Member of the Los Angeles Angels

Sports History in the Coachella Valley Runs Deep

From the Showtime Lakers to the PGA Tour, here's a look at major sporting events that have taken place in the desert.

Maggie Downs History, Sports

Member of the Los Angeles Angels

Member of the Los Angeles Angels.

Something remarkable happened seemingly overnight: Our desert oasis became an ice hockey hub, with the Coachella Valley Firebirds playing to sellout crowds during a wildly successful first season. Sports history runs deep in Greater Palm Springs — and why wouldn’t it with the region’s unrivaled combination of fair weather, palm trees, and mountain vistas? The Lakers trained in Palm Desert. The world’s best racket slingers have battled it out in Indian Wells. Our verdant courses have bested top players on the PGA Tour.

Of course, it could take an entire issue to document the sporting events that have selected the Coachella Valley as a backdrop for their training camps and international showdowns. We’ve left out automotive racing, which first took off in the 1950s and includes such characters as Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, and James Dean. We’ve left out the USA Pickleball National Championships, which from 2018 to 2022 took place in Indian Wells. We’ve left out polo, which has drawn royals, including Prince Charles, for gentlemanly matches in Indio, and Major League Soccer, which holds a three-week preseason “invitational” at Empire Polo Club in February with 12 of the league’s 29 teams.

Consider this a sampling of sports that have brought (and, in some cases, continue to bring) attention to the Coachella Valley — and a celebration of the athletes who choose to showcase their skills beneath the blazing desert sun.

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Gene Autry (pictured in suit) and members of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team break a sweat in Palm Springs.


Major League Baseball came to Palm Springs by way of a singing cowboy in a Stetson.

Crooner Gene Autry, an actor and musician who appeared in almost a hundred feature films, was also a passionate baseball enthusiast. In 1960, he attended an American League expansion meeting in St. Louis seeking radio broadcast rights for his Golden West Broadcasters company. As the story goes, he unexpectedly returned to California as the founding owner of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team.

Spring training took place at Palm Springs Stadium (then dubbed Angels Stadium). The team never paid rent to play there, since the Angels turned a national spotlight on Palm Springs and lured enough fans to give the city a significant economic boost. In 1987, Mayor Frank Bogert said the team’s home exhibition games were “worth a million dollars in advertising.” The training also made headlines due to the team’s bicycle parades around Palm Springs, with players pedaling down Palm Canyon Drive, led by Autry.

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Palm Springs Angels stadium Spring home of L.A. Angels.

To house the players during the spring training season, Autry snapped up a local Holiday Inn, added amenities, and renamed it the Gene Autry Hotel. In addition to serving as team lodgings, the property quickly became a retreat for celebrities and high-profile vacationers. Now known as the Parker Palm Springs, the posh midcentury gem continues to be a sought-after hangout with frequent appearances in film, TV, and fashion spreads.

In 1992, the Angels held their final spring training in the Coachella Valley before moving on to Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. They’d outgrown their facilities. At the time, Mayor Sonny Bono said it would have cost the city $15 million to renovate Palm Springs Stadium to meet the team’s needs.

“Obviously this city doesn’t have $15 million,” Bono told the Los Angeles Times.

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The Lakers make a splash at the Ocotillo Lodge, circa 1980.


Picture this: You’re about to sink your teeth into a burger at Bob’s Big Boy in Palm Springs when the door opens. In walks 7-foot-2-inch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, center for the Los Angeles Lakers, along with Magic Johnson, MVP of the 1980 NBA Finals. There’s Jamaal Wilkes, who moves off the court with the same smoothness that earned him the nickname “Silk” on the court, and Mitch Kupchak, a 6-foot-10-inch powerplant.

That was life in the Coachella Valley throughout the 1980s and in 1991 and ’97, when the Lakers brought their preseason training camp to College of the Desert in Palm Desert. Starting the season here was a thrill for the locals and rewarding for the team. Over the first three seasons that the Lakers trained at the college, the team won two NBA championships.

“It’s been good luck for them,” then college athletic director John Marman observed in a 1983 Desert Sun interview.

Prior to running drills in the College of the Desert gymnasium, the Lakers trained at the University of California, San Diego. But the move to our valley was one that made financial sense, as then-owner Jerry Buss also owned the Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs and could house players and coaching staff there during the 10-day session.

Part of the deal with the college was the stipulation that at least one intrasquad scrimmage would be open to the public. Each time, the bleachers were packed.

The Lakers eventually moved on to other training facilities, including Loyola Marymount and the University of Hawaii, before making a home at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo.

In October, the team will make a grand return to Palm Desert with a preseason game against the Phoenix Suns at Acrisure Arena. Perhaps we’ll see LeBron James, Anthony Davis, or Austin Reaves down the street at

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La Quinta Hotel in 1981.


