LPGA working to re-establish footing
In her former life, before she found herself serving as acting commissioner of the LPGA, Marsha Evans learned a valuable lesson as a recruiter for the U.S. Navy.
"You have to go the extra mile," Evans said. "And you have to tell people what the real truth is."
The real truth is this: The LPGA has only 14 events locked in for the 2010 season, after playing a 28-event calendar this year and a 34-event ledger in 2008.
The truth is so ugly because former commissioner Carolyn Bivens didn't go the extra mile to build relationships with tournament sponsors, players, fans or the media. Now it's up to Evans, and whoever follows her, to go twice or three times the distance to pull the tour out of its current downward spiral.
"Meetings are important, mailings are important, keeping channels open," said 72-time LPGA Tour winner Annika Sorenstam, who is serving as an advisor to the tour's board of directors. "You have to be on tournament sites. You have to meet the players. It's every week. You need to be seen, you need to be heard. You need to mingle."
If anything sums up the troubles facing the LPGA, it's the end of the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in Honolulu. Bivens chose a little extra money over a lot of history when she struck a deal this year with J Golf instead of the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) to air LPGA events in South Korea. That move terminated a fruitful 15-year relationship with SBS, which promptly pulled its sponsorship of the last remaining LPGA Tour stop in Hawaii.
The bump in television rights fees ($2 million) was diluted by the drop in purse money from the SBS Open ($1.2 million). J Golf did, however, pick up sponsorship of a tournament in Phoenix that was in danger of having no title sponsor for 2009. Still, the damage was significant: The LPGA lost its gateway state to Asia.
"The state has had a lot of interest in holding events here," said Matthew Hall, director of golf at Turtle Bay Golf Resort, where the SBS was held. "Because of the schedule, you could be in the U.S. but moving toward Asia -- going over or coming back. But that's lost right now. The tour needs to refind its identity."
And that identity is the mom-and-pop feel of well-rooted tournaments in middle-sized communities like Toledo, Ohio, and Rochester, N.Y.
"There's incredible support for those tournaments every single year," says J.S. Kang, vice president of Sterling Sports Management. "It's never been about TV rights. It's always been about good golf. That's the brand, not something that's going to compete with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants."
But Bivens often made the LPGA's hometowns feel worthless as she went for the bigger payday, and Evans is trying to pull out all the stops to save the 15 events that are still up in the air, including old standbys such as the Wegmans LPGA in upstate New York, the Michelob Ultra Open in Williamsburg, Va., and the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic in Toledo.
"I will come at the drop of a hat to help close these deals," Evans said. "Every partner is important. They all represent opportunity. I genuinely want to reach out and form partnerships."
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That's an approach that will serve the next commissioner well in other aspects of the job.
So who might be the next person in charge when a full-time hire is made? Sorenstam downplayed the possibility of her name being tossed into the mix.
"I'm not interested," she said. "I find it flattering. I do not have the qualifications. I do have some knowledge. I am not the right person for this. My role [as an advisor] is perfect. I can help from the outside. We need a savvy business person with a great network and someone with a lot of respect."
Bivens made some financially beneficial decisions on the LPGA's behalf, but also found ways to alienate tournament organizers, executives, sponsors and players -- specifically, the large contingent of 45 South Korean pros who were pressured to learn English or face suspension. All of those groups felt the sting of a commissioner seemingly bent on shaking out a few more pockets instead of shaking a few more hands.
"There's no question that over the last two or three years, I have felt frustration," said Kang, who represents several LPGA players. "I have offered my assistance. There have been small discussions but never a request for more input."
Even though a group of veteran players got together this month and basically staged a coup when they asked for Bivens' resignation in a letter during the event in Toledo, few, if any, say she did not have their best interests at heart. Bivens arrived with a mandate to make the tour more money, and she steadily raised the per-event purse.
"I love the LPGA and have been proud to serve as its commissioner for the last four years," Bivens said in a statement after her resignation. "I am also proud of what the LPGA has accomplished during my tenure. My job was to be a change agent, to help move the LPGA into the strongest possible position to ensure its future."
But Bivens' scorched-earth methods overshadowed every deal. They were compounded by either failing to talk about the situation or by saying the wrong thing altogether.
"There were a lot of people that would comment that she was very bad at chitchat," Hall said. "Somebody has to feel comfortable standing in front of a camera, and I don't think she necessarily did."
So instead of pushing South Korean players to learn English, Evans wants to enhance the LPGA experience by promoting the tour's ability to facilitate meaningful interactions between all fans and all players. Instead of calling for players to use Twitter during events -- another Bivens faux pas -- she wants to encourage fans and players to share a few words along the rope line.
"You will have a unique opportunity to be right on the front lines," Evans said. "Fans and observers can walk right alongside the players. For people who want to improve their golf game, you can see an extraordinary, technically beautiful golf swing."
But in order to see those swings, Evans and whoever follows her will have to make sure LPGA golf is played in as many places as possible. The push for tour stops is so intense that, when asked if she has plans to institute a health-care plan for players, she confessed that not a single pro had even mentioned the issue since she took over.
"The players want to play," she said. "They want opportunities. Those are my marching orders."
The story of this decade in sports (and society) has been a world-is-flat shift to globalism. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all have worked to turn their neighborhood sports into world conglomerates. The LPGA, with its wonderful medley of 121 players from 26 countries, must now try to do the opposite: make an international tour feel a little more like a barnstorming road trip among old friends.
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