Thursday, May 31, 2007

The LPGA's Reality-TV Marketing Strategy

OK, so it looks like tournament host Annika Sorenstam really will be coming back from her back and neck injuries the same week that Michelle Wie is coming back from her wrist injuries to compete in the Ginn Tribute. I'm glad to be proven wrong on this! With 49 of the top 50 on the money list expected to play and $2.6M and a spot in the ADT Championships at stake, this is much more than a tune-up for the second major of the year, the LPGA Championship, the following weekend. Here are the links to the current LPGA Money List, Rolex Rankings, and the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, so you can see what's at stake for those currently ranked ahead of Wie and Sorenstam!

But this post is actually about one part of the LPGA's ongoing attempts to get some attention to and financing for its players and tournaments. I know Commissioner Caroline Bivens has gotten some criticism from both the media and good LPGA bloggers like The Florida Masochist, but I think this particular approach deserves another look. I call it the LPGA's reality-tv marketing strategy not because of the actual reality-tv shows, which really are silly, but instead because of events like the ADT Championship, the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship, and the Samsung World Championship, which are neither majors nor your traditional stroke-play, large-field events. And mostly because of the way the LPGA is dealing with Michelle Wie.

Let me explain.

I am not a fan of reality television and I don't watch it. But a lot of people do, at least by the diminished standards of success in network tv these days. Of course, as everyone has already noted, sports are your original reality tv. So it's only natural that a tour seeking a wider audience--and especially a younger, female audience--might experiment with bringing a reality-tv ethos into its tournaments as well as its marketing. When current players and future players on the LPGA are watching reality tv, it provides a common language of sorts for conceptualizing relationships on tour and between the tour and the larger sports/media world.

Let's talk about storylines first. Back in the late '90s, when Sorenstam, Webb, and Pak were the Big 3 of the LPGA, sports writers never got into this trio the way they got into the Woods and the Gang story--who among Duval, Els, Singh, Mickelson, Garcia, Goosen, etc., could catch him? Then in the early '00s, as it became apparent Tiger and Annika were way ahead of the competition, golf writers decided to focus on their record-breaking achievements and potential almost exclusively. In the past few years, as a large number of young players enjoyed great success, you could see the attempt to shape for the media profiles of challengers to Annika (rejuvenated veterans like Webb, Pak, Inkster, and Kim, young but experienced competitors like Ochoa, Kerr, Gulbis, and Miyazato, fast-rising young stars like Creamer, Pressel, and Lincicome; and, of course, Michelle Wie)--with considerably more success at placing stories about Americans than the many immensely talented South Koreans (Jeong Jang, Shi Hyun Ahn, Meena Lee, Hee Won Han, Seon Hwa Lee, Jee Young Lee, Angela Park, and so on).

So with the focus shifting from 3 to 1 to potentially many in the coming years in the race to be the best in women's golf, reality tv provides a commonly-understood framework for representing complex relationships and interactions among a large and diverse number of people. This is certainly more productive than, say, trying to spark a Morgan Pressel-Michelle Wie war of words, or a gun-slinging attitude on the part of Sorenstam and Ochoa: not interesting, not going to happen, and too dismissive as cattiness if limited to the individual level like these potential rivalries would be. The other alternative--appealing to nationalism (U.S. vs. South Korean vs...) or regionalism (Asian vs. European vs. North American players)--might work well if golf ever becomes an Olympic sport, but even then it would be too episodic to be an ongoing framework and too potentially divisive or open to backlashes against non-U.S. players if it were. In fact, the reality-tv framing of competition on the LPGA I've been noticing lately might even draw Michelle Wie (and future Michelle Wies!) into the tour. That is, as she remains mostly on the sidelines this year, she may get interested in the multiple storylines that reality-tv style framing allows--and want to join in the fun and be in the mix.

Certainly by already inviting Wie into the very limited field at the Samsung World Championship this October, the LPGA is sending a message that she'd better bring her A-game, because everyone is going to be gunning for her, for themselves and on behalf of the one person she displaced from the field who otherwise would have earned her way into it. And by opening to non-members the LPGA/ADT Championship (and its $1M prize to the winner in the final-day shootout after the field of 32 has been winnowed to 8), the LPGA has made it possible for Wie to play herself into it. Similarly, with entry into the HSBC World Match Play Championship based on the Rolex Rankings, the LPGA is giving Wie incentive to play in more women's events this summer (because you drop out of the Rolex Rankings if you've played less than 15 events in the past two years on the women's tours that are part of it). These three events are not majors, and only the Samsung is a traditional stroke-play event, but the LPGA is trying to get the players' and the media's attention with these different formats and the big prestige, big money, and big pressure that go with them.

Go read the interviews with Sorenstam, Ochoa, Wie, Pressel, Lincicome, Bivens, Suggs, and others to get a feel for what I'm talking about here--and how the players are negotiating it!


Hound Dog said...

I see your points about the tournament format differences and the storylines that mainstream media build on. But - call me dense - I'm missing the connection to reality tv, unless you're making some kind of reference to Big Break (which you implied you don't watch and neither do I). Not criticizing, just looking for more clarification.

I agree that the LPGA needs to do everything possible to maximize its television exposure. Getting a stable tv contract which prevents LPGA events from popping up on multiple networks at seemingly random times would be the first priority, in my opinion.

The Constructivist said...

But its a valid criticism. I certainly stated my central point, but never quite got around to nailing the evidence. I almost got there with the marketing--the idea that by promoting a (still-too-small) subset of players who could all become major stories in years to come, and by emphasizing the network of relationships among them and the stresses on them as they compete to be the best, the LPGA is invoking a reality-tv narrayive framework is almost stated--but my central evidence with the tournaments is not at all elaborated.

What I wanted to get at was the artificiality of the formats of the ones I emphasized (compared to the artificiality we've become used to). The HSBC match play is like the NCAA hoops Road to the Final Four and in its eliminations each round resembles a reality-tv show like Survivor. The Samsung is a traditional format, but by limiting the field so harshly, it becomes like The Real World in a way. And the crazy ADT format and winner-take-almost-all prize money is like an invention of an original reality tv show all on its own.

If this works, I could see a multi-media platform strategy with a network covering the tournaments in the traditional way, the Golf Channel focusing on the behind-the-scenes stories and personalities, and some kind of subscriber-only web site, complete with blogs, podcasts, and other player-produced material available for the truly addicted, to go outside the scripted frame narratives of network and cable tv.

But then I read a lot of science fiction and the Mostly Harmless Crystal Ball is cracked.

hound dog said...

I see your point now. They aren't exactly running away with the different formatted events - subtracting the majors, those three you mention plus Evian and the TOC in Mobile are the only exceptions to the 3-or-4 round full-field standard - but it does appear that player-vs-player is an important theme in many press pieces about the Tour.

As for your multi-media platform strategy, Bring It On!!

The Constructivist said...

Even 3 seems like a lot to me, given how the PGA has struggled to get the TPC accepted as the "5th major" and the difficulties of keeping the drama going after the PGA Championship.... True, they have a match play championship and the relatively limited fields of some of their tournaments and Tiger's WGC thing, too, but with the purses so much smaller on the LPGA, these 3 really stand out--and the PGA as no equivalent to the ADT Championship.

James Gregson said...

What is your email address? I would like to talk to you about this year's HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship