The Phoenix Open is dead. Long live the FBR Open.
What was viewed by most as the inevitable came to be Wednesday, when the Phoenix Thunderbirds announced that Washington D.C.-based Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc., an international investment banking firm, had become the corporate title sponsor of what had been known as the Phoenix Open for the past 71 years.
In addition to the name change, the Thunderbirds also announced that the tournament purse had been increased from $4 million to $5.2 million for next year. The winner will earn $936,000, up from $720,000 last January.
Greg Hoyt, chairman for the 2004 tournament, which will be played Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 at the Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale, said the financial commitment from FBR will allow the tournament to double or triple its charitable contributions in the coming years. This year, the Thunderbirds, who did not have a title sponsor in place, will give $1.4 million to local charities, down from a high of $3.3 million in 1999.
In exchange for giving up naming rights, the tournament gets a five-year contract worth between $25 million and $30 million.
“As we worked through the (18-month) process of finding a title sponsor . . . we realized that the name was going to be an issue,’’ said Hoyt during a news conference at the TPC. “However, the FBR Open will be identical to the Phoenix Open.’’
Eric Billings, the middle partner in the firm, said what sealed the partnership was the community’s involvement in making the tournament the most well-attended on the PGA Tour, as well as an opportunity to establish it as “the No. 1 charity event in professional golf.”
“Nobody seems to do that better than the Phoenix Thunderbirds,’’ said Billings.
Hoyt said the new name was the result of skyrocketing costs associated with increased purses for the players, television contracts and other expenses, including $1 million for security.
FBR’s financial backing also will allow the tournament to regain some of the status it had lost to other events in the past three years, when the Phoenix Open’s purse stagnated at $4 million while nearly every other tour stop upped the ante to the $4.5 million to $6 million range.
“This should put us among the top five, excluding the majors,’’ Hoyt said.
That might be true, as this past year only the Players Championship and Tour Championship ($6 million each), and Wachovia Championship and Bryon Nelson ($5.6 million each) paid out more.
While Hoyt admitted that he “never had heard of FBR,’’ Billings said his bank, which has 16 offices in the United States and Europe, did have some experience with sponsoring a PGA Tour event in the past. That would be the 2003 FBR Capitol Open (formerly the Kemper Open).
“We stepped in at the last minute to back that tournament when Kemper (Insurance) pulled out, and it was a great success,’’ Billings said. “But this tournament was a better fit for what we want to accomplish. It’s higher profile, and the Thunderbirds’ commitment to excellence is in complete alignment with ours.’’
Billings said FBR is even “exploring the idea’’ of opening an office in Phoenix.
"Even though most of our offices are in the East, most of our businesses are west of the Mississippi,’’ Billings said. "Not having an office in Phoenix, that is a minor consideration. . . . Besides, January is a great time of year for our people to get out of D.C. and out of the cold.’’
FBR is the fifth major sponsor to come on board since the tournament moved from the Phoenix Country Club to the TPC in 1987. Dial was the original, followed by America West, Motorola and Xerox. Even though Xerox pulled out in 2002, it had remained a limited partner with the Thunderbirds this past year.
The increase of $1.2 million was the largest in total dollars in the tournament’s history, even though percentage-wise there were bigger increases in 1997 (from $1.5 million to $2.5 million) and 1999 (from $3 million to $4 million).