It’s up to Whan to find out what works

Fans walk past posters of Natalie Gulbis, Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer and Juli Inkster at an LPGA event. The tour plans to showcase its top stars at a new tournament this fall in Malaysia.

Analysis

By the time new LPGA chief Michael Whan takes his post Jan. 4, there will be a plethora of demands placed upon him – undoubtedly led by players and pundits clamoring for more tournaments and sponsors.

But in the bigger scheme of things, that may be the least of his worries.

Though the LPGA has endured for 60 years – and proudly stands as the longest continuous-running professional women’s sports organization in history – it faces an uncertain future, challenged by market forces and its own bumbling missteps.

The facts are these: The tour is trying to succeed in a male-dominated sports environment that never has been more saturated with options splintering fans’ interest. It’s mired in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and it’s still mending frayed relationships with tournament owners and players.

In this tumultuous setting, all Whan has to do is rediscover the LPGA’s proper place in the sports-business landscape and navigate the tour to it.

Can the LPGA become a brand that’s powerful enough to uniquely resonate with its own legion of loyalists? Or will it be reduced to being a low-cost alternative to the PGA Tour?

Industry executives and sports-marketing experts insist it will be paramount for Whan to manage expectations, knowing that the success of any sports franchise often lies upon one variable: Having stars that shine.

“There is an expectation that every commissioner will be the new messiah,” says former LPGA executive Chris Higgs, who is managing director of golf for sports marketing firm Octagon. “Market forces and player dynamics will play as large a role in the LPGA’s success as the next commissioner. (Just) imagine the PGA Tour if it had not had Tiger (Woods).”

Many LPGA advocates argue the tour already is a recognizable brand, and they maintain its product – the quality of players and depth of competition – is at its peak. The marketplace, however, is littered with good products that never became a commercial success. Thus far, evidence suggests the LPGA is lacking the latter: It has lost corporate sponsors, suffers anemic TV ratings and receives limited media coverage. But unlike a bevy of naysayers who dismiss the LPGA, several sports-marketing experts say the tour possesses critical assets. What remains unknown is how much they can be developed.

“I think it already is its own notable brand and it’s understood – it’s the best women’s golf,” says Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University. “But does that go far enough? There has to be a special affinity. I don’t know if (fans) would be able to tell you what the major tournaments are or recite their history.”

Among the many tasks awaiting Whan is deciding where the LPGA should shape its new identity. Does it fight to create elbow room in the U.S. or pursue even more aggressively international markets where its popularity is at an all-time high?

It’s hardly an either-or proposition, but finding the right mix will be difficult. Whan will hear conflicting advice.

“The U.S. is still the largest golf economy in the world,” says one industry executive. “And there are communities within the U.S. where the LPGA has history and is the biggest fish in the pond. The Rochesters, the Toledos, the Springfields, the Cornings. They’re the bread and butter of the LPGA.”

But Bruce Lucker, CEO of marketing-firm Signature Golf that has advised the LPGA, urges the tour to look abroad. He says: “The only way to (build a financial war chest) is to bring tournaments to locations that are willing to pay for them. That means more international events.”

Finding new revenue sources also is critical to help alleviate fiscal tension between the LPGA and its tournament partners. Carolyn Bivens, who resigned under pressure July 13 after a player revolt, maintained that the tour wasn’t adequately compensated for services it rendered to them and tried to impose greater fees. She identified a problem that remains unresolved.

“Tournaments must bear their fair share,” Lucker says. “(Whan) must re-evaluate the financial model.”

If Whan can resolve these issues, he stands a chance at age 44 to enjoy a long tenure at the LPGA’s helm. And that in itself would bode well for the tour. No LPGA commissioner has lasted longer than seven years, which is in stark contrast to the reigns of other sports chiefs whose organizations have thrived: David Stern has led the NBA since 1984; the NFL is on just its third commissioner in five decades; and Tim Finchem has guided the PGA Tour for more than 15 years.

“All the stakeholders gain confidence in the consistency of leadership,” says an industry observer. “That’s the commonality in all of them.”

– Adam Schupak contributed

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