The PGA Tour helped by developing a reconfigured 18-hole routing for the tournament, linking holes from the club’s two courses. A portion of the course was converted into a temporary driving and practice range, cart paths built and a TV compound created.
“The biggest thing is getting the venue ready to go,” said Tyler Dennis, chief of operations for the PGA Tour. “We quickly pulled it together and the club also made some enhancements. We built some new tees to lengthen some of the holes.”
On the business side, Langwell and his staff were even busier.
The tournament quickly landed two premier sponsors to go with Quicken’s title deal in Cadillac and JPMorgan Chase. Activations include a Chase Sapphire Cardmember Club along the 14th hole. Cadillac will have a courtesy car program, sponsorship for the Cadillac Club and Cadillac Fan Zone, and will display vehicles throughout the course. Cadillac also has a hospitality suite.
The tournament added DTE Energy, CDW and Delta Dental as other major partners. The total number of sponsors and hospitality buyers is more than 300. All of the tournament’s chalets, tables and other hospitality inventory is sold out. Interest was driven by a seating and hospitality space built between holes 14, 15 and 16 called Area 313 in a nod to Detroit’s area code. Hospitality offerings range from around $10,000 to $120,000, Langwell said.
“We increased our product ladder three times and we’ve run out of room,” Langwell said of the demand. “Area 313 is our signature area with a stadium-like experience.”
First Look podcast, with tournament discussion at the 15:50 mark:
The tournament won’t disclose ticket sales, but Langwell said sales are on track with expectations, with daily ground ticket prices that range from $10 for a Tuesday practice round to $55 for the weekend.
“The tour has benchmarks for a like-sized market,” Langwell said. “We have been able to perform at or above on almost every benchmark the tour gave us. We are confident of that.”
While the city has been quick to support the event with ticket and hospitality sales, Langwell has been working feverishly to attract a strong 156-player field. It helps that Quicken counts Rickie Fowler as a brand ambassador, and his endorsement deal no doubt adds star power to the event.
Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson also have committed, but selling a new event at a new course to the players can be difficult, especially since this is the first year of the tour’s revamped schedule that reduces the number of FedEx Cup playoff events to three from four and shifts the PGA Championship to May from August.
With a new tour event not only in Detroit, but also in Minneapolis with the 3M Open, the players are still feeling out which events fit their schedules. In addition, since the PGA Tour has not been in the Detroit area since 2009, there is unfamiliarity among the players, many of whom weren’t even on the tour a decade ago.
“The biggest challenge is getting players to understand the new schedule,” Langwell said. “It is an educational process. Many haven’t been to the Detroit area and have not played Detroit clubs.”
With 11 of the top 50 ranked players committed to play in the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the focus is on the tournament making a community impact.
“From our point of view, the changes to the schedule and the way it played out aligns very well with a Detroit event,” Dennis said. “Detroit is an unbelievable sports town and we should have been in Detroit forever. Then bring in Dan Gilbert and Jay Farner and what they have done in Detroit with all the revitalization, and it’s a natural fit into the PGA Tour with its charities. It has been a perfect chain of events to what will be one of our best events.”