Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Whither the LPGA? Or, the Michelle Wie Effect, Revisited

There's been a lot going on off the course in LPGA-land as we head into the U.S. Women's Open. For those who need catching up, here's a run-down. What follows it are some thoughts on the issues facing the tour, and some advice.

Last week, Ryan Ballengee (following up on Beth Ann Baldry) laid out the effects of a terrible economy--and what's looking more and more like a terrible strategy from Commissioner Carolyn Bivens and company--on this year's and next year's schedule. Hound Dog considered its repercussions on the tour's rank-and-file. Emily Kay worried that even great play and great competition on the course can't make up for what's been happening off the course. John Strege collected Ron Sirak's tweets on the LPGA's gloomy outlook. Brent Kelley passed along the million-dollar question from a fellow about.com guide, "Is the LPGA dying?" (I put my own 2 cents in on the discussion forum and I encourage you to, too.) And Dave Andrews surveyed the most recent writings by Jim Gorant and the SI guys. In response (and anticipation of some of these posts), Stephanie Wei suggested we all take a chill pill, stop blaming the Biv, and wait for the tour to bounce back, even if it takes a few years.

But then the bombshell hit. Ryan Ballengee (again following up on a Baldry story) summarized the most recent round of now-confirmed rumors--that prominent players have signed a letter demanding Bivens's resignation--and laid out his own vision for the LPGA's future. Jeff Skinner thoughtfully linked the crisis at the LPGA with the debate over the USGA's new entrance criteria for this year's U.S. Women's Open.

So that's where we stand right now. I should have known something big was going on last week when I noted signs of desperation leaking out from LPGA HQ. Remember the heat they were taking at the start of the season for deciding not to go out of their way to hype Michelle Wie? Well, it turns out she may not have been crucial to their media strategy, but all along they were counting on the Michelle Wie effect to get sponsors, tournament organizers, and television executives committed to the tour. Just listen to David Higdon spinning wildly in the wake of the collapse of the Kapalua event:

"Why do we have three tournaments in Mexico? Players drive our business," said Higdon, referring to the draw of top-ranked Lorena Ochoa. "If Michelle Wie took off, the business model will probably change a little bit more and we'll be fielding more calls and options.... You look at how amazing Tiger Woods has been and what a draw he is. Of our players, Michelle Wie has that quality," Higdon said. "So we hope that she can develop because she already has that strong following. If she turns into a great player, it will be amazing for the sport...and those are the kinds of things that will play in Hawaii's favor down the road."

I can imagine how hard it has been to sell a bunch of ifs in this economy. If this is what Mission 2010 (or is it Vision 2010?) is built on, if this is the reason the LPGA brass decided to have so many tournament contracts come up for negotiation simultaneously, if this is why Bivens decided to take such a huge gamble, then, wow, she deserves everything she gets. Because this strategy had to have been crafted when Wie was injured, playing terribly, and getting lambasted for it. And she was pitching it while Wie was playing fine for a rookie, but only showing flashes of brilliance. In fact, it's only in the last couple of weeks that Wie has really begun to impress me, as she's played much better than I expected her to on courses that don't suit her game as it stands.

And that's precisely where things get very interesting. Is Wie on the verge of breaking through for her 1st win since 2003, as her supporters suggest? You can see now why the LPGA brass have delayed serious negotiations with tournament organizers as long as they possibly could, right? They're literally waiting to see what happens if the hypotheticals that ground their business strategy come true.

But whoever emerges as the LPGA commissioner after the ongoing power struggle plays out--and it could well be Bivens herself--won't have the luxury of waiting. No matter who sits in the commissioner's seat, the same issues will be facing the LPGA.

The Players

The LPGA attracts the vast majority of the best professional women golfers on the planet. Sure, a handful of KLPGA and LET players could do well on tour, and maybe more than a dozen of the JLPGA's finest, as well. Some might even be top 20 material on the LPGA, or better. Therein lies the LPGA's promise, and its curse. If even Lorena Ochoa has been finding it difficult over the last year to stay ahead of the curve, it's pretty safe to say what's defined professional golf for many fans' and sports writers' memory--the Annika Era, the Tiger Era, the Lorena Era--is coming to a close. Everyone is going to have to adjust to the idea that rivalries, not a single dominant player, are the wave of the future in women's professional golf. And it goes beyond the Big 6 I focused on last week. When the last 2 1st-time winners on tour didn't even make my top 20 of those seeking their 1st win as an LPGA member, the tour, the media, and the fans are going to have to learn a lot--and quickly--about a much wider range of players than they're used to.

