2005: LPGA players: Show us the money

With the LPGA’s popularity on the rise, thanks in part to rousing displays such as the Solheim Cup, some of its players are – or soon will be – reaping unprecedented riches.

The millions of endorsement dollars awaiting Michelle Wie and TaylorMade-Adidas Golf’s recent contract with Paula Creamer represent the more lucrative offers now available to women golf professionals. Other dynamic players such as Grace Park, Natalie Gulbis and Annika Sorenstam have significant deals, too, and it’s more than likely that Morgan Pressel, the spirited U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, will get her fair share when she eventually joins the pro ranks.

Many marketing experts, however, insist the recent endorsement activity doesn’t signify the dawn of a new era of prosperity for LPGA players in general. Rather, they say, the big contracts are an aberration – awarded only because a select group of talented and marketable athletes happened to emerge at virtually the same time.

Nevertheless, there’s a chance the LPGA’s wealthy new guard will help raise the earnings potential of the tour’s rank-and-file. As the game’s brightest stars attract bigger crowds and a larger TV audience, marketers likely will covet a presence on the tour stage and seek more players to pitch their products.

The ultimate payoff for the LPGA membership, however, hinges on whether the tour’s new icons can get tournaments showcased on a bigger stage – network TV rather than cable. If they help the LPGA fetch bigger TV contracts, they will boost purses, much the way Tiger Woods fattened the wallets of his PGA Tour colleagues.

An argument can be made that players other than the LPGA’s superstars would be the first to prosper from potential new sponsors who want to test the LPGA waters without making a huge initial investment.

Take for example, the marketing agreement Schick negotiated with the LPGA in March. The deal, which designated Schick’s Intuition as the official razor of the LPGA, recruited tour players Jenna Daniels, Heather Daly-Donofrio, Carin Koch and Kelli Kuehne to sport the brand’s logo and serve as “Team Intuition” spokeswomen.

“They can’t afford an Annika, Cristie Kerr or Paula Creamer, but they still want to be involved,” says Jay Burton, an IMG agent who manages Creamer’s business affairs. “So I think opportunities for someone like Jenna Daniels and others will continue to increase.”

The ascension of the LPGA couldn’t have come at a better time for its players. Companies that historically have focused on men – such as financial institutions, insurance firms and auto makers – increasingly are realizing that women have become “a powerful consumer segment,” says Larry DeGaris, director of James Madison University’s Center for Sports Sponsorship.

“They are understanding that in dual-income families, women are earning more (than their husbands) 30 percent of the time,” he says.

That has spurred marketers to rethink their efforts to reach women.

“In the past, a lot of marketers made the mistake of ‘doing’ women’s marketing instead of (actually) marketing toward women. . . They used to paint it pink and put a flower on it,” DeGaris says.

Such trends bode well for the LPGA and its players. But ironically, they can continue to expect little from golf equipment companies.

On the PGA Tour, club manufacturers sign marquee players to multimillion-dollar contracts. And they compensate non-staff players in other ways, including performance bonuses and “tee-up money” – often as much as $1,500 to use a single club in a single event. But on the LPGA, players without contracts rarely get paid for using clubs. Free equipment is about the only perk they receive.

The discrepancy isn’t expected to change soon even if the LPGA’s stock continues to rise. The reason? Clubmakers say limited marketing budgets prevent spending on both the men’s and women’s tours. And privately, they say, LPGA players – with the exception of superstars – do little to influence golfers’ buying decisions or enhance the brand image of equipment companies.

That explains why TaylorMade-Adidas has a small, but star-studded women’s tour staff of three: Creamer, Gulbis and Se Ri Pak.

“For us, everything has to be run through the performance filter. No one has done some of the things Paula has accomplished,” says Tim Huet, TMAG’s senior manager for global sports marketing. “And if they’re able to project the total package, that’s of huge importance.”

Meeting such criteria – talent, looks and personality – is what puts players like Creamer in a league of their own. No surprise then that Creamer’s endorsement portfolio is bulging: In the past month, she’s finalized contracts with TaylorMade-Adidas and Aldila, adding to her deals with ADT, Royal Bank of Scotland and Upper Deck.

Impressive as that may be, it’s likely to be eclipsed by the opportunities brewing for the imminent pro debut of teen phenom Wie. Though she hasn’t won yet on the LPGA, her can’t-miss potential, striking looks and dynamic style of play have experts predicting Wie will earn as much as $8 million to $10 million in annual endorsements immediately.

While some veteran LPGA players have grumbled about the riches being awarded these youth, DeGaris, for one, says such resentment is misplaced. Soon, the older players may be indebted to their younger peers.

“If you’re making an extra $100,000 a year, do you care if Michelle Wie is making an extra $10 million?” he asks. “That’s $100,000 that you didn’t have before. In this case, a rising tide will lift all boats.”

  • Mike Mazur contributed to this report.
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