Jeff Sanders and his Lagardere Sports group keeps PGA tournaments running on time and smoothly

Updated: May 13, 2020

By Kerry Eggers

Special to Inside Golf Newspaper

For his work through 35 years in the golf promotions business, Jeff Sanders would surely be in line for a lifetime achievement award.

   But Sanders, 64, is only getting started.

   Thanks to an innovative approach by his Lagardere Sports Golf events team over the past five years, Sanders has given notice that professional tournaments are no longer simply a chance to watch great players hit little white balls toward flagsticks.

   Lagardere, which has offices in Paris, New York, Scottsdale, Sea Island, Dallas, Beaverton and La Quinta, California, has turned a golf tournament into a happening by virtue of a fan friendly marketing strategy that includes four “pillars” — food, wine (and beer), music and golf.

“They go hand in hand,” says Sanders, who has served as President/golf events since the France sports and entertainment giant purchased Jeff Sanders Promotions in 2013. “We deliver our sponsors and fans the best of it – golf by day, music by night.”

 “Our job is to grow the audience and fill up the fairways.  The best way to do that is to give people four reasons to come, not just one. If you feature only golf, you’re focused on just 25 percent of the potential audience.”

Lagardere now operates four men’s pro events — The American Express and Safeway Open on the PGA Tour and the Albertsons Boise Open and Winco Foods Portland Open on the Korn Ferry circuit.

In addition to world-class golf, the agency has provided top-flight musical entertainment at its PGA TOUR events in La Quinta and Napa, California, staging concerts after play has finished in the early evening. Among the acts to appear over the years: Huey Lewis, Goo Goo Dolls, Bad Company, Sammy Hagar, Jimmy Buffett, John Legend, Blake Shelton, Dave Matthews, Billy Idol, Rob Thomas and Weezer. 

At La Quinta in January, huge crowds packed the driving range at PGA West to watch shows by stars  Luke Bryan (26,000) and Stevie Nicks (20,000) after the golf had ended for the day. “Two of the largest crowds we’ve had,” Sanders says. 

That translates, of course, into an awful lot of people being exposed to the game of golf who might not otherwise. It’s the prime example why Lagardere has become the industry leader in adapting tournaments to a festival model that has increased attendance, generated large sums of money for charity and has helped grow interest in the sport. 

Sanders has used a similar approach at his Pacific Northwest Korn Ferry Tour events, which has not escaped those running the TOUR. In a recent interview with the Desert Sun newspaper, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan called Sanders “an extraordinary executive director.”

“I’m a big fan of Jeff Sanders,” says Alex Baldwin, president of the Korn Ferry Tour. “He has been a major contributor to the golf industry and a tremendous partner of the Korn Ferry and PGA TOURS. Lagardere is an exceptional company. Their events are at the top of the list.

“I’m so proud of all Jeff has done for the communities and charities that have benefitted from his tournaments. He has made huge contributions in creating high impact with fans. It’s been terrific to see the strong charitable returns and the engagement with the community.”

Through the years, Sanders’ events have contributed nearly $150 million to charities. That includes over $27 million with the Albertsons Boise Open and $7.5 million with the Winco Foods Portland Open. 

Sanders entered the sports promotions business after a five-year career on the PGA Tour. In 1986, the Beaverton native and Portland resident was in charge of the sales and marketing for the very first Fred Meyer Challenge, a two-day Portland charity event that featured some of the great players in golf history.

“That was my entry into the golf event business,” says Sanders, who founded Jeff Sanders Promotions the following year.

That initially meant handling sales for various sporting entities such as the Portland Indy Car races, the Far West Basketball Classic and the Portland Pride indoor soccer team. Sanders also worked with Norm Daniels and the G.I. Joe’s Northwest Open Golf Tournament and founded a TV golf show called the “Payless Oregon Team Championships,” which featured three-player teams from public and private clubs squaring off each week on television. 

That eventually became the Albertsons Team Championships and was televised throughout a dozen Western states. It lasted about 20 years.

Soon, Sanders says, “I realized golf events were my passion. We went away from doing other sporting events and focused 100 percent on golf.” His team produced two historic USGA Championships at Pumpkin Ridge. The 1996 US Amateur won by Tiger Woods and the 1997 US Women’s Open. 

Sanders did it well, for many years.

 “We wanted to be known for producing the best golf events in the country,” he says. “We wanted to focus on being recognized as the best by our customers and peers. I’ve always wanted our events to be the best they can be. We get up every day with the goal to be the best, and also to be innovative and creative, to take risk and try some new exciting things. That’s what’s been motivating us lately.”

The worm turned in 2015 when old friend Johnny Miller called to ask if he had interest in running a PGA TOUR event in Napa. The Hall of Famer is part owner at Napa’s Silverado Resort and Spa. Sanders agreed if Miller would serve as tournament host.

   Sanders then met with former Albertsons Chairman & CEO Bob Miller to brainstorm over a unique approach to what would become the Safeway Open. (Albertsons had purchased Safeway, the dominant grocery retailer in northern California.)

“We wanted to tap into the authenticity of Napa,” Sanders said. “At Safeway, food is their priority, and they sell a lot of wine. Food and Wine are big in Napa, and so is music. It was the perfect match.”

Bottle Rock Napa Valley is an annual musical festival, last year featuring such acts as Santana, Neil Young, Pharrell Williams and Imagine Dragons.

 “Music is a big part of the Napa Valley,” Sanders says. “We decided to combine food, wine, music and golf, featuring great golf in the day and great music at night at the most affordable prices. The attendance has grown every year.”

In 2018, Sanders and team took on the tournament that is now known as The American Express at PGA West. Phil Mickelson is the tournament host in the event that was for many years the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Sanders has used the Napa model to great success. The event has new energy and the attendance is up five-fold in three years. 

“We believe in giving our fans tremendous value,” Sanders says. “That comes from the four marketing pillars and one ticket for everything.”

Sanders lavishes praise on his Lagardere team, which features 25 employees.

“I believe we have the best team in the golf event business,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade one player on my team for anybody. They are that good. They have exceeded my expectations every time out.”

But ramifications to the coronavirus pandemic will test their mettle. Lagardere must stage three tournaments — the Safeway Open, the Albertsons Boise Open and the Winco Foods Portland Open — over a five-week period in late summer.  

“It will be the biggest challenge our team has experienced since I’ve been in the business,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ Lagardere team is working on three models for the events — (1) with fans and a two-day pro-am, (2) with fans but no pro-am and (3) a pro-am but no fans. Then there is the question whether or not the tournament proper will be staged with or without an audience.

“We have to be prepared for whatever they throw at us,” Sanders said. “We may not know until a few weeks before each event. We have three lanes in the road and have to take whichever lane we’re given.”

Baldwin said in late April that the PGA and Korn Ferry Tours would soon unveil a plan “to bring those events to fruition safely.” That will be just fine with Sanders.

“We pride ourselves in being prepared,” the golf impresario says. 

“We’re going to be prepared. It’s a huge challenge for us even without the pandemic. Add that and it makes it the biggest challenge ever.”