PRATTVILLE, Ala. – Nobody’s delivering better in the clutch this LPGA season than Marty Evans.
The retired Navy rear admiral may end up serving as little as four months as acting commissioner, but it might be remembered as the most significant reign in the tour’s history.
Since taking over after Carolyn Bivens was ousted in a player revolt in July, Evans and her executive team have pulled the tour out of its dispiriting spiral.
When Evans took over, there was speculation that the LPGA’s downturn might require the tour to forge a partnership under the umbrella of the PGA Tour, merge with the Ladies European Tour or sell itself to IMG just to survive.
The tour was staggering from a series of blows with one tournament after another losing its title sponsor or failing to renew after contracts expired.
Only 13 LPGA events were under contract for 2010 when Evans stepped into the job.
The tour was in peril.
In 10 short weeks, Evans’ team has imbued tour members with the confidence that better days are on the way again.
That’s no small accomplishment given the gloom that shrouded the tour upon Bivens’ ouster.
“There was a period of time where the direction the tour was being led wasn’t going to be a happy end point,” said Gail Graham, president of the Tournament Owners Association. “It wasn’t going to be good for anyone.”
While players will remain wary until they know who will be installed as the next commissioner, there’s a palpable sense of relief among them with the Navistar LPGA Classic beginning Thursday on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
“Marty Evans has been a tremendous stabilizing force for the executive team, staff and players,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, a former LPGA president who serves as the tour’s player liaison. “I think that’s starting to resonate with sponsors. She’s helped create an atmosphere with quite a bit more optimism and less pessimism.”
Evans presided over a players meeting Tuesday night, her second since becoming acting commissioner. Her candid detailing of tour business is impressing players.
“I had one player tell me these are the best players meetings she has been to in 14 years,” said Meg Mallon, the 18-time LPGA winner.
Evans told players that the tour was preparing to announce that Navistar was renewing its contract as title sponsor with a one-year deal and a two-year option. She updated them on negotiations with Exxon Mobile to become presenting sponsor of the LPGA Championship and a larger charitable program supporting the empowerment of women. She elevated player spirits telling them 18 contracts are already signed with tournaments for 2010, and she expects agreements with at least 24 tournaments next year. While that’s down from 27 this year, 34 a year ago, it was welcome news for players fearing a far darker future.
“She’s helped us get on the right path again,” said Lorie Kane, a four-time LPGA winner. “As a result, the incoming commissioner’s going to be on more solid footing with a better feeling for where we want to go.”
If Evans were interested in keeping the commissioner’s job, she would have substantial player support, but she consistently dismisses any notion she’s a candidate.
“I’ve already retired from the full-time work space,” she told GolfChannel.com. “While it’s been a great honor to be asked to come back to full-time work, it’s not on my, or my family’s, agenda.”
Evans, 61 when she stepped up as acting commissioner, will move back into her role on the LPGA Board of Directors when her replacement is named. Players are eager to know who’s being lined up and when the new commissioner will take over. So are tournament directors and title sponsors.
Evans told players Tuesday night that while the field of candidates is being narrowed, no hiring is imminent, according to sources familiar with her presentation. She didn’t specifically identify candidates, even to her membership, but industry insiders rank Peter Bevacqua, the U.S. Golf Association’s chief business officer, and Donna Orender, the WNBA commissioner, as favorites. Bevacqua and Orender did not return messages left with their assistants seeking comment.
“The search committee is working very diligently,” Evans told GolfChannel.com. “The committee has had scores of people referred, applications submitted. It’s really been a wide open search. What we’ve told them is to take whatever time is necessary for this critically important job. We will not bug them about hurrying up.”
The next commissioner still faces daunting challenges. With Lorena Ochoa’s play dropping off, the LPGA lacks a dominant star. With South Korea continuing to rise as the tour’s dominant force, there is a troubling disconnection with too many English speaking fans. With Americans struggling to win on the American-based tour, there’s a disconnection at home.
Still, Evans will turn over a foundation stronger than players expected. She’s doing so with her focus on winning over tournament owners alienated by Bivens’ hardball approach. Communication skills are proving Evans’ strength.
“Marty’s done a nice job reaching out and rebuilding relationships that desperately needed to be rebuilt,” said Judd Silverman, tournament director of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic.
Evans takes care to emphasize that she’s not doing this work alone and relies heavily on her executive team’s expertise. Zayra Calderon, the tour’s new vice president of tournament development, is proving a vital member as the point person in title sponsorship renewals. Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam is credited with making an impact in her new advisory role.
