LPGA TRIALS AND OPPORTUNITIES
I love the LPGA and its amazing athletes. The women of the tour are as skilled at what they do as any sportspeople in the world. They show mental toughness, emotion, clutch play under pressure, endurance and fortitude. But the Ladies Professional Golf Association, like many sports organizations, is adrift in turbulent waters. Sponsors are walking out the door taking their money with them. New sponsors are difficult to find. To be fair, the LPGA has contributed in part to the exodus with some questionable negotiating tactics given their lack of mainstream bargaining power. The Association’s vision of what the LPGA could and should be has not always matched what sponsors felt the return on their investment was worth. Alarmed at the shrinking schedule of events for the future, a select group of high profile players engaged in a summit to vet the crisis that threatened to collapse the very existence of their 59 year old tour, the longest ongoing women’s professional sports organization in the United States.
Needless to say, there is an anxiety and fear that permeates the atmosphere surrounding the LPGA. Many of its players, management, sponsors and fans are very troubled trying to peer into the future but finding the crystal ball full of fog. When I first started to review ideas for this, my second blog entry with an LPGA theme, I found myself wading chest high in negativity. There is enough of that in the consciousness of fans these days, so I am loathe to add fuel to the fire. Yet, it would be naiveté to ignore the issues burdening the tour. Still, therein is the light. In turmoil there is an opportunity for advancement. Ideally, one would hope that positive change would be born of positive circumstance but maybe positive and negative depends on perspective and approach. To that end, here is my attempt at shining a positive light on the LPGA .
TOUR PLAYERS SHOULD BE MORE ACTIVE
When the group of LPGA players held their meeting during the 2009 Jamie Farr, the reverberations of that summit
were very strong, ultimately leading to a change at the top of the organization. This also spotlighted some divisions on the tour, as some players, current and former, did not support a change, believing that the group of players who gathered to call for, in essence, an impeachment and removal from office of tour leadership, were short sighted and unqualified to judge what it takes to effectively run a complex professional sports tour.
That debate can be waged elsewhere. What I find important is that players must take an active hand in their futures, particularly in a sport that highlights the fact that these athletes are basically independent contractors. Beyond that, they are de facto shareholders in the stock that is the LPGA. When sponsorship money walks out the doors, it is the players who suffer.
As the LPGA searches for a new leader, I suggest a special quorum of Hall of Fame players. I know the LPGA already has player representatives, but I would take it much further. Some have suggested Juli Inkster be considered as the next LPGA Commissioner. That seems like a great suggestion, but I would also offer Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Lorena Ochoa and Se Ri Pak seats on the first LPGA Players Quorum, with Juli as the Commish. All five are veteran Hall of Famers whose presence at the negotiating table would add a level of prestige and respect, with an already existing relationship with sponsors, that a corporate gunslinger might not.
I am not suggesting that all of those players need to be active in management on a daily basis, as Karrie, Lorena and Se Ri will all be active players in 2010 and Annika has many outside commitments. But Juli, as Commish, could handle the day to day business, with the others called in to aid in negotiations and sponsorship matters when necessary. They could meet as a group around the Majors. Also, it just so happens that each Hall of Famer represents different regions of the LPGA player body, the United States, South Korea, Mexico, Sweden and Australia, incorporating North America, Oceania, Asia and Europe. It was notable that when the English policy came down, clearly targeting the South Korean players, there was no South Korean involved with creating such a policy. The Hall of Famers could act as liaisons for specific groups of tour players.
If these ladies were involved in management, knowing that maintaining long time relationships is paramount in keeping the lifeblood of the tour pumping, I wonder how many sponsors might have been saved, how many lines in the sand might have been erased with mutually beneficial compromise.
PROMOTE A GLOBAL INITIATIVE
The complaints regarding the Asian players supposedly ruining the tour are plentiful in the niche world of the LPGA. But those detractors often overlook the money pouring into the tour from the Far East. Golf in Asia is a booming business. The LPGA should take advantage. There have been suggestions that the LPGA increase events in Asia, particularly adding an event in both South Korea and Japan. Most of these ideas revolve around creating incipient tournaments under LPGA control. What I am promoting is increasing partnerships between the LPGA and other tours to take events that already exist and give them more visibility and prestige with LPGA involvement, hopefully attracting more sponsors.
Start with building a relationship with the Ladies Asian Golf Tour to co-sponsor an event. A mini-tour, the LAGT has already been given a boost by building a relationship with the LET and having Annika Sorenstam play an event. Also, the LPGA could move to co-sponsor another event in both South Korea and Japan with the KLPGA and JLPGA respectively. Not only focusing on Asia, the LPGA should look to co-sponsor an event in Australia. As well as co-sponsorship, these new events to the LPGA schedule should be hosted by prominent players; the Korean event by Se Ri Pak, the Japanese event by Ai Miyazato and the Australian event by Karrie Webb. With players like Yani Tseng, Amy Hung and Candie Kung, the tour should probably look to play an event in Taiwan.
What is critical in adding global events is to make sure the Golf Channel is on board with broadcasting these new tournaments. They show delayed coverage of the Evian Masters, but often the tour goes black when the LPGA heads to the Far East. That is unacceptable regardless of whether the tour adds more events or not. Those events must be televised in the United States. The LPGA should negotiate to contractually have them shown here in America, even if it meant a tape delayed broadcast airing at 2 in the morning. You just can’t go broadcast silent during long stretches of the season.
The bottom line is that women’s sports is a tough sell. When the USA Women’s Soccer Team won the World Cup, many
envisioned the Sport Illustrated cover story win would propel women’s soccer, even soccer itself, into the American consciousness, and for a period of time it did. But ultimately, the national tour that resulted, the WUSA, folded. Basketball’s WNBA, the American women’s league, has seen teams go under, including the league’s first champion and dynasty, the Houston Comets.
There are exceptions. In women’s tennis, gymnastics and figure skating, women athletes are top draws. Names like Michelle Kwan, Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena command high marketing value. The LPGA does have high profile stars like Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis. But Paula and Natalie do not move the media ticker in the way Venus and Serena do. Michelle Wie does, but she must start winning to fully reach her potential. Outside of golf diehards, most of the names on the LPGA tour are not well known to the average sports fan.
What’s the point of this obvious observation? Well, another obvious observation. The last leadership of the LPGA had a “my way or the highway” approach. This was an absolutely disastrous tack. Like it or not, the LPGA does not hold the weight to play hardball with sponsors. They will choose “the highway” and not look back. As I stated at the opening of this entry, I love the LPGA and look at their athletes as having the same stature as any other sportspeople. But I know that no matter how highly I regard the LPGA, it has a niche fan base.
This doesn’t mean the LPGA should acquiesce to any demand sponsors make. What it means is that they must send people skilled at diplomacy into sponsorship negotiations. It is necessary for the LPGA to fight for terms that will benefit the tour, but not seem like they’re fighting, the art of fighting without fighting.
The LPGA is a wonderful tour with wonderful athletes. It’s in trouble. But it also has opportunities. I hope for the sake of the fans and players they take advantage of those opportunities.