Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Whither the ADT Championship?

We now know who the first 15 players to qualify for the ADT Championship, the LPGA's winner-takes-$1M season-ending shootout, are:

Lorena Ochoa
Annika Sorenstam
Seon Hwa Lee
Ya Ni Tseng
Paula Creamer
Jeong Jang
Song-Hee Kim
Karrie Webb
Suzann Pettersen
Na Yeon Choi
Maria Hjorth
Karen Stupples
Jee Young Lee
Inbee Park
Laura Diaz

2008 will probably be the last time the ADT Championship is played with its current sponsor and qualifying system, however--and perhaps even with its format and prize money.

As Jon Show reported in the Sports Business Journal and Craig Dolch in the Palm Beach Post (and Ryan Ballengee has discussed several times), the LPGA is in the process of pitching a new playoff format in hopes of landing a network TV deal from 2010-2015. Ron Sirak broke a story in Golf World this past weekend that adds even more fuel to the fire: the LPGA is taking over the LPGA Championship in 2010, upping the purse, changing courses, and making it the final major of the season.

If what Show, Dolch, and Sirak sketch out goes down, we're talking the end of the LPGA's reality-tv marketing strategy--the end, that is, of using creative formats like the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship, as well as highly-limited events like the Samsung World Championship (not to mention the already-defunct Tournament of Champions), to bring attention to the tour's top players. And perhaps the end of the ADT Championship as we know it.

Here's what got me thinking about this, first from Show:

Plans call for a competition series that would exist within the LPGA’s seasonlong calendar of events. The series would consist of eight events, likely including at least one major and one event outside the United States. Players would qualify for a championship event based on their performance in the series.

That championship could be a new tournament scheduled during the first quarter of each year as a lead-in to the LPGA season. Sources said the weekend before the Super Bowl was being considered.

The LPGA-owned ADT Championship could be brought into the fold if the tour decides to scrap the current seasonlong qualifying system that culminates with the season-ending event. ADT’s title sponsorship expires after this year’s event.

From Dolch:

While there still are many moving parts, the LPGA hopes to finalize a deal in two months that could move the ADT to a spot in late January, a week before the Super Bowl. (There would be no event in 2009.)

Just as the PGA Tour shifted its Tour Championship a month earlier to avoid competing with the NFL and college football, LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens thinks it might be better to move the ADT from its late-November spot (this year it's Nov. 20-23) to January.

And from Sirak:

Part of the new LPGA business plan is to have premier season-opening and season-closing events. Toward that end, the ADT Championship, currently played in November at Trump International in West Palm Beach with 32 players competing for a $1 million first prize, will be moved to January beginning in 2010. Another tournament will replace its spot on the schedule to cap the tour season in November. The tour hopes to use ownership of the LPGA Championship and the ADT Championship as leverage to sell an 8-12 tournament package to a TV network.

The inconsistencies and unanswered questions raised by these snippets alone make me wonder exactly how the ADT Championship fits in this apparently under-construction new business plan. Dolch asked, "Will the LPGA membership want its money list so skewed with the $1 million first prize to start the season?" but his question assumes the ADT will retain its $1M prize and be counted toward the new season's money list rather than the previous one's. Sirak is reporting the move of the ADT to January as a done deal, so now I'm hoping the LPGA brass keeps its format and prize but counts its winnings toward the previous season's money list and comes up with as good a qualifying system as its current one. I'd hate to see the high-stakes nature of the ADT Championship go, especially if the plan is for it to be replaced by some ripoff of the PGA's Fed Ex Cup.

Assuming the LPGA brass sees things my way, I still have my doubts that a playoff series to qualify for the ADT Championship will select as well as its current "15 qualifiers from the first half season's money list and winner's events, 15 from the second half's, plus 2 from the entire season's money list" system that privileges those who get hot and stay hot over each half season but still gives a chance to those who played just well enough over the entire season to sneak into the field. In an 8-event playoff series, I can see extending automatic bids to each event's winner and to the winners of the major(s) not included in the series and leaving the last 22-31 spots for the remaining players who racked up the most winnings in the series; in a way, this will be fairer than the current system, since purses will be relatively similar across the series, but it will also introduce a bit more randomness by privileging even more than before those who play well in the biggest events of the year.

Here's how I'm hoping the LPGA playoff series shapes up:

Event 1: HSBC Women's Champions (early March).
Event 2: Kraft Nabisco Championship (late April).
Event 3: Michelob Ultra (May).
Event 4: Ginn Tribute (June).
Event 5: Evian Masters (July).
Event 6: LPGA Championship (late August).
Event 7: new end-of-season event (November).
Event 8: newly-titled ADT Championship (January).

Here's my reasoning: the Showdown in Singapore is shaping up to be an instant classic; it already is designed to showcase the best women's players in the world and attracted a major-quality field in its very first playing. Moving it to the first week of March helps shore up a shaky schedule that month (especially with the Phoenix event's future in doubt) and gives the LPGA more room to build tournaments in before it (moving from Florida westward) and after (perhaps by heading to Australia or Dubai before returning to the Mexican north and the U.S. southwest for April). Giving players more of a chance to tune up for the Kraft Nabisco Championship and building up a little more domestic anticipation for it, as well as moving it after The Masters, seems like a smart move to me. The golf media's blinkered focus on PGA majors makes the week before The Masters and the U.S. Open weeks to be avoided for LPGA majors, in my book. Plus it makes more sense to add a second major to the series than to count on the Ginn Open, which I'm assuming is toast, continuing, or to make a Pro-Am part of a playoff series. Moving to May, the Michelob Ultra is one of the players' favorite events and the last one in the month that can count on a full field. The Ginn Tribute, which I'm assuming will not be shut down in order to continue honoring Annika Sorenstam's career, is the premier event in June before the U.S. Women's Open and can take over the week vacated by the LPGA Championship with its move to August. In between, the Evian Masters is Europe's highest-purse event, balances Asia's Singapore event well, and is the only realistic event in the European swing to be included in the playoff series. National championships like the U.S., British, and Canadian Open are already big enough events on their own and should be included in the network TV package. To help encourage strong fields at the last one, I'd consider giving an automatic bid to its winner, too.

There's more to be said about the relationship between the playoff series and the rest of the schedule, but I'll save that for when further details emerge on the LPGA's plans.


Hound Dog said...

I like your conclusions. Though I doubt they would leave the British Open out of the eight-event mix, I completely agree that Evian would be the better choice.

I'm not sure these eight could be configured as a "playoff series". Most likely the qualifiers for this series would have to be tied in with the previous season's results. It shapes up as a kind of "Premier League" (if you are familiar with British soccer) where players get promoted or relegated from the elite events depending on some performance criteria. I don't know how that would get resolved with the current qualifying setups of the US Open, Kraft Nabisco, etc.

If they could get all of these ducks in a row, I'm pretty sure I would like it.

The Constructivist said...

I don't see the British or U.S. Open ever being part of a playoff, just because their qualifying criteria are theirs and they're not going to change for the LPGA.

On the other hand, I don't see why any event in the series would have to change its qualifying criteria. Keeping score could be as simple as adding up each player's winnings in the playoff events that they play. Those with the biggest totals (along with the winners) get into the winner-takes-$1M final event.

I think that promotion to "Premier League" thing works better for team sports, myself.