LPGA getting out of the rough

Meeting in Toledo, new commissioner helped spark Tour’s revival

7/12/2013
BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Stacy Lewis, a Toledo native who moved away when she was 2, is the top-ranked American player on the LPGA Tour.
Stacy Lewis, a Toledo native who moved away when she was 2, is the top-ranked American player on the LPGA Tour.

The best women’s golfers in the world will arrive in town this week at the nexus of a comeback story.

It was here in 2009 that players set out to redirect the course of LPGA history, plotting over dinner at Mancy’s Steakhouse a revolt they hoped would save the sport.

The tour was dying, thumped by the recession and a hard-boiled boss who drove away one sponsor after another. The LPGA had lost seven tournaments since 2007 while at least 16 others were either without sponsors or not under contract for 2010.

Among those was the Marathon Classic, then known as the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic, which by last year faced a daunting crossroads. The tournament struggled to move the needle — there was no national TV coverage and little buzz locally as rookie So Yeon Ryu cruised to a seven-stroke win — while uncertainty loomed. Already without a title benefactor, organizers learned Kroger would not be returning as a presenting sponsor.

"It was a tough pill," said Toledo Classic Inc. board chairman Richard Hylant.

Yet for the LPGA and one of its longest-running events, this is not the story of what many feared would happen.

It the story is of what did — a roaring back-nine rally.

Today, the Marathon Classic has never been healthier.

This week at Highland Meadows will be notable for two voids: the absence of Farr, the popular namesake of the Classic for 29 years, and of whispers about the tournament’s future.

Marathon Petroleum’s annual investment of about $1 million over multiple years returned the event to terra firma — and then some. This year’s tournament will feature a field that a majority of the top money leaders and live daily coverage on the Golf Channel. A purse of $1.3 million will rise to $1.4 million next year and a tournament-record $1.5 million in 2015.

"The short answer is no, the tournament has never been on this firm of footing," Hylant said.

It is one in a line of success stories for the LPGA, which has aggressively rebranded under commissioner Mike Whan.

By becoming more sponsor-friendly and embracing the globalization of the sport — a trend once forecast to be the tour’s downfall — the LPGA has found a small but growing niche.

The tour has expanded from 24 tournaments in 2010 to 29 this season while, bulwarked by the sudden star turn of Toledo-born defending player of the year Stacy Lewis and history-chasing 24-year-old Inbee Park, fans are turning in. Last season’s LPGA ratings on the Golf Channel were up 30 percent from 2011 and 57 percent from 2010. This year, the network is clearing room for a record 360 hours of coverage.

"I see the Marathon Classic a lot like the LPGA," Whan said. "It's rising, from a state which was concerning a few years ago to a place that I think has an unbelievable future."

Whan’s most critical step was to bridge a growing divide between the tour and its tournaments and sponsors.

Whan’s predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, arrived in 2005 as a self-styled "agent of change," with hard-charging plans to make the tour too big to fail. She pushed for purses of at least $2 million, jacked up the annual sanctioning fee each tournament pays the LPGA by $100,000, and sought inroads into larger markets.

Problem was, she was a bull in a bear economy. While players once championed Bivens — who could argue with bigger paydays and more exposure? — they saw the writing on the clubhouse wall when the tour rolled into Sylvania in 2009. Sponsors were fleeing, tournaments vanishing. A tour that staged 34 events a year earlier would hold only 24 in 2010.

The night of July 2, in a private second-floor dining room at Mancy’s, a dozen or so players agreed to a mutiny against Bivens. (She resigned 11 days later.) To save the tour, they needed a half-court shot at the buzzer.

They needed Whan.

"Where Mike has come in is in healing the relationships between the tour and sponsors that had taken such a huge hit under the previous commissioner," Marathon Classic director Judd Silverman said. "This staff has done a great job. The way the LPGA conducts business nowadays, it’s [a] total turnaround."

Whan, 48, a Miami (Ohio) graduate and former executive at Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, said he wants the LPGA to be the "most customer-centric sport in the world."

"And the bad news is, that won't be that hard," he said.

Inbee Park, of South Korea celebrates her victory at the U.S. Women's Open at the Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. Park has won the first three major tournaments this year.
Inbee Park, of South Korea celebrates her victory at the U.S. Women's Open at the Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. Park has won the first three major tournaments this year.

