Mention the LPGA to your Average cable sports fan, and his or her response might be, Is Nancy Lopez pregnant again? or, Did Jan Stephenson pose for a new calendar? Some might recall something about a Big Momma or even a New Big Momma, but almost everyone else is an unknown under a visor.
Embarking on its 40th year, the Ladies Professional Golf Association is still struggling to sell a product that begins with the modest crack of a 215-yard drive and generally ends with a brief cheer on the 72nd hole. To paraphrase Willy Loman, who also was familiar with a tough sell, the LPGA has been liked but not well-liked.
The LPGA tour has always played second fiddle to the PGA Tour, but now—and with the current resurgence in golf—the LPGA has sunk to third, behind the upstart Senior PGA Tour. Only dedicated golf fans can name the women's four majors (the Nabisco Dinah Shore, the U.S. Open, the Mazda LPGA Championship and the du Maurier Classic), let alone the winners of them. After Nancy Lopez, the two words most commonly associated with the LPGA have become, Who cares?
One man who must care is the LPGA's new commissioner, William Blue. In November, Blue, 48, was selected to succeed John Laupheimer, who announced his resignation last summer. Laupheimer, 59, had spent nearly seven years guiding the women to steady if unspectacular growth, but he had been criticized publicly by players who complained about gaps in the schedule, insufficient prize money and Mickey Mouse courses. Upon accepting the $250,000-a-year post, which Golf Digest recently termed one of the worst jobs in golf, Blue optimistically declared, "I can't think of a better job."
February 13, 1989
There's no denying that Blue's appointment has infused the LPGA with a much-needed shot of adrenaline. Before joining up, Blue was director of international marketing for the Kahlua Group, the coffee-liqueur maker.
"A sparkle in the eye, that's what I see in Mr. Blue," says 14-year pro Amy Alcott. Indeed, Blue seems incapable of negativity. "I don't see problems, only opportunities," he says. "My job is to remove all the negatives."
It will be a big job. Chip Campbell, a sports marketing executive with Ohlmeyer Communications in New York who was considered for the commissioner's position, succinctly summed up the plight of the LPGA when he said, "Mr. Blue had better be dynamic, because right now his sport isn't."
Indeed, 1988 was not a banner year for the LPGA. Mazda announced it would withdraw its sponsorship of a $300,000 season-long bonus pool and of the $200,000 Mazda Classic, and reduced its overall advertising commitment. In July the Lady Westchester Open was canceled after promoters could not raise the $300,000 purse or line up a course. That same month the Greater Washington Open also came up short. Rather than lose another event, the LPGA agreed to a smaller purse.
This year's schedule calls for 35 tournaments, down from 36 in 1988 and a high of 40 in '81. "We've been feeling as if we were going to hell in a hand basket," says tour veteran Muffin Spencer-Devlin. "But it's led to a good change, because now we know we have to go in a different direction."
To turn the LPGA around, Blue will have to address three major problems:
1) The perception, in what is still a male-oriented national sports consciousness, that women can't play excellent golf. "We never hear, 'You have a great game,' " says Patty Sheehan, LPGA Player of the Year in 1983. "We hear, 'Your game is boring. It's not as good as the men's.' We are waiting for the time when being the greatest women players in the world will be enough." Adds LPGA Hall of Famer Carol Mann, "An incredible number of people still think women pros play like the ladies at the country club."
2) Corporate America, the goose that lays golden golf balls, has gone crazy over the men's tours but remains lukewarm toward the LPGA. According to Special Events Report, a Chicago-based newsletter, last year corporations poured more than $100 million into the PGA Tour and $32 million into the Senior tour while investing only $25 million in the LPGA. Lack of corporate funding has cost the LPGA vital television exposure, which in turn has hampered its ability to spotlight new stars.
3) Persistent claims, particularly in golf's powerful old-boy network, that many women players are lesbians. "The only thing you ever hear about the LPGA is that at least 30 percent of its players are gay," says Terry Kassel, a New York sports marketing executive who was the only woman among the finalists for the commissioner's position. Others close to the tour, including some players, put the percentage higher. In the ultraconservative, commercially oriented world of golf, "the image problem," as LPGA officials quietly refer to it, is no small handicap.
Laupheimer was not entirely unsuccessful in dealing with these issues. A former executive director of the USGA, he was chosen to run the LPGA on the strength of his administrative skills. He established an all-exempt tour and a pension fund for the players. Under his regime, prize money grew from $6.4 million in 1982 to $12.4 million last year. "We had more integrity under John than we've ever had," says Kathy Whitworth, the 30-year veteran who is currently president of the association.
