LPGA Needs Visionary Leader and Game Changing Support

It’s not often that an entire league of players unifies against a commissioner without any intermediary coming to the latter’s defense. Usually these disputes have two sides. Not so here, Carolyn Bivens performed so poorly nobody could logically defend her. She leaves the tour in a vulnerable situation heading into 2010 with major questions surrounding its schedule, lack of interested sponsors, and dwindling fan support – among other problems.

Bivens situation played out quickly in the end, an immediate resignation avoided another negative situation for the tour. Now the hard part. The next commissioner steps into a make or break situation. How the next year or so plays out for the LPGA will determine if it survives as a major sport in the next 5-10 years.

Many quality people are in the running for the job now occupied by acting commissioner Marty Evans – Donna Orender and Cindy Davis among them. However, does the next commissioner need to be a woman? Although it makes sense to have a powerful woman as the face of a woman’s sport, last check Larry Scott did a pretty good job with the WTA. The tour needs someone with a plan, someone with a track record of action and decisiveness, and most importantly a charismatic commissioner that can sell the sport to sponsors and sell the plan to players. It does not need to be a woman.

Looking at the current LPGA situation analogous to past labor disputes in major sports, in this case the players and leadership acting as the league side and the title sponsors, advertisers, and fans as the union. Before making any progress with sponsors and fans, the league side needs to get on the same page. The next commissioner needs to come in, get the players – past and present – in a room and create a plan by soliciting input from everyone. The tour must present a unified front and execute it. In-fighting shows weakness and creates a negative public perception. The player language issues, Twitter, you name it, Bivens presented her stance, then almost immediately most players disagreed with her. That must stop.

From the outside, Bivens seemed brash and approached negotiations from a controversial, adversarial perspective. That does not fly in today’s market, nor is the LPGA, without a strong national TV deal or tremendous fan support, in position to dictate terms. The next commissioner needs to develop a partnership model that adds value to the tournament sponsorship, find ways to manage costs more efficiently, not impose increased purses and production costs on tournaments without providing more value. They have multiple routes to achieve this. One such idea is to make the tour a platform for woman that transcends golf. Specifically target the entire female demo with different initiatives for young woman, adults, and older woman. The key is taking it beyond the sport. While promoting the sport, the fan base must exceed the participation numbers. Further, creating this platform that woman can rally around gives sponsors a marketing tool to reach the target demo and showcase products.

The tour needs to act quick and decisively in selecting the commissioner, then the commish needs to do the same when taking office. Pumping life back into the tour will take a concerted effort by everyone involved, but its not out of the realm.

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Twitter-LPGA Debate Misguided, Focus Should Be On Fans

Thus far, the debate on LPGA players tweeting during tournaments has focused on the divergent views of Commissioner Carolyn Bivens desire to have players actively messaging on the course and the players and media outspoken refusal to tweet during competition. However, the real underlying question is if players tweeting on the course can move the needle for a sport quickly moving toward absolute irrelevancy.

The LPGA tour is at a crossroads. They did sign a television deal earlier this year, but a small one at that without wide reach. Multiple tournaments have lost sponsors for this year or the coming year and been cancelled, with many more at risk. Television ratings barely register – if you can even find them on television, as the costs far outweigh the benefits.

Women’s golf lacks the Q rating that individual sports thrive on – the Williams sisters, Sharapova, Tiger, Federer. Michelle Wie was anointed that person, but has failed thus far.

Back to Twitter. Bivens is desperate to do anything to make the tour relevant and to gain attention. While most leagues have sampled the social media tool, she outwardly called for its use, embracing in hopes to win over fans. The question remains though, can Twitter, or any other social media platform, make the LPGA relevant?

No proof exists that it can. Bivens assumes more people will consume LPGA golf if the players are more accessible and bring fans behind the scenes more than other sports. That may be true, however it will not work in and of itself. A strong grassroots and digital marketing campaign needs to accompany Twitter. The players and tour do not have a strong enough presence in the online world yet.

Twitter is a social phenomenon at this point, nothing more. It has not YET proven its business merit, or ability to boost sales, or increase popularity. Most people are following celebrities, or people they already knew. It’s not opening the door to new products or reinvigorating brands.

On the flip side, no players on the LPGA tour should adamantly refuse to do anything at this point. The sport is on life-support. That’s your prize money, your job, your life, you should be willing to do anything and everything when the environment threatens it. Players need to keep an open mind.

Social media is all about interaction and innovation. The LPGA needs both in a desperate way – but it needs a lot more, and it needs it quick. Twitter is a complementary utility, not the core of any strategy. I’m sure the commissioner understands that and wasn’t implying otherwise with her comment, however the visible actions of the tour have not proven otherwise. Bottom line, they need to do more than Tweet.