When International Tennis Hall of Famer Charlie Pasarell and his business partner Ray Moore purchased 88 acres of sand in the desert, the goal was to make Indian Wells as synonymous with tennis as Augusta is with the Masters.

It didn’t seem likely the idea would amount to much. After all, the world’s biggest tennis tournaments are located in bustling metropolises: London, New York, Melbourne, Paris. Who would come to Indian Wells?

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Jimmy Connors plays the desert tournament.

Hundreds of thousands of people, it turns out — 2019 was a record-setting year with 475,372 attendees. That dream in the desert ballooned into the BNP Paribas Open, known colloquially in the tennis world as “the fifth Grand Slam” on account of being the most attended tournament outside of the four majors. Each year, it draws the biggest names in the game, from Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal to Serena and Venus Williams and Maria

The tournament began modestly, hopping from Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, where it started in 1976, to the La Quinta Hotel (now La Quinta Resort & Club).

Having outgrown the facilities at each location, the powers that be decided they’d build their own. The Hyatt Grand Champions hotel (now Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa) was constructed alongside a large-scale stadium to host the event. Eventually that, too, was too small.

That’s when Pasarell and Moore secured 54 acres to build the world-class Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which opened in 2000. The tournament grew exponentially from there and was eventually purchased in 2009 by software billionaire Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle.

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Indian Wells Tennis Garden in 2023.

Back in 1988, Pasarell told The Desert Sun, “I want to make this more than just a tennis tournament, more than just a sporting event,” a mighty vision that came to fruition.

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Arnold Palmer with fans in 1964.


Desi Arnaz in ’64.


Home to some of the most legendary fairways in the country, the Coachella Valley and professional golf go together like bread and butter. So the launch of the Desert Classic golf tournament, which connected high-profile residents and visitors with the thriving golf scene, was inevitable.

When the Classic was rolled out in 1960, it was a bigger, more ambitious incarnation of the Thunderbird Invitational golf tournament, which had been held at Rancho Mirage’s famed Thunderbird Country Club; the new tournament was significant for being the first $100,000 event on the PGA Tour.

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Bob Hope and the Bob Hope Classic girls in 1971.

Established as the Palm Springs Golf Classic, the event has since gone through more name changes than Diddy. After legendary entertainer Bob Hope came on board as host in 1965, his name was added to the event — first the Bob Hope Desert Classic, then the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

Hope’s star power solidified the event’s status as one of the top tournaments in the nation, while his wide net of friends helped the accompanying celebrity pro-am attract high-profile names. Teeing off in the early days were Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and Jack Benny; professional athletes like Johnny Bench and Willie Mays; and even presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford. The Classic has continued to bring in the celebs even after Hope’s death in 2003. More recently, Jimmy Fallon, Alice Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Don Cheadle, and Samuel L. Jackson have teed off for charity.

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Indian Wells, circa 1963.

The tournament shifted format in 2012, trimmed from five days to four. It changed names again too, becoming the Humana Challenge, then the CareerBuilder Challenge in 2015 to reflect new title sponsorship. Currently dubbed The American Express, the event remains a lively part of the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing.

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The Coachella Valley Firebirds


Ice hockey in the desert sounds preposterous, almost like some kind of dream — but the powerhouse Coachella Valley Firebirds hockey team exists 100 percent in reality.

Based in Palm Desert, the professional hockey expansion team, an affiliate of the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, emerged on the ice in 2022 as the 32nd team in the American Hockey League, quickly gaining fans, winning games, and nearly clinching the AHL Calder Cup playoffs, which they lost during an overtime battle in Game 7.

The team has made history in a few ways: First as the inaugural professional sports team to be headquartered full-time in the Coachella Valley. Further, their home — the new, $300 million Acrisure Arena, accommodating 10,000-plus seats — is the first of its size in the region, elevating entertainment offerings for the valley (and beyond). During its first season, the arena booked top-tier performers including Lizzo, Harry Styles, and Chris Rock.

The Firebirds grabbed headlines again when they named Jessica Campbell as the team’s assistant coach, making her the first woman to hold a full-time coaching position in AHL history. (The NHL has never had a woman fill that position behind the bench.) In June, they smashed yet another league record with the highest playoff attendance numbers ever recorded by a single team. Attend a game, and it’s clear: This community loves the Firebirds.

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The Coachella Valley Firebirds made it to the playoffs, going skate to skate with the Hershey Bears.

Troy Bodie, director of hockey and business operations for the team, spoke to the AHL about the challenges of getting a franchise off the ground against a tight timeline while the arena was still under construction. Even through the toughest times, the goal of expanding the game of hockey to the Coachella Valley remained true.

“It was really a grind, but there was always this light at the end of the tunnel, which I knew the players saw,” he shared. “It was bright, for sure.”