Bivens’ hard line came with a price
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
This story originally ran in the July 18, 2009 issue of Golfweek, and won honorable mention in the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual writing contest for non-daily news.
• • •
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Carolyn Bivens had good intentions. The LPGA’s first female commissioner intended to show the world a woman’s worth with bigger purses, a solid health-care plan and a respectable pension program. She aimed to capitalize on the LPGA’s global makeup by shoring up big-name sponsors and lucrative TV contracts. Bivens called her grand plan Vision 2010.
The plan tanked, and Bivens ultimately was ousted by a jury of her constituents.
Bivens’ downfall can be traced to one word: Relationships. For a solitary sport, golf is as much about people as anything else. Bivens underestimated that fact, and, in trying to do business, left a line of angry people in her wake.
In her uncompromising quest to fix the tour’s broken financial model, Bivens insisted that tournaments had to pay their fair share to stage events. But making those demands, often callously, at a time when events were struggling with declining sponsorship revenue outraged event organizers and players.
Likewise, she took a hard-line stance in an attempt to control image rights that alienated media members, whose coverage the tour covets. And when criticism mounted, she became more defiant, according to tour employees who say she created a “culture of paranoia” at LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla.
In the end, Bivens didn’t have the clout to exact the changes she wanted to make, and, arguably, what the tour needs. But more important, she either failed to recognize the importance of allies – or dismissed them altogether.
“There are three main constituencies in a commissioner’s life: the press, the sponsor-tournament community and the player body,” said Chris Higgs, co-managing director of sports-marketing firm Octagon, which owns two LPGA events, and who formerly served as the LPGA’s chief operating officer.
“As the leadership of the LPGA, you always have to have at least one of those constituents championing whatever cause you are effecting.
And you can work your way through a challenge from one or two (of them), but you can’t lose all three. By virtue of what we’ve seen and heard, it seems that’s what has happened.”
For a number of the tour’s top players, the final straw came during the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic when word came down that October’s Kapalua event in Hawaii had been canceled. At least 15 players met for dinner July 2 in Sylvania, Ohio, to hash out their frustrations with tour leadership. Those in attendance included a handful of the tour’s top players: Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, Suzann Pettersen, Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Natalie Gulbis, Cristie Kerr and Yani Tseng. From that dinner, a letter was drafted calling for Bivens’ resignation.
“It’s a players’ organization,” said Pettersen, who wasn’t shy about attaching her name to the letter sent to the LPGA’s Board of Directors.
Players had grown weary of stories illustrating Bivens’ poor negotiating tactics. Critics say Bivens neglected the heart and soul of the tour: Small-town tournaments with decades of support.
Bivens, however, had a different viewpoint. She could not be reached for comment for this article. In an extensive interview with Golfweek this spring, she made clear that if the tour continued to underwrite financially weak events, it would put the LPGA at risk.
“What are the alternatives? I don’t mean that response to be flip,” Bivens said. “The LPGA brings a value to a local community. If we can’t cover our costs, maybe we’re not the right activity for that group or organization.”
Eliminating longtime partners, unsympathetic and distasteful as it may be, didn’t doom Bivens. But in a tough recession, she couldn’t find replacements fast enough, and that left her vulnerable. Especially because she didn’t cultivate support along the way.
“Why are we having problems getting renewals when (sponsors) do want to go forward?” asked Gail Graham, president of the Tournament Owners Association.
It’s a fair question, and at least in some cases, Bivens is the answer.
Laura Davies recently asked a sponsor whom she considers a longtime friend whether the company pulled out because of financial difficulties.
“He said, ‘No, our business is great. I can’t deal with that woman,’ ” Davies said.
Katherine Hull tells a similar story from a conversation she had with tournament staff from another long-standing tournament.
“They said, ‘As long as Carolyn is commissioner of the LPGA, we will not sign a contract,’ ” Hull said.
Players admired Bivens’ desire to better their tour but bristled at her approach.
“It’s just gone too far,” said Rosie Jones, who thought that Bivens was too stubborn to backpedal in this economy.
In hindsight, it’s difficult to comprehend that Bivens, especially as an outsider with no golf business experience, didn’t court allies and frequently burned bridges. Such behavior would become the underlying theme of her downfall, and it surfaced from the outset of her tenure. And far too often, Bivens’ decisions were punctuated by disastrous public-relations fiascoes that, no matter how noble her goals, undermined her credibility.
Bivens began her tenure as LPGA commissioner in September 2005 and drew immediate criticism when Barb Trammell, a longtime LPGA official, was dismissed the next month for refusing to give a veteran player preferential treatment.
When the 2006 season kicked off in Hawaii, Bivens imposed a new image-rights policy designed to enhance the tour’s marketing opportunities. Pursuing the strategy wasn’t unreasonable, but she never discussed it with media outlets, which only learned of the initiative when photographers were ordered to sign a contract upon arriving at the first tournament. An ensuing media boycott, rather than tournament play, dominated headlines.
From the start, Bivens was at odds with the ever-shrinking core of reporters who followed her tour. Unlike her predecessors, Bivens rarely walked into a media room to mingle. Never one for small talk, she failed to bring the media into her corner – perplexing, considering that she came to the LPGA after serving as an executive at USA Today.
In pursuit of better financial deals, Bivens frequently opted for top bidders rather than existing partners. It’s a common practice in many businesses, but her execution raised eyebrows and shocked some observers. When she recruited Ginn Development Co. as the title sponsor of two new LPGA events because it promised bigger purses, Bivens moved aside long-standing tournaments to make room for Ginn on the tour calendar. (The Ginn events have since folded.) And when she signed a new TV deal with a Korean broadcasting company early this year, Bivens announced the news during a tournament sponsored by SBS – the media company that she had just dumped.
“I think that’s (her) character,” SBS CEO Sang Y. Chun said in February. “When you judge someone, you look at the track record. (This) will add one more (negative).”
Bivens had a knack for being invisible. She kicked off a media firestorm with last year’s controversial English-proficiency policy, then hid out in her California beach house, passing on interview requests to deputy commissioner Libba Galloway.
Even last month at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship – a major that to this point does not have a sponsor for next year – Bivens declined an interview with Golfweek, even though she was on property through Sunday’s finish.
Bivens didn’t duck just the media. Other incidents demonstrating a lack of leadership dumbfounded many.
As the CEO of a prominent LPGA sponsor left for the airport last year after a Wednesday pro-am, he turned to the tournament director and asked: “Was Carolyn even here this week?”
Ultimately, Bivens didn’t understand the game (i.e., midround Twitter updates) or its people. She made working at tour headquarters a taxing experience. It became difficult to
disagree, and while Bivens displayed a tough exterior in public, those who know her say she is a sensitive woman who doesn’t take criticism lightly.
“Everyone became a ‘yes’ person because they were afraid of losing their jobs,” said one former employee who asked not to be named. “She went out of her way to not say goodbye to departing employees, so she shouldn’t expect a party herself.”
Davies, for one, won’t shed a tear over Bivens’ departure.
“She never did me any favors,” she said.
A common sentiment.