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.


Sponsorship Mismatch

SBJ reports that LPGA sponsor Michelob Ultra is running a promotion to nominate the ultimate 19th hole bar via an essay submission. It’s a small story, likely swept under the rug, yet it exemplifies why sponsors rarely receive good ROI on sports, and leave me wondering about the brand marketing team at the LPGA.

Obviously, the sport is struggling, so sponsorship revenue is sponsorship revenue wherever it comes from. However, let’s take a look at this promotion, this brand, and the target market. First, not to sound biased, but I think the 19th hole concept appeals more to men than to women. Women have other interests, and view both the bar and activities after playing a round different then men, which this promotion fails to recognize.

More importantly, the LPGA player demographic has become more international and younger. As such, the sport has tried to target fans in those demographics, particularly younger women and children to help grow the sport. A 19th hole promotion is the antithesis of what the sport is trying to do, and who they want to attract.

The LPGA still needs to fill the beer category though. They have the right brand in there – Michelob Ultra – they should work on activating as a lifestyle, the low carb, low calorie beer, the reason why many women likely choose Ultra and a marketing concept that has proven successful with other products.

In the end, the promotion makes little sense for either party. It does not align with the branding message the LPGA is trying to deliver, and Michelob is likely running a promotion for a customer that is a small segment of the women’s golf market.

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.

LPGA Drawing Publicity, Can Bad Publicity Be Good?

Fallout from the LPGA’s language requirement continues to be mostly negative, but not unanimously. Yesterday, the first possible major repercussion arose, as SBJ reported that State Farm may reconsider it’s LPGA sponsorship as a result of the language requirement.

Wanting its players to speak English is fine, the LPGA went wrong by requiring them to speak English or face a suspension, and handling the communication poorly. The organization exposed itself to negative criticism by not holding a press conference, not addressing the situation directly. Instead, the press roamed, players reacted differently, and the entire tour came off looking like a disjointed family.

One positive, people are talking about the LPGA. It may be for bad reasons, but at least they know its there. It may actually rally support for some of the South Korean players. First, the LPGA needs to rectify its mistake, and make up for it by promoting globalization rather than stomping on it. Without foreign players the product would be in much worse shape than it already is. They should find ways to exploit the diversity rather than stop it.

While it’s still fresh and the tour is still in the spotlight, they need to rectify the mistake. Instead of requiring players to speak English, require them to take an English class. Provide a teacher or tutor to travel on the tour teaching English as a Second Language to foreign players. The only requirement should be that they try to learn, not let it have implications on the game. In conjunction, provide media training for these young players.

Down the road, they can become role models in the various communities the tour travels to for young internationals living in the States, opening golf to a new segment of the population. The tour can also open the door for more educational or social-based sponsors.

Right now, they need to make this right before it gets worse. PR is bad, some sponsors will eventually pull out, down the road players may start going elsewhere to play. Most importantly, the few fans it has may pull away. The LPGA has a chance to make the publicity good if it rectifies the situation soon.

LPGA Makes Bold, Reckless Statement

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Starting at the end of the 2009 season the LPGA will require players to establish English proficiency or face suspension. Golf, and all major individual sports, rely heavily on communication skills to engage fans and capture sponsors. Recently foreign players have dominated the LPGA, particularly South Koreans. However, the LPGA’s decision is short sighted, reeks of desperation, and will generate negative publicity.

Tour officials rode Annika Sorenstam for the past decade and counted on Michelle Wie to become the LPGA answer to Tiger Woods. With Sorenstam retiring at the end of this season and Wie just struggling to make cuts, LPGA popularity is plummetting. The tour recently cancelled a 2009 event because it could not replace the event’s title sponsor. Networks continue to cutback LPGA television coverage, and the tour has not received much interest in its attempt to bundle television rights for a national contract for 2009. This announcement says tour officials think that South Korean dominance has turned off American fans to the sport, and the only way to correct that is to American-ize the sport.

No other American league has mandated language requirements before, which makes the LPGA appear biased to an extent. A move intended to make the sport more likeable in America, may actually turn off fans that interpret the rule as racist. Further, if non-English speaking players begin leaving the tour or getting suspended, the quality of play will diminish. The LPGA will realize a lower quality product will hurt attendance and popularity much more than foreign player dominance.

The announcement is blunt and lacks the sensitivity that these issues require. If the LPGA wanted headlines, this will get them, but at what cost. WIll sponsors be willing to deal an entity that can be viewed as discriminatory? Will networks suddenly make room for LPGA tournaments? Sports fans tune in to watch players, not hear them speak. More than any sport, golf is played in silence. Outside of a press conference or two minute interview after the 18th hole, how often do players appear during tournaments? English speaking players is not the LPGA’s problem, lack of interest is, and that can only be fixed by improving the product and marketing it better.

A better move for the tour is to embrace the international flair these players provide. Take the game global. Follow the NBA lead in China, bring the game to new countries, to the places where these new star players hail from. Create a more public Ryder Cup type competition to pit the young American stars against the emerging sensations from overseas. Tour management should focus on the positives the tour’s current composition, not change the players to fit their ideal preference.