LPGA Summit: Part rally, part business

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The sagging economy and its role in the shrinking LPGA schedule prompted a mandatory meeting of players and officials.

“It was time,” LPGA president Michelle Ellis said Saturday about the summit that began with a keynote address by tennis great Billie Jean King on Friday and wrapped up Saturday night.

“We haven’t done something like this since 2002. I think with what we’re going through with the economy and stuff like that, I think the players are scared. I wanted to bring them together to know if we stick together, the cream always will rise to the top.”

The summit was the second the tour has held — the first in 2002 in Arizona addressed the five points of celebrity — and this time focused on how the players can expand the game’s fan base by not only playing great golf, but by engaging themselves in the community as well.

“What we’ve been doing is great, but we obviously have to do a lot better on the stuff outside the ropes,” LPGA player Cristie Kerr said. Kerr also said the underlying message from the workshop sessions was to keep tending to their supporters and fans, but do it “exponentially better.”

According to Kerr, the meeting was part business and part pep rally and the players were encouraged to utilize social networking avenues like Facebook and Twitter to stay engaged with their fans and the sponsors whose dollars make the hefty purses at tournaments possible.

Natalie Gulbis, one of the faces of the tour for her pinup calendars, her use of Twitter and Facebook, an Internet blog and her appearance this season on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” said all those devices help her connect better with fans that support her.

That kind of exposure, she said, will help the tour keep its place in the national and international sports landscape, and hopefully draw new viewers and sponsors to the game.

“What we have to do now to maintain our events and get new events. But we’re also very confident in our brand, too, and the value that the LPGA has, and we think we’re in a good position to go out there and get new events,” Gulbis said after the meetings wrapped up.

The tour has seen its schedule shrink by five events this year because of sponsor withdrawals, LPGA spokesman David Higdon said, and a sixth event also remains questionable.

To combat the losses, Ellis said, the players were told to try to think more of themselves as parts of an organization that has more strength as a whole than as individual parts.

“Everybody has different strengths. How can we draw on those strengths of everybody, not just the top 20 players, and not just No. 1?” she said. “It’s not just their responsibility.”

An example of the community involvement exercises that can only help, vice president of tournament marketing and sales Eric Albrecht said, is the planned building of a Habitat for Humanity home by several players this week in advance of the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill.

The LPGA does have help on the way, too.

It signed a contract with the Golf Channel to have events televised next season, but while the contract should ease complaints that women’s golf was hard to find on television, the details for whether those events will be shown live are still being worked out, Ellis said.

Speakers brought in to help reinforce the message — and ease the players’ fears about the strength of the tour — included Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez and Judy Rankin, who agreed that the product has never been stronger on the course, and better days are certainly ahead.

The message, they said, may have been especially good for younger players to hear.

“I think this presentation of where we are and what you can do and how you can impact communities and how you can make people really, really, really love the fans experience, I think it’s going to play well,” Rankin said. “I think that these players grasp it.”

Brittany Lincicome agreed, and as a player who splashed onto the scene with a dramatic victory at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the season’s first major, she said she embraces the responsibility to help the tour keep building on what the greats of the past have done.

“We want to be out here for a very, very long time,” she said.

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