This week, like before every tournament, players will receive a two-page Customer Profile Sheet. The first page is titled, ’Who’s writing the check this week?" and includes information on Marathon, Owens Corning, and Owens-Illinois among other sponsors. The second page features photos of key executives and the core clients they are entertaining, along with their mailing addresses. That way, players know who to seek out on the course and where to send thank you cards.

During this year’s Kia Classic, Christina Kim stunned an executive when she ducked under the ropes mid-round to express thanks.

"How would Christina Kim know who I am?" Michael Sprague, executive vice president of marketing and communications at Kia, later asked Whan.

"Of course she knows who you are," Whan said. "She’s seen your picture, she knows your bio, she knows why you decided to do this, and what we need to do to keep your business. He told me they do sports all around the world, and he’s never had an athlete say thank you. I said, ’Well, that's their problem, not mine.’"

Last August, after So Yeon Ryu won the Farr Classic, the rookie said she mailed more than 20 thank-you notes to tournament officials and sponsors.

Which is fitting, because nowhere is the connection between players and fans and sponsors more intimate than in stops like Toledo and Rochester and Mobile, Ala. — markets the tour has re-embraced.

"I want to be as important to the market as they are to us," Whan said. "In some markets, that's hard to do. The reality of it is if you ask someone from Toledo, they'll tell you about the LPGA date they circle on their calendar. The same is true in Rochester, and those kind of markets make a difference to us. Players don't go stay at the Marriott. They go stay with Bob and Jean, the [people] they've been staying with for six years.

"This is the LPGA Tour’s bread and butter. At the end of the day, if you just want to talk about straight media play, go buy time with the NFL or Major League Baseball or the PGA Tour. They're better at it than we are. But if you want to talk about somebody who will really embrace the market and get to know each other and the people out there ... we connect better than any sport in the world."

And no sport may connect better with the world.

Since Se Ri Pak’s rise in the late 1990s opened the floodgate for South Korean golfers, a tour once dominated by red, white and blue often struggled with how to manage its growing international presence. Recall Bivens’ hamhanded proposal in 2008 to suspend foreign-born players who couldn’t speak passable English by the following year.

Now, the LPGA is riding the wave. Reflecting the diversity of a franchise that features golfers from 27 countries, the tour will hold 14 events outside the U.S. this year — including seven in Asia. (Korean TV money remains the tour’s largest revenue source.)

Whan describes the language barrier as yesterday’s problem, saying players appreciate how important learning English is to their marketing appeal.

"In 2010, 30 percent of my tour couldn't have this phone conversation we are having," he said. "Now, 100 percent of my tour can. They didn’t learn English because it was important to me. They learned it because it was important to them."

He bills the globalization as a game-saver.

"If I had to be the commissioner where it was essentially a U.S. and European Tour, and I had to find all my sponsors and all my fans and all my TV deals located in just those two areas, that's a pie that's not growing," Whan said. "That's just a survival plan."

What this all means for the growth of the game stateside remains unclear. The tour clearly would benefit from a stronger foothold in the U.S.

One enduring need: more native stars. While Lewis has provided a lift — the 27-year-old last year became the first U.S. golfer to capture the tour’s top honors since Beth Daniel in 1994 — she was the only American among the top 10 on the money list and is one of two this season along with Christie Kerr. (The top 10 features five Koreans, including Park, the runaway leader who last month joined Babe Zaharias and Bobby Jones as the only golfers ever to win the year’s first three majors.)

Ron Sirak, editor of Golf World, said the LPGA also needs more domestic tournaments and enhanced exposure. All but the U.S. Open and British Open are televised by the Golf Channel, which has a broad reach with distribution to 84 million U.S. homes but a limited audience.

"I think [Whan] would like a little network coverage on the weekends," Sirak said. "That's when you reach outside viewers. If you're only on the Golf Channel, you reach people who already watch the Golf Channel."

Yet if history is prologue, Whan will find a way. This week at Highland Meadows will celebrate the revival of both a tour and a tournament.

"There's two kind of companies today in America," Whan said. "The ones that have learned some painful lessons going through the recession and they're probably making less money than they used to and they may have a smaller share of the pie but they're probably stronger than ever because they got back to fundamentals.

"The other kind are gone. You either figured it out or you didn't. And we're excited to see what's happening at the [Marathon Classic]. They're going to go from a tournament that was struggling to get by to a tournament that 165 countries will watch. That's pretty cool stuff."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.