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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Another Word on Franchise Ownership – Beware the Real Estate Mogul

Building off yesterday’s discussion of the Phoenix Coyotes ownership mess, the problem is actually rooted in Jerry Moyes’ original purchase. He partnered with Steve Ellman, who’s sole purpose was to build a development near the arena. Another one of these grandiose retail areas that real estate developers sell the public on how it will infuse the local economy, however usually only benefits the developer.

Fast-forward a few years, Ellman builds his development, sells his share to Moyes, and eventually we’re left with Moyes unable to fund the losses the team sustained. It’s hard to know the original intentions of the owners in 2001, but this deal smells of real estate motives. The goal was to build and arena and retail development – not run a hockey franchise. And that’s how its played out. Maybe Moyes had better intentions, but without he was not equipped to run the team or finance its losses, at least without Ellman. Look at the Islanders, taking just as big a hit in the pocket, however Charles Wang is not running into bankruptcy court and causing controversy.

With so much power over who joins the ownership ranks, the NHL and every other sports league should evaluate the motives of the potential owner and the commissioner’s office should consider contractual obligations that allow the league to mettle in team business if a franchise is not meeting certain performance expectations. On the second point, it’s no different than operating a company, the board of directors are accountable to shareholders. In this case, the shareholders are the other owners and the league office represents them. A poorly run team diminishes the value of the entire league, while a well run team improves the economics of the league at large.

The first point specifically targets owners who try to use sports teams as pawns in a real estate project. Bruce Ratner is playing out this same game with the New Jersey Nets. He bought the team with the sole purpose of creating a mammoth development in Brooklyn with an arena, apartment buildings, and retail. The focus has been on his project, not the team for the past 5 years, as he has battled court cases, had his staff strike landmark sponsorship deals, hired and then fired a well-known architect, and for better or worse stirred controversy. Meanwhile, the team was forced to cut expenses and trade its best players, and is losing over $40 million a year. Admittedly, they probably needed to make the trades and start over from a player development perspective, but the franchise is in a holding pattern. Everything centers around “when the Nets move to Brooklyn” – the free agents will come, fans will come, profits will come.

The deal may never happen. Ratner reportedly wants to sell, another indication it will never happen. If that’s the case, they are stuck in the Meadowlands losing boat loads of money and have basically lost the last 5 years when they could have addressed the situation because Ratner was trying to leverage the team for a project to benefit his business.

Owners with real estate motives destroy franchises, then leave the problem to the next person. The franchise suffers, the league suffers, the fans suffer, and the players probably suffer. Given their control over the situation, leagues should recognize this type of deal and either prevent it or put stipulations in that prevent an owner from leveraging a franchise for real estate, ruining the team in the process, then walking out on it. The leagues should blame themselves – and do something about it.