But the LPGA is so much better positioned now than they were in the mid-to-late '90s, when new stars Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, and Se Ri Pak joined a resurgent Juli Inkster as the tour's Big 4. Back then, the media worried that Sorensam and Webb were too reserved to connect with existing fans or make new ones and that Americans wouldn't warm up to the furriners stealing their tour. Today, even taking into account that anti-Asian prejudice and ignorance of Asia is exponentially greater even today than what the Swedish and Australian Hall of Famers had to negotiate last decade, the fact is that information technology and social networking have made it possible for players and the tour to take the initiative. They can help shape the media's coverage and even bypass it entirely. They can reach out to bloggers like Hound Dog, Happy Fan, Golf Girl, Ryan Ballengee, Bill Jempty, and Stephanie Wei (not to mention others I follow in the Mostly Harmless Golfarama sidebar). They can speak directly to fans through facebook, twitter, and their own blogs. It's going to take some work and some creativity to take full advantage of these possibilities, but it can be done.

And time is on their side. There's a global youth movement changing the face of women's professional golf. Who would have predicted in 2006 that Ya Ni Tseng and Ji-Yai Shin would have gotten multiple LPGA wins before Michelle Wie? Who knows who the LPGA's elite will be in 2012? And who knows what kind of schedules they'll put together?

The Schedule

As I've already noted, we can expect to see more players with "dual citizenship" and more choices where to play any given week in the world of women's golf. Sometimes that can lead to strange decisions, as in the recent cases of Ai Miyazato and Sakura Yokomine each deciding to skip an LPGA major to play on the JLPGA. But overall it helps to grow the game.

And the players are ahead of the tours on this. With the LPGA's plans for a U.S. network deal in shambles, it's about time to revisit an idea I floated back in February: shore up the spring schedule by co-sponsoring events in Australia and Asia with the JLPGA, KLPGA, LET, and ALPG and shore up the spring and summer schedule in the U.S. by keying fees for tournament sponsors and organizers to market and population sizes. The only thing that's really changed since then is the need to repair relationships with long-running events and communities that have been put off by Bivens's hardball tactics. Whether it's a newly-contrite and flexible Bivens doing that, or a player-commissioner like Juli Inkster, or someone else entirely (what do you say, Annika?) matters less to me than a commitment by the tour to keep the Corning, Wegmans, and Farr going, reach out to Shoprite, and lower the start-up costs for those wanting to bring the LPGA to smaller cities with strong golfing communities.

To keep the best players committed to the LPGA, the tour brass ought to preserve old ADT Championship's qualifying criteria and format for the season-ending Tour Championship (unless, of course, they can get ADT back or find someone else to start the 2011 season off with a bang). Sure, they could expand the number of qualifiers in each half of the season to, say, winners of any LPGA event and those in the top 30 on the money list, and offer 4 more spots for the highest on the season-long money list who haven't already qualified, to expand the initial field from 32 to 64. And if they started on a Wednesday, they could use match play on Saturday to winnow the Sweet 16 down to an Elite 8 playing 18 holes of stroke play on Sunday for the $1M prize. Rather than fearing the "any given round" vagaries of match play and a shootout, they could use the uncertainty and surprises to introduce new players to new audiences. After all, if it were a season-opening event, they would have the entire off-season to hype it up and to prepare bite-size profiles of each of the competitors (and have more ready to go when dark horses emerge from the pack).

The chance to qualify for and compete for such a big prize and get such exposure would provide even more incentive for the world's best female pros to make the LPGA their tour of choice. No matter how long it takes for Michelle Wie to win once or repeatedly on the LPGA, following this plan would ensure that more media and fans would come to appreciate the meaning and value of her being able to defeat the world's best.

[Update 1 (11:31 am): Thanks for the link over at Devil Ball Golf. If you're not in the habit of reading comments there, or just want an executive summary of my own thoughts on where the LPGA has to go, I had to respond to Jay's teaser set-up, "Changes must come, sooner rather than later, and the one person who could save the entire organization is ... Michelle Wie? Read on and see if you agree." Here it is:

To be clear, I believe Bivens has bet the house on Wie--and who knows, the bet may still pay off if she can put together 4 good rounds. But I don't think the LPGA has the luxury of waiting for this to happen. Could be later this season. Could be next. Could take longer. (Me, I'm still waiting and rooting for Ai Miyazato [14 JLPGA wins] to get that 1st LPGA win, and she's in her 4th year on tour. ) Waiting and hoping is not a viable business model in this economy. So I lay out areas where the LPGA ought to rethink their tactics and strategy, short-run and long-term. Even if Wie starts winning, I'm not at all confident she can do for the LPGA what Tiger did for the PGA. So in my book, Wie is part of the answer, not the answer. No single player is going to be the answer.

