Major concerns with McDonald's ending LPGA sponsorship
HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - Nobody said progress must necessarily move along a straight line. Last June, LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens announced that the organization would assume control of its flagship event, the LPGA Championship, beginning in 2010. She added that there would no longer be a title sponsor (in this case, McDonald's). There would be only a presenting sponsor, and the tournament was moving following a 5-year run at Bulle Rock.
HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - Nobody said progress must necessarily move along a straight line.
Last June, LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens announced that the organization would assume control of its flagship event, the LPGA Championship, beginning in 2010. She added that there would no longer be a title sponsor (in this case, McDonald's). There would be only a presenting sponsor, and the tournament was moving following a 5-year run at Bulle Rock.
But 12 months have gone by and there has been nothing but silence when it comes to what the future holds. As you might expect, that is not exactly welcome news among the membership.
"Yes, I am concerned," said Paula Creamer, no doubt echoing the sentiments of the majority. "This is my fifth year on tour and we don't know where one of our majors is going to be. It's a scary thought, but hopefully everything will fall into the right place.
"There's only so much we can do, and we'll see what happens."
David Higdon, the LPGA's chief communications officer, certainly understands the fear of the unknown. Yet he remains confident that when enough answers are finally forthcoming - which should be November, along with the rest of next season's schedule - things will indeed make sense as the women's game moves forward in the post-Annika Sorenstam era.
Doesn't make the wait any less stressful.
"We're getting a lot of interest from venues and a lot of interest from sponsors," Higdon said yesterday, on the eve of the first round of the year's second major. "We have to figure out a way to marry those two. Ultimately, we need to have them come together.
"We have absolutely no regrets. At the same time, there's much more risk than there was a year ago. So we have to be more flexible. Things have really changed since last year, as far as what week or what part of the country. Maybe we'll get everything we want. Or maybe not. But we're very much at the point where this needs to be our flagship event."
Fair enough. It's not as if the LPGA is the only entity, sports or otherwise, facing any number of issues. Timing obviously factors into the equation. Of the 29 events on this season's LPGA schedule, 19 contracts are up for renewal. Higdon says 14 of those should be back. Perhaps more. That still leaves voids to be addressed. Or there might be more off weeks than tournaments.
"There's definitely a level of concern for everyone [in this economy], whether it's your mortgage that you're looking at or your strong portfolio or your bank account or how many tournaments are up for renewal," said Cristie Kerr, this season's money leader through 11 events, at $776,753. "I think it's on everybody's minds, and everybody is wondering where the bottom is going to come.
"We, as players, have to do everything we can to try and help those tournaments that are up for renewal to tip them over the edge to come back. I mean, those are the things we can control. But it can be pretty overwhelming thinking about it. I've been trying to do my part, and I know everybody out here has. We [have to] trust the organization to take care of the rest."
Next year, the LPGA will begin a 10-year exclusive cable partnership with the Golf Channel. It's also signed a 5-year television deal in Korea with JoongAng Broadcasting Corp., which will underwrite an event in the Los Angeles area. This season, 11 tournaments are being held outside of the United States. That number will likely increase, probably sooner than later. The LPGA has nearly 50 Korean players. They've won a lot of tournaments, including majors. It's a global tour now. But how well does that sell in America? Or does it matter?
By the way, no American has been the player of the year since Beth Daniel in 1994.
"Our fan base has become worldwide," said Daniel, who is part of Golf Channel's broadcast team this week. "You have to consider that. I don't believe the LPGA will fail if an American's not the face of the tour. Some might believe it does, but I think it's a cop-out. If Korea produces the best players, more power to Korea."
Added Higdon: "The benefits [of globalization] far outweigh the negatives. I know there are naysayers. But we feel pretty good about where we're [positioned]."
It's also about identifying your customers and selling a product. The LPGA doesn't have Tiger Woods. But who does? Maybe someone like Michelle Wie could indeed emerge to make life in these transitional times - and beyond - a little less cautionary.
Or even a lot.
"I feel there needs to be a dynamic personality that people can relate to," Daniel said. "I don't think it matters where she's from. It's not easy being the face of the tour. That'll make a difference. But bigger picture, a sponsor still wants to know what he's getting out of it for the money."
It doesn't get much more bottom line than that. And if that's the case, then Higdon believes he's dealing from strength.
"It's not tough for me to be optimistic, because the product's as good as it's ever been," he insisted. "It's not something that's flawed. We have to turn golf fans into LPGA fans. The Golf Channel will allow us to do that, on a bigger scale . . .
"We all have to do more. How do we make this work in tough times? That's the message we delivered to our players at our summit 2 months ago. It's not like we're trying to market something that's not great, even in a recession. At least we're having conversations [with sponsors]. We're getting in the door.
"A year ago, we weren't."
So, what will the next year bring? *