Did Asians save the LPGA?


Asians aren’t killing the tour, as a prominent LPGA player once harshly suggested.

On the contrary, they might have saved it.

For the sixth time in the last seven tournaments, a domestic LPGA event is being title sponsored by an Asian company.

This week’s Yokohama Tire Classic is an example of how the women’s tour has turned what was once perceived as one of its biggest problems into one of its greatest assets.

OK, if Asian dominance didn’t actually save the tour, it certainly played a large role in helping rebuild it.

In 2011, the LPGA withered through the aftereffects of an American recession to a bare-bones schedule of 23 events. There were seven Asian companies sponsoring events that year. Today, there are 33 official events on the LPGA schedule with 14 sponsored by Asian companies or organizations. Notably, one third of the title sponsors of U.S. events this year are Asian (6/18).

Yokohama, a Japanese tire company, is in the third and final year of its contract as title sponsor of this week’s event on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Prattville, Ala. The LPGA is in talks to renew the deal.

“As healthy as the LPGA is now, one of the hidden factors in our health is how diversified we are in our support,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. “We have gone through a lot of regional recessions [around the world] in our seven years but none of them has brought us to our knees, where back in 2008 a regional recession really did.”

The aftershocks of the U.S. recession in 2008 and some hardline business tactics by Whan’s predecessor helped lead to the loss of a large number of domestic title sponsors. The LPGA went from 24 cash-paying domestic events in 2008 to just 12 in 2011. The LPGA’s ability to capitalize on its popularity in Asia helped right the foundering ship that Whan inherited.

“We are tremendously more stable now,” said Jon Podany, the LPGA’s chief marketing officer. “Our revenues are up 60 percent or more over that time frame. I don't have the exact percentage of what portion comes from international investments with me right now, but it has to be over half.”

Whan was asked if he believes enough Americans understand the strength Asian players have given the tour’s financial foundation.

“From a business perspective, it’s 100 percent understood,” Whan said. “Back in 2009, even businesses were saying there was way too much Asian influence on tour. You would hear, `I don’t know anyone, and I don’t know how to pronounce their names.’ Even sponsors were saying that, but now sponsors are saying there’s a huge competitive advantage being so international. We’re not there yet from a fan base perspective. There is still that stereotype.”

But Whan says Asian players are changing that with the way they’re connecting with American pro-am partners, media and fans. The work Inbee Park, Ai Miyazato, So Yeon Ryu, Na Yeon Choi, Yani Tseng and others have done mastering English is making a difference.

“The good news is that with super overachieving athletes, you don’t have to force them to do much,” Whan said. “They know it’s in the best interests of both their games and their business.”

While the domination of international players in the LPGA ranks is still deemed a drawback by some American fans, the tour’s bottom line tells a different story. Podany said South Korean television agreements are still the LPGA’s top revenue source.

Lotte, JTBC, Kia, All Nippon Airways, Swinging Skirts and Yokohama are all Asian-based companies, but they’re all sponsoring LPGA events played in the United States. Lotte is a multinational conglomerate with headquarters in South Korea and Japan, JTBC is a South Korean television network, Kia is a South Korean-based car manufacturer, ANA is a Japanese airline and Swinging Skirts is a Taiwanese golf foundation.

Whan said the LPGA’s variety of international business support is like having a diversified portfolio. It has helped the LPGA survive economic issues in the United States, Canada and even in Asia.

“Now if the U.S. hiccups, it doesn’t stymie the LPGA like it did back in 2008 and ’09,” Whan said.

Whan said Yokohama is an example of how the LPGA’s growing popularity internationally has helped domestic growth, too.

“In the past, the LPGA might have looked at Yokohama as a good company to sponsor a Japanese tournament,” Whan said. “And now we look at Yokohama as a worldwide tire company that has multiple headquarter locations. So, let’s talk to Yokohama about where things work for their business, not the other way around.

“We met with Lotte not looking for Hawaii. We met with Lotte looking for Lotte. Hawaii turned out to be a good place to create something pretty significant on the schedule. Also, a lot of our international events, we don’t want to have more than one event in certain countries [where other nations have their tours]. We don’t want to show up and play on somebody else’s home turf 12 times.”

Podany said the global nature of the LPGA’s membership and the tour’s international television reach has changed sponsorship possibilities. With intense interest in the LPGA in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries, and with LPGA events broadcast there, the tour has become a vehicle for Asian companies to reach audiences no matter where the event is actually played.

“In some cases, companies are trying to make stronger inroads in North America, and so they are using the LPGA as a vehicle to help build their businesses here,” Podany said. “In other cases, they may not have had a big presence here before, and they are doing it because of how big the LPGA has become in Asia, because of how TV is distributed around the world and because we have such a strong digital following in Japan, Korea and other Asian countries.”