Also, I encourage you to check out Waggle Room regular courtgolf's thoughtful response to (and critique of) this post in the comments here--and join in!]

[Update 2 (11:45 am): My U.S. Women's Open preview goes live at midnight. Until then, I recommend Golfweek's coverage and Golf Channel's blogging over at Shag Bag.]

[Update 3 (2:12 pm): Dave Seanor speculates on a Bivens successor and wonders whether IMG or the PGA will be the LPGA's white knight. I think the former is premature: Bivens is a hardball negotiator and isn't likely to be intimidated even by Hall of Famers playing hardball with her; it's going to take everyone on the LPGA Player Executive Committee acting in concert to oust her; and a negotiated settlement is just as likely as any other outcome, particularly with the money at stake to terminate her contract. On the latter, I don't see why the LPGA needs a white knight. More coordination with other major women's tours will handle the spring and more flexibility with tournament organizers will handle the summer and the fall. Bivens's bullishness on the LPGA for the long term is well-founded. All the LPGA has to do is survive for the next few years and let the players speak for themselves on and off the course. Stephanie Wei was absolutely right to stress that now is the time to lay the foundation for future growth.]

[Update 4 (4:11 pm): Steve Elling isn't happy with Cristie Kerr's refusal to speak about the Bivens imbroglio. I can understand the logic of the players leaking their grievances this week--Independence Day symbolism, media attention on the LPGA b/c of the U.S. Women's Open, giving Bivens a taste of her own medicine--but this is sure going to make it difficult for the players and the media to focus on the actual tournament at hand, particularly when writers like Seanor and Elling usually have so much trouble focusing in the first place. Plus, it's a potentially divisive issue heading into the Solheim Cup. I have to wonder if it would have been better to air the concerns privately and, if Bivens hadn't shown flexibility, go public to the Board of Directors after the Cup. Yes, that would have been a risky strategy, as well, particularly if the Wegmans and Farr organizers decided to call Bivens's bluff in the mean time. But it would have given the dissidents more time to lobby their peers and make sure the BOD voted their way. Given all the risks to going forward now, I have to believe the players thought the rewards were both attainable and worth it.]

[Update 5 (5:02 pm): Gotta clear up a misconception I'm seeing all over--it's not that the LPGA isn't marketing a wider range of players than ever before (just check out LPGA.com) or doing a better job of it (although they really gotta make every player's page a portal for finding out more than golf, like, say, links to their web sites, good articles on them from all over the web, and photos/videos, as well as for communicating with them). It's that their marketing's been most successful with local media--yet these are the very people who won't be writing on the LPGA if it no longer comes to their region. Yet another reason the LPGA needs small-to-mid-market events.]

[Update 6 (5:09 pm): Elling, take note. Instead of just emoting, Ron Sirak did some old-fashioned reporting, giving much-needed context on the timing of the dissidents' letter, reasons for everyone's (HQ as well as players) silence, and a sense of how the players on the Executive Committee may vote (5-2 in favor of the dissidents).]

[Update 7 (7:44 pm): I must be a bad writer; Stephanie Wei misreads my post in a similar way as Jay Busbee did, on the way to expressing more enthusiasm for Seanor's PGA buyout scenario than I have. So let me try to be clearer here: it's not that I think betting the farm that Wie would rapidly become a rainmaker vis a vis sponsors was a good idea; sure, it could still work out if Wie rocks the European swing and qualifies for the Solheim Cup (or is a captain's pick and plays great), but, man, what a risk! You can see the same risk-taking mentality in the decision to double down during a bad economy and pressure tournament organizers and sponsors to pony up more (and risk giving less). While I admire that bravado at some level, the tour could well be headed for an epic fail if Bivens continues to stick to her guns. I don't care who's in charge; I want to see a change in tactics and strategy from LPGA HQ.]

[Update 8 (7/8/09, 10:31 am): Baldry has more news; read it to see why a Christina Kim-Suzann Pettersen singles match in the Solheim Cup woud have an extra spark to it.]

[Update 9 (10:39 am): Joe Juliano reports that Helen Alfredsson (who's on the LPGA Board of Directors) knew nothing about this. The plot thickens.]

[Update 10 (11:41 am): Ryan Ballengee (responding in part to Seanor) thinks through the short term if Bivens were to step down or be forced out.]

