2006: Q&A with commissioner Carolyn Bivens
Carolyn Vesper Bivens, 53, is beginning her first full year as LPGA commissioner. Her reign as the tour’s first female commissioner (its seventh overall) began in September, and she has been on the run since. Senior writer Jay A. Coffin caught up with Bivens recently to get an update on her game, and more important, her plans for the LPGA.
Golfweek: Life must be pretty chaotic as commissioner. Have you had a chance to work on your game?
Carolyn Bivens: I’ve hit two balls. I hit one in South Korea to start the CJ Nine Bridges tournament (in October). It was with a suit jacket on and a corsage. It was a little bit of a challenge and a little distracting. Some of the staff came, I could see them with my peripheral vision way back on the top of the hill. I think they wanted to come see if I knew how to swing a club. Then I went down (to Orlando in December) for Cristie Kerr’s Birdies for Breast Cancer event and I hit a new club there. Just two swings since I’ve been here.
GW: Many people say this is a pivotal year for the LPGA. How do you intend to grow the tour? What is your master plan?
CB: Our focus is going to be on branding, to expose the personalities of our stars to the general media. Then you have to be able to (capitalize on) the success of the players we have. You have to make it turn into a financial and business success.
I think we can do that and be a great organization; they are not mutually exclusive.
We’re looking at our business model and we’re mapping how other sports and entertainment properties operate. Companies like Disney. How does NASCAR do it? What are their streams of revenue vs. the NBA? We’re looking at as many of those organizations as we can to identify the best in class. Who is the best in class at licensing, merchandising? Who is the best in class at running tournaments and games? Then, we need to look at where we stand in each of those and what we have to do to become our very own model, which will be an amalgamation of the different things that exist. How can we get from here to there in the various areas? That’s what our strategic plan will look like.
GW: How else can you capitalize on your players’ popularity?
CB: We’re working on a number of things. One of the biggest things is that branding will be consistent; the marketing will be consistent.
I think the best, most well-defined brand in the world is Oprah Winfrey. Oprah is a brand. Our tour is similar in that each of the players is their own brand. What do they stand for and what are they all about? How does that adapt into the LPGA brand?
We’re going to really stress the personal celebrity of each player. We’re going to build them as stars. You’ll see them in general media outside just the trade media. That’ll be a big focus. You’ll see us pay a lot of attention to the tournaments, which is the most visible representation of the LPGA brand. We’ve produced a couple of radio commercials. We want to generate local publicity for each tournament.
GW: As a businesswoman who doesn’t have much of a golf background, how has it been to deal with industry insiders?
CB: They’ve been wonderful. I’ve made sure I surrounded myself with a lot of people who really know golf inside and out. I’ve immersed myself in trying to find out more about it. Some of these people have been in the business for 20 or 30 years. I’m not going to know everything about the business. But what I’ve found in all cases, inside and outside the LPGA, is that I’m able to make contributions and they’re able to make some contributions.
I was thrilled that Joe Steranka took over at the PGA of America. Joe and I have been friends and have known each other for a very long time. We’ve met three of four times and we look forward to working together. Same with the AJGA executives, they’ve been great. And (PGA Tour commissioner) Tim Finchem has been extremely generous and gracious in helping me through the transition. Let’s face it, an awful lot of issues the LPGA and the golf world face right now have to do with business more than they have to do with the golf.
GW: What has been your toughest challenge?
CB: The toughest challenge is to get to everyone who wants to have an audience, everyone who has an idea or has advice. There are so many constituencies, they range far beyond what I call the alphabet soup. Golf has more organizations than I ever imagined – the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association), the IJGA (International Junior Golf Academy), the EWGA (Executive Women’s Golf Association). . . . To find out what role all of these play and get that straight has been difficult. Our constituents are the 450 tour members, they are the 1,200 teaching and club professionals, and everyone wants to talk to you. Though I come from a business background – organization and time management are what I’ve always prided myself on – it is very difficult to control your scheduling and time in this job.
GW: What has surprised you the most during your five months in office?
CB: On the lighter side, I think I underestimated the travel. I’ve always traveled a lot, but I’ve always gone from major city to major city. I’d get on a plane in Los Angeles and several hours later I’d walk off in New York. Here, you leave Daytona Beach and you’re headed to places like Tulsa. You almost can’t get there from here. Going from secondary city to secondary city is difficult. Then, you try to go from Daytona Beach to Jeju Island (South Korea). That’s a bit of a trek.
On the more serious side, the single-biggest surprise to me was when I went to the Women’s World Cup in South Africa a couple of weeks ago. It was the most moving event I’ve ever been to. I surely didn’t expect it. It was much more than a golf tournament. South Africa was using it as a world stage, using golf to reorder the position of women in their country.
The deputy president (Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka) is the first woman ever to get to that
level in South Africa; she happens to be black.
A number of the women business owners were nowhere to be found 10 years ago. I was met in Johannesburg and I had to get to Sun City right away, so they took me by helicopter. The woman who owned the aviation company rode with me and very proudly gave me a hat that said, “This company is 100 percent owned by a black woman.” This sort of thing happened the whole time I was there.
It was a long way to go for a golf tournament, but I came away saying it was truly a life-altering experience.