But while Laupheimer was overseeing modest growth, the PGA and Senior tours were exploding. Many players and sponsors began to consider his Philadelphia Main Line, buttoned-down style out of step in a world in which aggressive marketers control the sports dollars. "We need a guy who can walk right into a boardroom, look the chairman straight in the eye and feel very comfortable," says JoAnne Carner, one of the five players on the eight-person committee that selected Blue. "We never felt John was that guy."
"I'm happy for the LPGA that Laupheimer has decided to move on," says Lynn Smith, a vice-president of the Mayflower moving company, which last year withdrew its sponsorship of the 13-year-old Mayflower Classic in Indianapolis when the company failed to reach an agreement with the LPGA on a TV package. "John wasn't a dynamic deal maker. If he had been, we might still have a tournament."
Laupheimer, who has joined IMG, the sports marketing giant, acknowledges that the LPGA will benefit from new leadership. "The tour needs someone else to take it to the next plateau," he says. But he also refuses to second-guess himself. "I can't think of anything I would do differently," he says. "The reality is that women's golf is more difficult to sell than men's golf. If what our players wanted was more sales, more tournaments and bigger purses, we gave them that. The LPGA is not a troubled tour. That's nonsense. It is in a spot right now where it will go on and prosper."
Laupheimer has many defenders, including Don Stirling, whom Laupheimer hired in 1987 to be the LPGA's first director of marketing. "John is more substance than style," says Stirling, who left the LPGA last fall to join NBA Properties. "He lost the confidence of the membership, in part, because he was so honest about what the LPGA is up against. No one knew the limitations of the LPGA better than John Laupheimer."
When Laupheimer became commissioner in 1982, Lopez was winning fans with her play and personality, and the LPGA was attracting attention to the sport with a marketing strategy that promoted sex appeal over athleticism. But as Lopez's domination waned and the LPGA reconsidered its sexy marketing approach, the momentum was slowed and gradually gave way to ennui. Sheehan struck a nerve when she announced at a 1986 press conference, "We need to have more pizzazz."
Undoubtedly, something has been missing, for the LPGA's star quotient has stagnated. Lopez, Stephenson and Carner (Big Momma) remain the most identifiable players, while mainstays like Ayako Okamoto, Betsy King, Jane Geddes, Pat Bradley and Sheehan have not stirred interest. Potential stars like long-hitting Laura Davies (New Big Momma), 1988 leading money winner Sherri Turner, and U.S. Open champ and Rookie of the Year Liselotte Neumann haven't been seen enough to be widely recognized.
"People should know us," says Alcott, who drew some attention by jumping into a greenside lake after winning the Dinah Shore last year. "We've got to do something about why they don't."
"The LPGA is hanging on too much to Nancy Lopez history," says none other than Nancy Lopez. "We have to promote other players. I really believe that we have a better product than we've ever had."
Perhaps, but Hughes Norton of IMG, which represents 17 LPGA players, including Lopez, Stephenson and Davies, believes that the women must guard against overrating their product. "The boom on the men's tours makes it difficult for the women to evaluate where they should be," says Norton.
Says Whitworth, whose 88 tournament wins are the most for any pro, male or female, "Our girls have started to compare themselves with the men, and that is a narrow view."
Blue agrees: "I don't think the LPGA is in competition with men's golf or senior golf. I think we complement each other. The LPGA and PGA tours have the best golfers in the world, so in that sense men's and women's professional golf are the same thing."
In a physical sense, though, they are not. The average drive on the PGA Tour is 260 yards, compared with 215 for the LPGA. Moreover, a male pro can reach the green from, say, 160 yards with a seven-iron, while his female counterpart needs a four-iron from the same distance. Hence, he is more likely to hit his approach closer to the hole. Men also can use their strength to make more spectacular escapes from trouble. The women pros even admit that the men are superior around and on the greens. Throw in the fact that the men play on longer, more difficult courses than the women, and it is hardly surprising that men's golf is more exciting.
The LPGA's reference point for measuring its progress has always been the PGA Tour. In 1980 the women took pride in the fact that their $5.8 million in purses for the year came to nearly half of what the men were playing for. Last year, however, the women competed for only a third of the $37 million in prize money that the PGA Tour offered.
Last year the three major networks and ESPN paid the PGA Tour a total of $26 million for the right to televise nearly all of its 45 events. Tour commissioner Deane Beman uses that money to increase purses and help the sponsors buy more advertising time. He keeps what's left for his burgeoning organization and its myriad business ventures, which include real estate, videos and licensing the PGA name. The LPGA's television rights package is worth about $700,000, and of the 13 LPGA events that will be telecast this year, only five will appear on one of the three major networks.
