Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Hitchhiker's Guide to the 2010 LPGA Schedule

I've been checking out all the reactions to the announcement of the 2010 LPGA schedule that google can bring my way, from neutral ones like Bill Jempty's, Ryan Ballengee's, Hound Dog's, and Steve DiMeglio's, to mildly optimistic ones like Brent Kelley's and Stephanie Wei's, to pessimistic ones like Mick Elliott's and Steve Elling's. I've also been tracking the fate of tournaments not (yet?) on the official list, like the very popular Phoenix event (which still can't pull together enough sponsorship support) and the Sybase (which suddenly lost ShopRite's support when they decided to go back to sponsoring their own event in Atlantic City).

So here's what I think.

(1) Michael Whan is one lucky guy. The huge bet ("all down on Wie winning!") which was the essence of Carolyn Bivens's business model may still pay off for her successor. As Brent emphasized, Marty Evans did a fantastic job of salvaging the 2010 schedule and it remains to be seen what else can be salvaged in the wake of Michelle's 1st win. But even if the LPGA ends up in the low 20s instead of the mid-20s next season, as Hound Dog points out is entirely possible, Steph's optimism for the medium-term is also well founded. Whan has the chance of a lifetime to be the white knight here. If he's the anti-Bivens when it comes to cultivating relationships with tournament organizers, convincing sponsors of the increasing value of LPGA events (rather than issuing ultimatums like Bivens did with the Donald and the ADT), and selling the LPGA as the premier global golf tour, he might be able to lure the Corning and the ADT back, pursue those international co-sponsorships with the ALPG, LET, KLPGA, and JLPGA I argued ought to shore up the spring schedule (the advice I tried to give to Bivens back in February is still mostly relevant for Whan's 2011 planning), and develop and enact a full-spectrum new media access/distribution/interaction plan to reach out beyond TV's dwindling audiences and bring new fans to the LPGA (on that front, it was great news to read in the press conference that J Golf will be launching an LPGA site in Korean; let's hope the LPGA learns from their global partners when it comes to using new media and taking advantage of social networking technologies).

(2) Is there a South Korean surprise up the LPGA's sleeve? I'm not talking about the Hana/KOLON event, on which Evans said, "With regard to Korea, we are continuing discussions with our partner Hana Financial Group. In the near future we expect to announce the specifics of our Korean event." Nope, here's what she said that perked my ears right up:

The LPGA Tour remains the preeminent sports association in the world, and there is no doubt that we are poised for greater things in the years ahead. Never did it hit me more than a couple weeks ago in South Korea, where there is a national craze for golf and for women's golf in particular, and where recession economics are perhaps a memory. There we're in talks with a number of companies wanting to sponsor tournaments.

Stay tuned!

(3) Rochester rocks! Now I get to bring the family to a major! I only hope Wegmans can outbid other potential sponsors who seem to be interested in hosting the LPGA Championship for the long term. If I'm reading Evans's circumlocutions in the Q & A correctly, Wegmans was holding out for something bigger and more prestigious than simply a contract renewal, and when it became clear that the LPGA wasn't going to be able to close any deals with prospective title sponsors this year for the LPGA Championship, they were able to go back to Wegmans with a proposal to turn its tournament into a major for a year.

(4) Don't give up on the early spring! It's easy for LPGA watchers to forget that the 2 LET-ALPG events in Australia are scheduled for March 4-7 (ANZ Ladies Masters) and March 11-14 (Women's Australian Open). This means that the LPGA's finest have 4 weeks in a row to start the season, as they move from Thailand to Singapore to Australia. And we could be talking 7 weeks in a row if the Phoenix event were able to be slipped in, right before the new J Golf event outside San Diego and the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills.

If the LPGA is interested in increasing purses, they should be entering into talks with other tours right now to lock in this schedule for 2011, creating a co-sponsored event with the KLPGA in early February, co-sponsoring Thailand with the JLPGA, partnering with every women's tour in the world for the HSBC, and doing what it takes to join in on co-sponsoring the Australia events. Then they have a block of 8 events leading up to the LPGA's 1st major. And if ADT wanted to step in with a kickoff event and HSBC wanted to resurrect the Women's World Match Play Championship, there's room in late January and early February to expand that block. And if a Hawaiian sponsor wanted to become the bridge between Asia and Mexico in March, there's certainly room to slide the North American events back to make room for it.

(5) It's high time for North American sponsors to step up. The LPGA has plenty of room for expansion in the U.S. in particular, as Mexico and Canada are more than pulling their own weight. That gap between the KNC and the run-up to the summer majors from mid-April to early June sure is painful, ain't it? There's also little rhyme or reason to the schedule between the summer European swing and the fall Asian swing, is there? Sure, there's room to slide the late-summer/early fall schedule back to make room for a Hawaiian interlude before the Asian swing, but the real issue here is the mainland. Where are the southern sponsors for the late spring? Where are the northern sponsors for the late summer? Elling and Elliott are idiots to blame the LPGA for having only 13 domestic events. Yes, Bivens screwed up royally with the ADT, but it wasn't the shift in date so much as the financial ultimatum that killed it. The real problem is American companies not being willing or able to commit to the LPGA, even when they've finally figured out they need to offer different tournament tiers. It's not the LPGA's fault American players aren't winning more. It's not the LPGA's fault the American media can't get excited about global stars and national heroes from other countries, much less the best pennant races in decades. It's not the LPGA's fault American fans aren't outraged at the media's assumption of their indifference or antipathy toward anyone who isn't American.

So maybe Bivens's big bet on Michelle Wie will finally start paying off for Michael Whan and the LPGA. Maybe American fans, media, and sponsors will catch up with the rest of the world. I'm not holding my breath. But I'm guardedly optimistic.

[Update 1 (9:25 am): There's more:

(6) Don't underestimate the power of the Olympics. The LPGA got to Rio well before the Olympics, so if HSBC is ever inclined to bring back their women's match play championship, Rio would be a natural site for such an event. But this is not just a retread of #1 and #4 above; my point is that there are plenty of opportunities for the LPGA to expand its opening and closing international schedules. With all the great Taiwanese players on tour, and with relations between China and Taiwan thawing, isn't it a matter of time before Taiwan/Chinese Taipei hosts an LPGA event? If Mariajo Uribe turns out to be better than Julieta Granada, as I believe she will be, why not an LPGA event in Colombia? Heck, if Ashleigh Simon ever starts living up to her potential, why not a South African event?

(7) What if the cable takeover of a network actually goes through? If NBC ends up under the control of Comcast, isn't that a good thing for the LPGA when it comes to getting onto network TV? And hey, I don't even have to have had cable to know just how badly Golf Channel coverage of the LPGA has sucked. But they showed what they're capable of with their Solheim Cup coverage. And they're going to pursue ratings and profits just like any other company would. If Michelle Wie is playing most every LPGA event in 2010, and Americans are regularly putting themselves in contention, do you think really think anything's going to stop them from making the LPGA the #2 tour on their channel?

OK, that's it for me. What about you? What you think of the LPGA's prospects for 2010 and beyond?]

No comments: