Rocky Times Threaten the LPGA Tour's Very Existence

Michelle Wie tees off at the Corning Classic in May, a tournament that has succumbed to economic forces working against the LPGA Tour.
Michelle Wie tees off at the Corning Classic in May, a tournament that has succumbed to economic forces working against the LPGA Tour. (By Michael Cohen -- Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md., June 10 -- Paula Creamer, one of the LPGA Tour's most promising young stars, is by now accustomed to arriving at major championships and answering questions about why she hasn't yet won such an event. But should she end that line of inquiries this week by winning the McDonald's LPGA Championship, she will defend her title a year from now on a course that has not yet been determined in a city that has not yet been selected with the support of a title sponsor that has not yet stepped forward.

"I am concerned," Creamer said prior to the tour's second major of the year, which begins Thursday at Bulle Rock Golf Club. "I'm 22 years old, 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."

The LPGA Tour is 59 years old and dealing with something of a midlife crisis, one exacerbated by, if not completely due to, the global economic downturn that has affected sports sponsorships at nearly every level. For the LPGA, that means scrambling to stitch together a full schedule of events for 2010 following a 2009 that marks a significant upheaval in the history of women's professional golf.

The number of LPGA Tour events is down from 34 a year ago to 29 now, and 19 of those are in renewal discussions with sponsors or the tour for next season. Tournament founders announced last year that because the LPGA Championship could no longer raise enough money for Ronald McDonald House Charities -- after generating $46 million over the course of a 28-year relationship -- McDonald's would end its sponsorship, and the tour would take ownership of one of its majors. The LPGA finally has a home on television, signing a 10-year deal with the Golf Channel that begins in 2010, yet it doesn't know how many events it will provide as programming.

Factored into that are social and economic factors that have the tour looking for new footing, discussing everything from where tournaments will end up to the countries from which players hail to, of all things, whether players should update their Twitter accounts during play.

"The players have to trust that the LPGA organization is certainly looking out for our members' interests, and is going to stage a great championship," said Kelly Hyne, the vice president of LPGA properties. "That's what we're intent on doing."

LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens declined to be interviewed for this story; she has publicly been optimistic about her organization's future. Yet after the U.S. Women's Open concludes July 12 in Bethlehem, Pa., there won't be a U.S.-based LPGA Tour event until Aug. 28. The top stars will compete during that time in the Women's British Open, now the year's final major, and the Solheim Cup, the biannual United States-vs.-Europe team event.

Sports marketing experts say the LPGA Tour is in a difficult position given the current economic landscape.

"All sports marketing initiatives have been reduced by clients, and it goes down the pecking order of sports," said Bob Bache, the chairman of Millsport, a sports marketing and sponsorship agency, who 35 years ago served as the tour's first public relations specialist. "The LPGA has been hurt because of the pecking order of investment by companies. It's a difficult thing when you're in the position of being not the dominant sport just within golf."

So the LPGA has begun to embrace unconventional ways to turn fans of golf -- read: the men's tour -- into LPGA fans. Part of the new deal with the Golf Channel will involve putting a microphone on one player -- this week, the remarkably charismatic Christina Kim -- for the first round of a tournament. On Saturdays and Sundays, the final two groups will be interviewed as they head from the ninth green to the 10th tee, akin to the halftime interviews Kobe Bryant endures during the NBA Finals.

Bivens caused something of a stir on tour just last week, when she seemed to suggest in an interview with Bloomberg News that she would be in favor of players using Twitter during competition. Players scoffed at the suggestion, and Bivens, in a statement released by the tour this week, said she was quoted out of context. But the incident put a focus on the LPGA's willingness -- some would say need -- to look for unorthodox ways to connect with existing fans and draw new ones.

"I think it's a huge deal," said Cristie Kerr, the 31-year-old Floridian who currently tops the money list. "People are really not watching a whole lot of television these days. They are on the Internet. It's a necessary evil. . . .

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