The LPGA would seem to be an easy sell to advertisers. Women are taking up golf as never before; the National Golf Foundation estimates that they could well constitute nearly half of all golfers by the year 2000. In addition, the audience for most golf telecasts is between 35% and 40% female. "We move products just as effectively after the Dinah Shore as after one of our men's events," says Wayne Robertson, senior vice-president of RJR/Nabisco's sports marketing subsidiary, which invested more than $7 million in the Dinah Shore last year. "We don't find the audience for women's tournaments soft at all."
But what is often behind a tournament sponsorship is a golf-minded CEO who wants to play in the pro-am and to entertain customers and fast-track employees at a fancy venue. In that regard, corporate America has shown that it prefers men to women. "Golf is a very emotional buy," says Janet Thompson, vice-president of advertising for Mazda Motor of America, which still has more than $1 million invested in the women's tour and a substantial amount in the Senior tour. "Tracking data of product sales from golf is mostly bunk. Basically, a lot of CEOs love golf. At Mazda they are golf freaks."
The fact is, the TV ratings for most tournaments, men's or women's, would get a sitcom canceled in a week. But because of the demand to be a part of the PGA Tour, Beman requires new sponsors to buy commercial packages, in some cases for more than $1 million, if the tournament is televised on one of the major networks. On the Senior tour, sponsors pay as much as $350,000 to get on ESPN. "Sponsors don't go to men's golf just to get commercials about their product on television," says Stirling. "They've decided the image of the PGA is something they want associated with their product."
The LPGA has never had the same prestige, and its ratings are even lower than the PGA's. "TV time is almost a liability in a package the LPGA presents to a sponsor," says Stirling. "If he doesn't want to buy any television commercials, a sponsor knows he can still get a nontelevised tournament [for less money]. So now you hardly ever see the women on television.
"The biggest mountain the LPGA faces is getting back on television. It's simple: The more you are on television, the more familiar people are with your players and the better chance they have of becoming stars. And stars sell the tour."
In both attracting tournament sponsors and lining up TV coverage, the Senior tour has seriously cut into the LPGA's franchise. The Senior tour has increased its prize money from $250,000 in 1980 to $14 million this year, eclipsing the women's tour. The LPGA used to get sponsors who couldn't obtain a date with the PGA Tour, but now the Senior tour is the alternate of choice. In fact, because the amateurs who play in pro-ams are almost always middle-aged men, and because senior pro-ams are two-day affairs, the Senior tour is sometimes corporate America's first choice.
The LPGA achieved its highest profile under former commissioner Ray Volpe. When he took over in 1975, the group was nearly bankrupt and offering only $1.5 million in prize money. Seven years later the women were playing for $6.4 million, primarily because Volpe got corporate America interested in women's golf. "The PGA Tour is bought; the LPGA is sold," said Volpe. That will probably remain true longer than the women would like.
"Ray used a machete to cut down bushes, paved the road, and here came Nancy Lopez in her big Cadillac," said Tony Andrea, a sports marketer who worked closely with Volpe in designing a strategy to sell the tour.
Volpe's marketing strategy was coolly calculated. He decided to sell the LPGA by emphasizing factors other than golf. For example, Volpe used the comely Laura Baugh, who had never won a tournament, to promote the tour as often as possible. He persuaded a promising young player from Australia named Jan Stephenson to pose seductively in an attention-grabbing layout in the tour's Fairway magazine. "I might not have looked like the typical LPGA player," says Stephenson, "but it worked."
Perhaps too well. By emphasizing factors other than golf, Volpe devalued those players whose most noteworthy quality was simply their winning golf. As a result, such pros as Bradley, Okamoto and King, former leading money winners all, remain nearly unknown to the public. The LPGA administration can't decide whether it should promote its members as attractive women who a happen to play golf or as excellent golfers who happen to be women.
"Women's golf has never been marketed to showcase competence," says Mann. "It's been marketed to placate some of the traditional views of what society wants women to be—pretty, demure, but not necessarily athletes. Ray helped our tour by getting us exposure, but he also created something that future leadership has to overcome."
Volpe, who left the LPGA in 1982 and now runs a communications company in New York, agrees with Mann. "We promoted sex too heavily," he says. "Now it's time for another profile." But Volpe doesn't apologize. "I had one job, and one job only," he says. "That was to make the women of the LPGA richer. At that time something that was holding the women back financially was the butch image, so we tried to deal with it."
Alas, the LPGA is still haunted by the presumption that a significantly greater proportion of gay women are on the women's golf tour than in society at large. In the conservative, male-dominated worlds of business and golf, innuendo about sexual preference has damaged the marketability of the women pros.
