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LPGA Unveils Five-Year Plan to Boost Its Image

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Ty Votaw may have pulled off the impossible over the weekend. He told more than 150 women they needed to shape up their image. And reportedly, they all left smiling.
 
Votaw, commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, called his players together for a mandatory three-day summit in Phoenix. He revealed a five-year plan for the LPGAs future that focuses above all on the players themselves.
 
The schematic we tried to convey, Votaw said Sunday night, is that were trying to make each of them more marketable in this competitive sports and entertainment market.
 
To some of the more critical voices in golf, Votaws news came not a moment too soon. The LPGA has been accused of lagging behind other golf organizations in purse size, television exposure, and sponsorship muscle.
 
To cure that perception, Votaw and his staff laid out a plan that took nearly two years to craft. Through a collection of new initiatives, the LPGA intends to reposition itself as an entertainment property, not just a sports league. It will also look for new ways to broaden its fan base, and will take a more active role in the development of young players.
 
The entertainment function will be served by the development of current LPGA players into celebrity athletes, Votaw said. He outlined five characteristics such golfers should have:
 
1. Performance. A top 30 player should be fighting to get into the top 10, and a top 150 player should be trying to become exempt, Votaw said.
 
2. Relevance to at least a segment of the fan base. The better a player performs, Votaw reasoned, the more people will want to know about her. When people discover, say, Betsy Kings devotion to Christianity or Juli Inksters success as a working mother, those players will gain great equity with an identifiable and enthusiastic segment of the fan base.
 
3. Attractiveness to that fan base. I dont necessarily mean drop-dead gorgeous, Votaw said, but the kind of attributes that make people attractive, that make people want to know more about them.
 
4. Joy and passion for the game. The players must look like theyre having fun before the audience will have fun.
 
5. Approachability. More autographs, more smiles, more cooperation with the press.
 
Theres not one player in this room who cannot in some way embody all five of these elements of success, Votaw told the players.
 
Gathered in that room were players of every shape and size, not all of whom fit the female marketing archetype. This did not concern Votaw, who insisted on focusing more on general attractiveness than the so-called lookism that sometimes dogs marketing efforts for womens sports.
 
Image does matter in many contexts in this society, Votaw said, and we need to be mindful of that.
 
The entertainment aspect of the plan overlaps significantly with the goal of building the fan base, Votaw said. As for development, the LPGA will take a greater interest in young players instead of waiting for the next star to emerge.
 
Were going to look at our membership policies, our qualifying process, and relationships with organizations such as the Futures Tour and the National High School Coaches Association, he said.

Both Votaw and Charles Mechem, a former LPGA commissioner who advised Votaw on the plan and attended the Phoenix summit, expected dissent or at least trepidation from some of the players. But early reports are that dissent never materialized.
 
I did not see it. And I watched pretty carefully, said Mechem, who is still revered and trusted by a great many LPGA players, although he has had no official position with the league since 1996. I know a lot of these players, and I was on the lookout for body language from some people from whom I expected a negative reaction. But I didnt see it.
 
We had a great three days, from the minute the summit started until the end, Votaw said. Ive never been prouder of the players in this organization.
 
Im just glad we finally have a plan, one player was heard to say. Now I can concentrate on my golf.
 
The new plan started about 20 months ago when LPGA senior staff commissioned a brand-value assessment, and hired Barb Kauffman, a consultant with marketing experience in the golf divisions of Spalding Sports Worldwide and Maxfli, to do it.
 
It was just kind of an audit, Kauffman said Sunday night. I interviewed consumers, sponsors, media, players and what became clear was, this organization was 50 years old, and it was still doing business the way it did 50 years ago.
 
Then I asked if people thought the LPGA had peaked, or if it had growth potential. And most people saw potential.
 
Tell-it-like-it-is advice from Kauffman, Mechem and others, including Basil DeVito, a former World Wrestling Federation and the XFL executive, led to the new plan. Specific initiatives will be rolled out in coming months, Votaw said, but he declined to reveal most of them now.
 
One early move to serve the development function is to add a professional development component to the work of Betsy Clark, head of the leagues Teaching and Club Pro Division. No longer will the efforts of Clark and her staff be confined to preparing women who dont want to tour for club pro jobs.
 
Instead of hoping the next star comes, theyre going to develop entertainers, and from a young age, Kauffman said.
 
But dont look for the LPGA to make robots. Although the league has had to withstand criticism that its two top stars, Karrie Webb and Annika Sorenstam, are a little shy and vanilla by American press standards, the LPGA doesnt want to change personalities.
 
That would be the dumbest thing we could do, Mechem said. When I was commissioner, I would say to the players, I dont want you to show false emotion. But dont suppress the false emotion thats there. Be yourself.
 
Votaw is keeping his eyes on a definite set of prizes.
 
The benchmarks are, this year, 10 percent growth in television viewership and 15 percent in attendance.
 
That may take a change in approach from the players.
 
Each one will have to sublimate her interests to that of the organization, Mechem said, not to ignore those interests, but to enhance them on the theory that a rising tide raises all boats.