BOCA RATON, Fla. — When Mike Nichols first started with the LPGA Tour, the average purse for the development circuit was just over $100,000. Now, less than a decade later and on the heels of a new sponsor announcement for the Tour, he proudly talks of a big-time increase — and more excitement to come.
The LPGA Tour announced Wednesday that Epson America Inc. has entered into a five-year agreement for the official naming rights of the Official Qualifying Tour of the LPGA. The Epson Tour (formerly Symetra Tour) begins March 4 with the return of the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic at the Country Club of Winter Haven.
Not much will change in terms of year-end celebrations as the top 10 players on the Race to the Card money list at the end of each season will earn LPGA Tour status for the following year. But when you peel back the layers of what this agreement means, Nichols says there is much to celebrate.
First, the purses are up and will be a minimum of $200,000 at each event. Player entry fees are also being lowered to $450 (from $500) with hopes that more companies will come on board soon to help cut those fees in half to $250.
Graduates of the Epson Tour will also immediately become Epson Tour ambassadors and receive $10,000 – financial assistance at the beginning of their LPGA Tour journeys.
It's a win, win, win situation for some of the game’s up-and-coming pros.
“We are delighted to welcome Epson to the LPGA Tour family. This ground-breaking partnership will provide expanded opportunities for the future stars of the game from around the globe to test their talent and take one step closer to realizing their dreams,” LPGA Tour commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan said in a press release. “We are grateful that Epson shares our commitment to supporting young female athletes as they grow and develop and to playing an active role in the growth and equity in women’s sports. The ‘Road to the LPGA’ has never been better.”
Nichols told the Morning Read that Epson has been an engaged partner to help build the best kind of package possible for the players. At first, Nichols said, he brought three different ideas to the table with Epson, assuming the team would go for one, maybe.
Turns out the company went with all three — the increase in the minimum purse, the reduction in entry fees, and the ambassador program.
“When we started having conversations with Epson they said, 'Before you even get to the branding and the assets and stuff… we don’t even want to talk about that unless you can figure out a way to impact the players through our partnership,’” Nichols said. “I presented the menu and expected them to pick one I could build a program around, but they said they wanted to all three of those things. And that was amazing.”
The Symetra Tour era began in mid 2012 after running without a sponsor the year prior. Symetra had just spun off from Safeco Insurance and the fledging brand was looking for something to give them name recognition by C-suite executives.
It was, Nichols confirms, more of a business-to-business opportunity for a regional insurance company looking to make inroads in golf.
The deal with Epson — which emanated from the company’s division in Japan — allows the LPGA’s qualifying tour to have global brand recognition.
“The fact that we’ve now gone from Symetra, which wasn’t particularly well-known, to Epson, which is an internationally recognized brand, is amazing,” Nichols said. “I told my kids about Epson and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got Epson projectors in every room in our high school.’
“It’s incredible that in 10 years we went from a regional, somewhat unknown insurance company to a global brand everyone knows.”
Nichols said one thing that will also continue to improve is the storytelling from the Epson Tour and its graduates.
Hannah Green, Patty Tavatanakit, and Sophia Popov have all graduated from the Tour and won majors on the LPGA Tour in recent years – with Popov’s story of playing on the Symetra Tour and then winning the AIG Women’s Open the very next week perhaps the most famous – and the most notable of all recent alums is, of course, world No. 1 Nelly Korda.
“With Nelly, she was No. 9 on the money list that year, which means eight other people finished ahead of her! It’s certainly something we try to focus on, the caliber of play week in and week out,” Nichols said. “It’s a reminder how close these players are to having success on the LPGA Tour. It’s a matter of opportunity, and that’s what the Epson Tour will provide.”
Epson America’s parent company, Seiko Epson Corporation, has also become an Official Partner of the LPGA Tour and the Epson Tour with Wednesday’s announcement. Epson will also assume sponsorship of the Epson Tour Championship to wrap the season, Oct. 6-9 at LPGA International.