"The whisper campaign has always hurt women athletes," says Donna de Varona, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming, who is chairman of the Women's Sports Foundation. "A lot of corporate sponsors are older men. They grew up believing women athletes are gay, and they don't want to give them money. We found that out in the battle for Title IX."
Sociologists and psychologists generally believe that about one person in 10 is homosexual. No empirical evidence exists to suggest a greater incidence of homosexuality in women's sports. "There haven't been any studies," says Pat Griffin, a University of Massachusetts associate professor of physical education, who has done research on homophobia. "But we live in such a homophobic society that getting accurate data would be impossible."
Still, rumors persist that gay women outnumber straight women on the tour. Exaggerations are perpetuated, many experts say, by men who feel threatened by women who exhibit the technique, physical strength and mental toughness that are necessary for success in professional sports. ''The L word is very much alive on the LPGA tour, just as it is wherever single women are successful," says Don Sabo, a sports sociologist at D'Youville College in Buffalo. "But it's not about sex. It's about power. By calling a woman a lesbian, men can discount a woman's achievements and keep her institutionally subordinate. There are some societies in the world that forbid two women to be alone for fear they will band together and try to break down male dominance, and there are traces of that same fear in America."
"Why is this even an issue?" says Whitworth. "You guys [the media] are always bothering us about this. Yes, we have an image problem, and we are working to correct it. But I don't see the press asking about male athletes who are gay."
But a veteran player who asked that her name not be used believes the innuendo will not stop until the LPGA and its players are more open about the issue of lesbianism. "It's out there," she says. "It hurts us in the business world. I'm tired of seeing it hidden, because it will go away faster if we just deal with it."
Bruce Ogilvie, a sports psychologist who has worked with several LPGA players, doubts that disclosure is worth the hurt. "It is painful just being a single woman professional athlete in America," says Ogilvie. "A woman athlete has to build walls against all the negativity she encounters so it won't affect her person or her performance. Of course, the walls must be higher if she's gay. I would counsel a gay woman athlete who was considering coming out of the closet to stay inside. There would be too much pain. Society just isn't ready."
At times the tour has inadvertently helped perpetuate the stereotype that a top female athlete is unlikely to be physically attractive. "Dale [Eggeling] is a good golfer," a male LPGA spokesman was quoted as saying in The Sporting News in 1980. "But she's very much a lady." This year's edition of Fairway features five players modeling swim-wear in Hawaii.
"It bothers me when the television camera follows Jan [Stephenson] when she might be 10 over par, and ignores someone not as glamorous who is five under," says tour veteran Janet Coles. "Isn't that telling people there is something not quite good enough about the woman who is five under, that it is still more important to be pretty than good?"
Most players, however, don't resent Stephenson, who, by the way, has won three majors. "A little sex is O.K.," says three-time U.S. Open winner Hollis Stacy. "After all, the men offer sex symbols without telling you they're doing it. I mean, Greg Norman? Please."
Blue would like to see more special LPGA events, such as skins games, team tournaments with the male pros and limited-field match-play events, to showcase stars. He also believes international team play, along the lines of the Ryder Cup, would lend weight to women's golf. Blue recently visited PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Fla., to observe firsthand what the men's tours are doing right.
"I feel comfortable that I know where the LPGA ought to go, but I'm listening and learning," says Blue. "I want quantitative and qualitative reasons for why the LPGA hasn't been a better marketing vehicle, and we have to identify what the market for women's golf is. Right now, the public is still diffident about what the LPGA represents."
The women are off to a good start in 1989. Oldsmobile replaced Mazda as sponsor of the year's first full-field tournament, in Boca Raton, Fla., last month, and increased the purse from $200,000 to $300,000. The Jamaica Tourist Board has taken over sponsorship of the bonus pool and has increased the kitty to $500,000. The LPGA still has open dates, but Blue hopes that as the PGA and Senior tours become more and more crowded and expensive, sponsors will turn to the LPGA.
In sports leagues, perception can quickly become reality. Blue must promote a positive image that his players can be comfortable with. "More than ever, the players have to take responsibility for their image," says Mann. "For years, they've been told they had to be sold as something other than just the best players in the world. Now they have the chance to sell themselves, and be accepted, as great athletes."
That's all the LPGA has ever really wanted. The women may continue to finish third in golf's three-horse race, but if Blue can bring the LPGA some respect, he will have been a success. "Nobody expects anything from the LPGA," says marketing man Campbell. "If Blue does anything at all, he's going to look like a hero."
Always behind the PGA Tour, the LPGA now ranks third, after the Senior PGA Tour, in revenue