As its 2004 season begins, the worlds top womens golf league is midway through a self-imposed reexamination of its business practices, building the momentum to break through those barriers ' and more important, thinking beyond them.
The numbers, preceded by a lot of plus signs, depict the trend. Network television viewership rose 26 percent between 2001 and 2003, and 42 percent among the crucial ages 25-54 demographic. Gains on cable were just slightly lower. The LPGAs website traffic was up more than 40 percent in 2003 versus 2002. Attendance at tournaments rose 9 percent in 2003 compared to the season before. LPGA members play for more than $43 million in 32 events ' still far short of the $240 million the PGA Tour spreads over 48 tournaments, but a figure that is growing by the year.
When youve got an environment where your fan base is growing, it all reflects the interest level and the compelling nature that our fans find in our product, said Ty Votaw, who is starting his sixth year as commissioner. Thats what Im most proud of entering the third year of our five-year business plan.
Part of that plan is to attract ' and take care of ' some big-name sponsors.
The depth and breadth of the tour and the story lines over the last couple of years have shown a growth in interest, Votaw said, and that means more eyeballs, which of course sponsors want. So far, so good: The sponsor list includes data management company Sybase, food giants Kraft and Kellogg-Keebler, and Anheuser-Busch.
Youve got to realize that not every worthwhile sport involves a 20 rating and a hundred thousand people in the stands, said Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch. With the Michelob Ultra brand, which has a more female attraction, its important to be involved in a womens sport. We find the women of the LPGA to be user-friendly and cooperative from a marketing standpoint. It gives us a nice compliment to a female consumer base.
That kind of reaction is music to Votaws ears. His challenge, he says, is to get the players to sing the same song as often as possible.
We have to do everything we can to make sure our players are unanimous in their approach to the marketplace. Now that we have set the bar where it is by being a fans-first organization, when someone falls down, whether its a pro-am situation or a shuttle experience or whatever, we have to be sure that how the fan encounters the players at each touch point is important.
Not that they fall down very often. Ponturo reports that pro-am participants who initially grouse at playing with a woman pro finish the day thoroughly charmed and pleased with the experience.
Most of the players, veteran and newcomer, are on board.
I always compare [the LPGA] to a slow, steady stock, as opposed to the PGA Tour, which is more like as hedge fund, said Meg Mallon, who is entering her 17th season as a fully qualified member. We just get better every year, which is very encouraging. To Mallon, her league doesnt feel like a one-star (read: Annika) tour.
More power to her, Mallon said. We ride that wave with her.
And how about the youngsters? Are they watching the numbers?
Big time, because it continues to show how the success of the tour is going, said Natalie Gulbis, who is starting her third year. Its exciting to see the prize money go up every year as well.
Constructive criticism is part of the process ' Gulbis wants more events earlier on the schedule, and Mallon would like to see a better retirement plan (Some top players who retired werent able to live on it, she said) ' but the general attitude as the 2004 season begins is can-do, with plenty of enthusiasm and not a hint of self-pity. Some players arent happy with equipment manufacturers who have pulled in endorsement dollars in tough times, cutting back many womens contracts or eliminating them altogether. But most players think they can earn back that attention ' and the dollars ' as the economy improves.
Votaw is turning his attention to the World Congress of Womens Golf, which the LPGA is organizing in New York City the third week of May. Womens golf tours and organizations will gather in the same place for the first time ever, and the plan is to discuss ways to foster womens golf worldwide.
The linchpin of any plan is likely to focus on the LPGAs No. 1 asset.
Increases in attendance, viewership and dot.com are opening doors, but the LPGA must still show value, Votaw says. The point of difference is the players. Our players have long been regarded as wonderful pro-am participants, wonderful for corporate outings, and great with the fans.
On the other side of the glass ' and grass ' ceiling, the only limit Votaw sees is the sky.
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