Rawson's prescription for the LPGA
Editor's note: The LPGA is in crisis. The number of tournaments has fallen from 38 at the start of the decade, to 34 in 2008, to 28 this year -- with only 14 lined up so far for next year. Total prize money is down, from $60.3 million to $49.9 million, due in part to flagging support from corporate sponsors hit hard by the recession. Players are so worried about the future of the oldest organization in professional women's sports that they forced the resignation of Carolyn Bivens, its first female commissioner, in July. A search is on for her replacement -- and perhaps a new and fresh direction for the LPGA.
LPGA rookie Anna Rawson, the subject of an "E:60" profile airing Tuesday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN), has somehow thrived in this dismal landscape. She's picked up high-profile sponsorships with GoDaddy and the fashion designer J. Lindeberg despite a current ranking of 104th on the prize money list. How did she do it? Well, by exploiting her ample good looks. But also with a novel marketing plan that leverages her background as a runway model. The tall Australian writes a syndicated column in magazines around the world, offering golf fashion tips. She's built a provocative Web site that highlights her various interests, and she's a manic Twitterer. As much as any athlete on tour, the former USC golfer has embraced the notion that the key to selling the sport is attraction and connection.
With that in mind, ESPN correspondent Tom Farrey asked Rawson what she would do to revive the LPGA Tour. Not surprisingly, she challenged the status quo.
We aren't saving lives here on the tour, so to make a living we need to entertain. Here are a few ideas that might help women's golf, or at least start some conversation:
1. ROCK THE TEE
Every player should tee off to her favorite song at the beginning of the tournament and have it played again when she approaches the 18th green. Major League Baseball teams play music as batters approach the plate and it's great. Fans connect with players for their music and it builds anticipation. I don't think our golfers would have a problem with this because nowadays who doesn't practice with their iPod on? Plus, it would help me on the tee; the forced quiet is nerve-racking, so hearing music will help break the tension.
2. BRING ON THE MEN
Some LPGA tournaments should be played in conjunction with PGA tournaments. Both tours would play on the same course during the same week -- and at the same time -- while still competing for separate titles. The field would consist of the top 75 golfers from each tour, with men as usual playing from the back tees and women playing from the forward tees. One group of two to three PGA players tees off, and once the men are down the fairway, the LPGA group follows them.
Just like in pro tennis, coed tournaments would help grow the sport. Fans could see the best of the men's and women's tours in one day, and come to realize how good some of these LPGA pros are. Imagine the visuals -- Tiger warming up on the practice range next to Lorena Ochoa. Imagine the headlines -- "Battle of the Sexes: Who can handle Bethpage Black better, men or women?"
3. FASHION TO THE FAIRWAYS
For each tournament, I would have a fashion designer create a piece of clothing or accessory for the trophy ceremony. For the LPGA Championship, we could have a jacket specially made by Donna Karan. For the Kraft Nabisco, a gown designed by Vera Wang. For the P&G Northwest Arkansas Championship, CoverGirl could give the winner a makeover before the presentation. Whether the designer item is a gown, jacket, skirt or piece of jewelry, after signing her scorecard the winner would be taken to hair and makeup (cover that white forehead!) and fitted by a tailor for the ceremony (with the last six groups in the final round pre-fitted the night before so the size would be ready). On Monday, the winner would be flown to Manhattan to shoot the gown, jacket or jewelry for an ad to be placed in a fashion magazine (Elle, Vogue, Glamour, InStyle). This initiative would add femininity and glamour to events that struggle for attention, and introduce golf to a new demographic.
Let's be honest, guys are way too hard on women. Not even Megan Fox could deliver a good photo after 18 holes, so give us a minute to freshen up.
4. MARKETING IS THE BOSS
Right now, the LPGA has an acting commissioner. No matter whom we choose as the eventual successor to Bivens, I would give the LPGA's VP of communications, David Higdon, a long-term contract and make him directly answerable only to the players. Higdon knows how to help the public connect with athletes. At the ATP, where he worked until joining the LPGA in February, he helped shape the story of Roger Federer as he emerged as the best player in tennis. Federer was on the path of being seen as another Pete Sampras -- a consistent if dull winner -- but Higdon worked with Federer's handlers to flesh out his persona. He became known as a humanitarian (UNICEF ambassador in China), fashion leader (cover of Men's Vogue) and sports icon who transcends his sport (Tiger Woods sitting courtside at the U.S. Open).
Until further notice, all decisions should be made from a marketing perspective. That idea might sound crazy to some, but I say let's have that discussion when LPGA players reach the point where they can be accused of being over-marketed, overpaid or over-exposed.
5. READY FOR OUR CLOSE-UP
Every group should be miked up and followed by its own camera crew, not a hard or expensive thing to do in this era of cheap, portable devices that can send images and audio around the globe in an instant. When fans come to an LPGA tournament, they get hooked on our product. There is no sporting event where spectators get a closer look at a professional athlete. Once you get to know these women, you become a fan.
And hey, we know why women's tennis is so successful -- the grunting! You think tennis grunting is hot? You have to hear golf grunting. We hit the ball hundreds of yards down the fairway, not just over a dinky little net. No offense, Serena.
In the end, I'm not sure if any or all of these ideas will work. But it's definitely time to get creative.