2010: A Pivotal Year for LPGA

By: Dave Andrews

LPGA Tour players and executives have probably never anticipated an upcoming season more than the one that will begin in late February. Sizable question marks, monumental challenges, and bigger potential opportunities await the tour as the 2010 season approaches. The short-term and long-range future of the tour will be affected by the performance of players in the upcoming year, and decisions by the tour's new leadership will be crucial.

One of the biggest challenges facing the tour - lining up more events, will be very evident in the first few weeks of the 2010 season. The LPGA begins the year with two limited-field events in Asia (Thailand and Singapore), but then there is a month-long gap in the schedule until its first full-field event at the end of March (the LPGA Classic presented by J Golf in Carlsbad, Calif.). So, it will be nearly April before the LPGA will be playing a tournament in the United States.

It's hard to believe, even in the current economic downturn, that there are no LPGA events scheduled between the end of February and the last week in March here in the U.S. Ideally, those weeks would be filled with tournaments in Florida and other warm-weather states. Two other multi-week gaps in the schedule, at the height of summer, will also be stark reminders that the tour must come up with new sponsors and event organizers. Growth in the number of events, especially in the U.S., will be critical to the long-term success of the tour.

New LPGA Commissioner, Michael Whan, who officially begins his job the first week of January, has been hard at work since November when the LPGA's Board of Directors elected him to replace Carolyn Bivens. The selection of Whan to head the tour has been greeted very well by those in the golf industry and media, but he will not be able to enjoy any sort of honeymoon during his first days on the job.

Whan and his staff will have to find a way to attract new tournament sponsors for the upcoming years. The tour's 2010 schedule has been reduced to just 24 events, with only 13 of those in America. Somehow the tour will have to find a way to plug the holes in the schedule if it wants to maintain its reputation as the home of the best women's golf in the world. An "interim" schedule won't work, and weeks-long gaps in the schedule will not sustain fan interest in the tour.

New TV Deal Important

One of Bivens' best achievements during her tenure was negotiating a new 10-year TV contract with Golf Channel, which begins with the 2010 season. The increased coverage of events will mean a lot more exposure. The financial terms of the agreement have not been disclosed; however, Golf Channel is paying the tour for coverage rights.

Under the terms of the contract, the network will cover all rounds of the domestic events (except the few that are currently on broadcast network TV). The cable channel will also provide coverage of early rounds that have network weekend coverage. Golf Channel will also have exclusive rights to Solheim Cup coverage, and it will provide feeds of events from around the world.

When the deal was first announced, Golf Channel president Page Thompson was asked if the network would increase its coverage of the LPGA with other programming, outside of televising the events. This was his response: "Absolutely. In fact, we talked about that quite a lot as we developed our plan together, and we want to support the LPGA throughout all of our coverage, in our news programming, our original programming. There are a number of LPGA stars. As I said before, they're great stories, they're awesome people and they're great players, so I think this won't be difficult at all for us to find great stories. It's a deep pool of really talented players, and it's a very exciting tour."

What Fans of the LPGA are Saying

I asked several of my friends around the country to tell me what they thought the LPGA needs to do to increase interest in the tour. These people are all golfers and avid fans of the game and the LPGA. Here are some of their thoughts in this unscientific survey.

Rob from New Hampshire: "Two words . . . media blitz. They need to advertise on more than the Golf Channel. The PGA has (or had) the 'These Guys are Good' ad campaign, the LPGA needs to get the word out that they offer a good and entertaining product. Reach out to all the media outlets for coverage and hype. People will follow what they're told is exciting and popular."

Bill from Connecticut: "Show more than just the leaders during tournament telecasts. Interview players about what they do to prepare for golf tournaments, workouts, swing coaching. Emphasize the commonality between LPGA players and core golfers."

Danielle from Hawaii: "The LPGA has to follow up with an open arms policy of letting the LPGA connect with the fan base. Twitter does a better job and that's the golfer doing her own 'PR'."

Stephanie from Michigan: "I would like to see the Golf Channel produce a show called 'Inside the LPGA Tour.' We get news from the men's tours plus the Canadian and European tours. Since the Golf Channel markets to the golfing community, why is there no program devoted to the LPGA? When Amanda Blumenherst won the LPGA Q School, the Golf Channel devoted 1:53 [minutes] to it, and yes, I timed it. It isn't the Golf Channel's responsibility to save the LPGA, however the LPGA seems to be an afterthought in their minds."

Sam from Alabama: "Sorta like the Champions does at times . . . maybe mike the girls . . . make some connection with the players. I look at the leaderboard like everyone else, and all I see is a list of foreign players. Skill plays that role, so, as long as we open the LPGA to worldwide players, we (USA) need some more at the top."

Ron from New York: "Show the LPGA in the community, giving back. Add P.R. people to really pump up the majors. Separate the majors by month as the men's tours have done. Create fantasy leagues/challenges with prizes for internet freaks like me."

Commissioner Whan, the tour's board of directors, and the staff at the LPGA will receive lots of advice in the upcoming year. They will get suggestions from fans and from experts in the marketing, golf, and media industries. It will be the job of the tour to make the right decisions to move the LPGA in the right direction.

Dave Andrews is a Harvard-educated former television news reporter. He's also an avid golfer who has become a fan of the Duramed Futures Tour. His home course in Concord, N.H., is annually the site of one of the tour's events. The inspiration for Dave's 2007 novel, "Pops and Sunshine," came from meeting many of the young aspiring women golfers on that tour. Each of them has a passion, dedication and determination that he finds remarkable. His novel is a fictionalization of the dream that these young women share. To order Dave's book, visit http://popsandsunshine.com.