Saving the 2010 season has really been about saving the tour with so many tournaments having already folded. McDonald’s, ADT, Michelob, SBS, Corning, Fields, SemGroup, Kapalua Resort, Stanford and Ginn have been lost as title sponsors for various reasons over the last two seasons.
Evans’ work has been fraught with tough compromises.
“Marty has embraced the acting commissioner’s role,” said David Higdon, the LPGA’s chief of communications. “She hasn’t taken the approach that we can wait for the next commissioner to make certain decisions. She’s made tough decisions.”
Evans signed off on purse reductions at this week’s Navistar LPGA Classic and last week’s CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge. Both purses were reduced $200,000 from what was announced at year’s start. She also signed off on the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic slashing its purse $400,000 to $1 million next year.
“We aren’t in the marketplace looking for $1 million tournaments, but we recognize that this year the adjustment makes sense,” Calderon said. “There’s a lot of love and romance between the LPGA and [the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic]. The LPGA is telling Toledo we really care what you did for us for these 26 years, and it matters to us enough that we are willing to accept a $1 million purse if we can continue this event and make the tournament viable to your community and the LPGA.”
While skeptics might dismiss the sentiment as desperation, Evans defends it as fair and smart with so many communities struggling economically.
“There’s been a consistent message when I’ve posed questions to players about what they think about playing for reduced purses,” Evans said. “The answer is always, `Well, is the alternative not playing the tournament?’ When I say, in certain cases it definitely is, the universal answer is, `We want to play.’”
Evans’ mandate from players was to increase playing opportunities. She has been virtually omnipresent at LPGA events, making an appearance at every tournament but one since becoming acting commissioner. She said the experience has helped her appreciate the economic challenges secondary local sponsors are struggling with.
“We’ve heard time and time again how seriously communities were hit with the recession,” Evans said.
Evans’ team calls its approach a bid to return to the collaborative spirit the LPGA was built upon. Bivens supporters might call it a spirit of weakness, an approach that has made second-class citizens of female athletes. In this economic climate, Bivens’ approach wasn’t working and ultimately cost the tour more sponsorship monies than it added. The chief complaint tournament directors had with Bivens is that she didn’t really negotiate, or recognize the unique differences between tournaments. She imposed take-it-or-leave-it offers with escalating sanctioning fees.
“The tour had changed its business model to where it was all about brand and not about people or how people relate to their community,” said Linda Hampton, tournament director of the Wegmans LPGA. “It was like they were telling us we had to buy a Cadillac when we liked driving Fords.”
Negotiations to renew the Wegmans LPGA in Pittsford , N.Y. , was at an impasse under Bivens when the final putt dropped there in June. Evans and Calderon ultimately negotiated a new three-year deal with a three-year option with the $2 million purse intact. It was a critical first renewal for Evans’ new team.
“We never had a contract with the LPGA that wasn’t good for both us and the tour,” Hampton said. “At the end of the day, the contract [Bivens proposed] wasn’t consistent with past contracts that worked for both of us. It wasn’t a case where we didn’t want the tournament any longer. It was a case where there was just no relationship to have a dialogue.”
Evans and Calderon changed that.
“We are having very, very honest conversations,” Calderon said. “But we are a business as well, and we have fiduciary responsibilities to our members. I don’t think this is about anyone wanting to take advantage. It’s taking tournaments case by case, based on real, sound business information.”
The financial losses the LPGA will incur with a shrinking schedule may force Evans to make tough budget decisions before the next commissioner takes over. She didn’t indicate layoffs were imminent, but something’s got to give with less revenues projected next year.
“For sure, our bottom line is affected as we work in a collaborative way with tournaments,” Evans said. “It’s like a Rubic’s Cube trying to fit it all together. We are looking at more ways to be efficient and effective. It’s hard, but it’s no different from what CEOs in businesses around the world face.”
The downside to Evans’ limited role is that tournament directors and title sponsors know she isn’t long for the job. They learned during Bivens’ nearly four-year run that leadership styles change overnight, that business models can be overhauled and that trust is hard won and easily lost. There’s a wait-and-see stance being taken by tournaments wary of the economy and how a new commissioner will adapt to it. Navistar, Owens Corning and CVS/pharmacy demonstrated that in limiting their renewals to one year.
Tournament directors want to know if the spirit of collaboration will continue with a new commissioner.
“They’ve got to get this next hire right,” said Chris Higgs, the former LPGA chief operating officer who is now co-managing director of Octagon, which manages the P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship and the Sybase Classic. “The LPGA needs strong leadership to create strong partnerships.”
The future of the LPGA depends on it.