Bivens' missteps starting to add up
Originally Published: September 5, 2008By Eric Adelson | Special to ESPN.com
The discriminatory guideline is gone. Now it's time for Carolyn Bivens' moneygrubbing to follow.For years now, the LPGA commissioner has come up with all kinds of tone-deaf ways to expand her tour's brand and bring in cash. Asking all players to learn some English is only the latest and greatest example. The goal is understandable -- all businesses have to be aware of the bottom line -- but the execution has been awful. Bivens has angered everyone -- players, sponsors, media, fans and now an entire culture -- and the women's tour has only come closer to ruin. When Bivens took over in 2005, the LPGA Tour had already accomplished what the NBA and MLB wanted for so long -- to become a global game. The tour had a Swedish superstar in Annika Sorenstam, an athletic and charming rival in Australian Karrie Webb, a philanthropic and funny big-swinger in Lorena Ochoa and a pioneer in Se Ri Pak who changed the face of golf even more than Tiger Woods. For fans looking for American stars, the tour saw the emergence of some of the brightest young players in its history: Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis. The LPGA even had a ratings magnet in Michelle Wie, who caused tons of headaches -- though she was never a member of the tour -- but also brought enough fans/gawkers/skeptics to sell plenty of TV time. Of course there were problems, too. Annika was nearing the end of her career. Wie was faltering. Creamer, Pressel and Gulbis didn't win quite enough. And the quiet South Koreans never seemed to stop winning. But Bivens had a core of marketable players who never got into legal trouble and always went the extra mile to promote their tour. All Bivens had to do was let the brand grow. But she hasn't. Go all the way back to early 2006. Bivens came up with the idea to own the rights to all the photos and media stories from all LPGA tournaments. The goal, of course, was to create cash flow. This is similar to what the NFL and Big Ten Network have done in building their own TV networks. But the LPGA does not create demand like football, so the Associated Press (among other national outlets) walked out on the Fields Open in Hawaii.
The tournament ended in a fantastic showdown between Wie and Pressel. But the buzz went to Bivens' clumsy move. The Fields Open -- then a brand-new event -- is now gone. Things got worse from there. Bivens pulled the plug on the ShopRite Classic in Atlantic City and gave that weekend to a new Ginn event in South Carolina. Once again, the goal was money -- Bobby Ginn is loaded. But the ShopRite drew a good field and had a strong tradition. Now there is no ShopRite and there is no Ginn tournament in South Carolina. The penny-pinching continued. The Tour decided to charge its events a $100,000 staging fee. It stopped paying its half of the fee for electronic scoreboards. And those were just the public head-scratchers. At the U.S. Women's Open in Newport, Bivens wanted top players to sign flags to show appreciation to Rolex, sponsor of the much-criticized world rankings. But she also asked Wie to sign a flag, even though Wie was not a member and sponsored by Omega. The moves miffed and then infuriated some of the tour's most loyal supporters. A flood of resignations followed -- most notably that of Deb Richard (a Bivens hire), who complained of "losing faith in leadership." On a lower bureaucratic level, Korean-American Kyumin Shim left the staff after years of working to help Korean players with speeches and logistics. Now comes the most egregious example: asking players to learn English or face a suspension. The move was questionable at best -- will better English really lead to more money? -- but it ended up upsetting everyone from the ACLU to Ochoa. What's lost in all the controversy was the fact that Korean TV contributes millions to the LPGA each year. Bivens bit the hand that feeds her. Yet perhaps the most troubling aspect of Bivens' tenure is the way she strives to own every aspect of business without owning up to her actions. She angered the Tournament Owners Association -- chock-full of sponsors including McDonald's and Coca-Cola -- by not showing up for a scheduled speech two years ago. As the Fields fiasco blew up, Bivens remained in her hotel room, out of sight. When Wie refused to apologize to Sorenstam after pulling out of her South Carolina tournament, media requests for Bivens' comments went unanswered for three full days. The commissioner reportedly asked for the resignation of much-respected senior vice president Barb Trammell not in person, but over the phone. And last week, when complaints about the English mandate came from everywhere, Bivens sent deputy commissioner Libba Galloway to take the initial public-relations hit. It would have been nice to see an Asian face defend the new regulation, but Bivens only employs one Asian staffer for a Tour with 45 Koreans. No one thinks a commissioner should refrain from going after money. And no one thinks the LPGA doesn't need more marketing value in an era without Annika. But the tour's best aspect is its players -- women with class, charm, a ton of talent and most importantly, incredible life stories with roots all over the globe. Bivens should just get out of the way and let those stories unfold. Otherwise, this sad chapter of the LPGA's history should come to an end. Eric Adelson is the author of an upcoming ESPN book on Michelle Wie. E-mail him at email@example.com.