Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Michelob Ultra Pairings: On Wie, TV, and the Future of the LPGA

I want to use the return of Michelle Wie to competition on the LPGA this week at the Michelob Ultra Open to revisit Mulligan Stu's instant classic from earlier this year on the LPGA's tv deals and pose a couple of questions to the golfosphere. First, has anyone read or heard anything more recent on the state of the LPGA's negotiations with U.S. tv networks than Jon Show's piece in Sports Business Journal? Second, has anyone been tracking the LPGA's ratings this season in a more systematic way than Steve DiMeglio in USAToday?

I ask because I'm wondering if there's still a Michelle Wie effect when it comes to tv ratings and whether Lorena Ochoa's quest for 5 wins in 5 straight starts has changed the kinds of equations Brandon Tucker's commentariat was making earlier this season. My position has always been that the LPGA doesn't need Michelle Wie to take off in the same way women's tennis did in the Williams sisters era, but I'm willing to follow the evidence on this.

I'm also wondering if we're in a "best of times/worst of times" moment in LPGA history. In his U.S. Women's Open preview, Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune offers some crucial historical perspective on LPGA purses, sponsorships, endorsements, and tv deals, as does Ron Sirak in this older piece. For a different kind of historical perspective, check out this golden oldie from Hound Dog! But he has also been sounding warning bells about the future of various LPGA events. Mulligan Stu has been following this, as well, in several key posts--and I've recently responded. For an optimistic take on the LPGA's future, see Ron Kroichick's piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. I've been optimistic so long, though, I'm beginning to lose patience. What say ye, golfosphere?

Well, that's a lot of links for those who haven't been following these issues as closely as MS, HD, and I have, but I'm putting them out there in hopes the golfosphere can improve on our efforts. In the mean time, I'll build upon Hound Dog's tournament preview and take a look at who the tournament organizers think have the best chance to win this week (and draw the most eyes to the screen). The strategy this week appears to be front-loading--the late morning groups going off the first tee lead up to some of the biggest names in the field:

Start Time: 8:32 AM
Stacy Prammanasudh
Maria Hjorth
Eun-Hee Ji

Start Time: 8:43 AM
Laura Diaz
Jee Young Lee
Brittany Lang

Start Time: 8:54 AM
Carin Koch
Young Kim
Lindsey Wright

Start Time: 9:05 AM
Lorena Ochoa
Annika Sorenstam
Suzann Pettersen

Start Time: 9:16 AM
Cristie Kerr
Karrie Webb
Paula Creamer

(Those last two are even more impressive than the JLPGA's first major's late morning threesomes of Ji-Yai Shin, Sakura Yokomine, and Yuri Fudoh and Se Ri Pak, Miho Koga, and Mi-Jeong Jeon!) But it's not like the early afternoon groups going off #10 in Friday's prime-time slot are chopped liver:

Start Time: 12:10 PM
Candie Kung
Mi Hyun Kim
Sophie Gustafson

Start Time: 12:21 PM
Jin Joo Hong
Inbee Park
Brittany Lincicome

Start Time: 12:32 PM
Christina Kim
Meaghan Francella
Grace Park

Start Time: 12:43 PM
Juli Inkster
Natalie Gulbis
Ya Ni Tseng

Start Time: 12:54 PM
Louise Friberg
Jeong Jang
Angela Stanford

Somewhat surprisingly, the early afternoon pairings off the front may be even better:

Start Time: 12:10 PM
Song-Hee Kim
Helen Alfredsson
Seon Hwa Lee

Start Time: 12:21 PM
Ji Young Oh
Momoko Ueda
Meg Mallon

Start Time: 12:32 PM
Hee-Won Han
Liselotte Neumann
Catriona Matthew

Start Time: 12:43 PM
Karen Stupples
Morgan Pressel
Nicole Castrale

Start Time: 12:54 PM
Julieta Granada
Angela Park
Lorie Kane

A bigger surprise to me, though, is the failure to put Michelle Wie (7:32 am off #1) and Ai Miyazato (1:05 pm off #10) into the weakest of the 4 prime-time quadrants (the late morning off the back one):

Start Time: 8:32 AM
Minea Blomqvist
Danielle Ammaccapane
Sherri Steinhauer

Start Time: 8:43 AM
Rachel Hetherington
Pat Hurst
Sung Ah Yim

Start Time: 8:54 AM
Silvia Cavalleri
Laura Davies
Teresa Lu

Start Time: 9:05 AM
Wendy Ward
Jane Park
Meena Lee

Start Time: 9:16 AM
Brandie Burton
Na Yeon Choi
Michele Redman

Nothing against Sung Ah Yim or Silvia Cavalleri, but they are neither veterans nor playing any better lately than Miyazato (much less media magnets like Wie). On the other hand, given that anything Wie does is news for the average non-LPGA fan, getting her round in early Thursday means that the journalists following her will need something else to do the rest of the day and may actually pay attention to the top players on tour. And if she has a chance to make the cut in her late afternoon start Friday, they may actually decide to come to the course early (I know, I'm dreaming, right?). Whatever the media strategy, it's certainly the right decision to make Wie earn her way into the weekend just like any other low-ranked player in the field (with apologies to Moira Dunn, who's another dewsweeper, just safely on the other side--being a veteran does have some privileges!). There's a clear case that Ai-chan deserves one of the prime-time quadrants (certainly more so than Granada, Francella, or Lincicome), but none for Wie.

[Update 1 (3:08 am): Ron Sirak made it through an entire column comparing the state of competition on the PGA and LPGA without once mentioning Michelle Wie. Nice job, Ron! Although there are plenty more likely candidates to join the LPGA's Big 3 than Pettersen and Kerr...!]

[Update 2 (1:48 pm): Hound Dog responds with recommendations to the LPGA on their tv negotiations. And courtgolf and Mulligan Stu vie for the commissioner's position in comments on the short version of this post up at Waggle Room.]

[Update 3 (5/8/08, 10:27 am): Ryan Ballengee weighs in with a well-thought-out piece on the LPGA's tv and streaming video prospects.]

[Update 4 (5/19/08, 12:25 pm): Ryan Ballengee has a sequel on the LPGA's Big 3 and its window of opportunity for a good tv deal.]