[Update 11 (8:08 pm): More thoughts from Stephanie Wei, links from Geoff Shackelford, and a preview of the Open itself from yours truly.]

[Update 12 (7/9/09, 2:18 pm): I'm not blogging on Bivensgate until after the Open, but if Shackelford's linkage isn't enough for you, here's some more from Ryan Ballengee. BTW, the LPGA has issued a statement explaining their no-statement policy.]

[Update 13 (6:24 pm): Here's a more thoughtful Steve Elling.]

[Update 14 (10:37 pm): Whoops, Sirak trumps Elling, again.]

[Update 15 (10:42 pm): Hound Dog is back from vacation and has a response to Baldry's latest.]


courtgolf said...

Good stuff, TC, but I might take a different view on a few of your points.

Michelle Wie is quicksand right now. She turned her nose up at the LPGA, claiming that she was too good to play with the women. The PGA Tour was her "destiny". You can't base a campaign on someone who thinks they are too good to play on your tour.

She has never been a good comparison to Tiger Woods except to marketing people to appeal to the lowest common denominator in people and push their buttons.

Tiger was a winner - plain and simple. He dominated in the juniors and amateur ranks. He won and he won with flair.

Wie was a tall, cute little girl with a pretty swing and big dreams...but she doesn't know how to win. She didn't take the time to learn that little detail, and the ladies of the LPGA are pointing that out every week. Women that are 40 and 50 yards shorter than Wie off the tee are burying her.

The LPGA tried to build a campaign on Natalie Gulbis' looks and wild swing - but she still only has one win and probably won't win again. She makes more money away from the course than she ever will on. All she has to do is keep wearing tight shirts and short skirts, and occassionaly have a good finish to keep her endorsements flowing.

I don't buy this "anti-Asian" bias you keep bringing up. Advertising depends on being able to make a connection between audience and product. Language IS a barrier to that connection. You don't see Ochoa plastered on ads other than Rolex in the US, and that one commercial is barely understandable with the few sentences she has in the script, but I don't hear you complaining about an anti-Mexican bias. Sorenstam was a bust in advertising because she had no energy on TV. Karrie Webb was a "silent assassin" type, like David Duval - hidden behind the shades and just going about her business. Neither one was very telegenic for commercials. Webb made advertising money in Australia, but not the US.

The galleries cheer as much for JiYai Shin and Yani Tseng as they do for Cristie Kerr or Angela Stanford - but advertisers can't produce a campaign past the "these girls rock" commercials with women who can't speak enough clear English to put on TV and connect with the American audience.

I really like your scheduling idea that basically puts the best players on a barnstorming system where they spend a few months in the US, a few months in Australia, a few months in Asia, and a few months in Europe. If you only have 10-15 solid tournaments that you can depend on in the US, then spend three or four months in the US and move off the continent for a few months. I know it's tough to be away from home, but the European and Asian players manage to deal with having to split time between home and the US LPGA Tour.

HandWedge said...

It is really sad for me to see the LPGA in such disarray. I enjoy watching the LPGA tournaments when I get a chance and in some ways, I think the competition is much better than on the PGA Tour.

I strongly agree with the other comment left concerning Michelle Wie. She has been forced upon all golf fans and promoted as the 'next big thing' over and over ad infinitum. I am absolutely sick of Michelle Wie and it is to the point that I now root for her to keep failing. That is not what the LPGA is wanting in fans and if you talk to most golf fans (at least all the ones I talk to) they watch Wie to see her fail, not see her win. For someone that was 'too good' for the LPGA, I don't see her racking up wins on tour now that she is playing more often.

Scheduling is the biggest issue I have with the LPGA. After the great success of the Women's US Open here in Colorado a few years ago, I was (foolishly) looking forward to having future tournaments in Colorado. And exactly how many have they scheduled here since? ZERO. How on earth does that make sense? Granted, the economy is an issue here with some of these tournaments and finding sponsors, but it's ridiculous to not schedule anything here.

I am a huge Paula Creamer fan and I also like Morgan Pressel as well, but unless you watch the LPGA, you wouldn't have any idea who they are, let alone that they are professional golfers. The LPGA wouldn't know a marketing plan if it was dropped in their lap. Other than Michelle Wie, I guarantee the casual golf fan couldn't name any other LPGA golfer whereas they could rattle off the names of at least a half dozen PGA players. That has to change as well.

I hope something happens soon because I would hate to see the LPGA die.

Stephanie Wei said...

Re: Update 4: No, I'm just a bad reader. Goes without saying you're an excellent writer.

Stephanie Wei said...

Cripes. What's wrong with me today...I meant Update 7.

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