Helen Alfredsson nearly fell off her sofa. Back in February,
during an idle afternoon of channel-surfing, she happened upon
the made-for-TV festivities of the NBA's All-Star weekend.
Dancing across Alfredsson's screen were the coed participants of
the 2ball competition, that ingenious NBA marketing ploy that
paired the association's luminaries with those from its sister
league, the WNBA, in a made-for-TV version of H-O-R-S-E.
"Watching those guys promote the women's game so
enthusiastically, I finally figured out what our girls have been
talking about all this time," says Alfredsson. "I thought, My
god, we need a relationship like that, too."
Merging the LPGA tour with the PGA Tour has long been discussed
sotto voce in women's golf circles, and Dottie Pepper has taken
the debate public. Merging with the men is a seductive
proposition, given currency by the WNBA's stunning success and
the blockbuster business driving the PGA Tour. There is only one
problem: Like Sansabelt slacks, this is an idea whose time has
The LPGA is doing just fine on its own, thanks. The usual
barometers--prize money and TV presence--both show steady
growth, but beyond that the tour is on the verge of something
big. To slip into the callow lexicon of the marketplace, the
product has never been better. The LPGA is the only tour on
which the world's best tee it up week in and week out, and it is
home to the most compelling rivalry in golf, Annika Sorenstam
versus Karrie Webb. While the PGA Tour has degenerated into
driver-wedge birdiefests, the LPGA is like a real-time Classic
Sports Network, providing a window into how this artful game
used to be played.
Still, the LPGA will be able to cash in on its virtues only if
it maintains autonomy. Being swallowed up by the PGA Tour would
guarantee that the LPGA would be golf's third banana forever, as
the men would be sure to protect their interests in the Senior
tour at the expense of the women. As an outsider the LPGA has a
golden opportunity to muscle the Senior tour out of the picture.
"They're looking vulnerable," says Pepper, noting that the
Senior tour is losing its star power and, by extension, its
reason for existence. "Now is the time for us to make our move."
Since 1993 the LPGA's total purse has grown at a faster rate
than the Senior tour's, even though the over-50 set piggybacks
on the regular Tour. While the Seniors' TV ratings plummeted 15%
last year and are still down in '98, the LPGA's numbers have
held constant while its exposure has more than doubled this
decade, from 15 telecasts in '90 to 33 this season. The LPGA
brass points to these stats with barely disguised glee.
The LPGA can even gain from the spectacular growth of the men's
Tour, provided the women remain free to cut their own deals as
opposed to becoming a subsidiary forced to accept leftovers.
With its ballooning purses, the PGA Tour is on the verge of
pricing itself out of numerous markets, making the LPGA an
increasingly viable option. It's no secret that the folks at
Lincoln-Mercury, for example, were miffed when the Tour jilted
their Kapalua International in favor of one of the big-money
international events starting up next year. In what looks to be
a precedent, Mercury ditched the men and is now the title
sponsor of one of the LPGA's most prestigious tournaments, last
week's Titleholders, and the backer of the Mercury Series of
seven tournaments cablecast on ESPN and ESPN2.
To be sure, the LPGA is eager to become more of a presence on
network TV, which explains the fascination with the WNBA. But
the WNBA's visibility is a product of excellent timing, because
the league was created to coincide with the NBA's negotiations
for a new TV deal. Even if the PGA Tour gobbled up the LPGA
tomorrow, the men's TV contract is locked in through 2003. By
then the LPGA figures to be in a much stronger position.
Pressed on these points, Alfredsson concedes that perhaps the
LPGA ought to stay the course. Perking up a bit, she says, "I do
like the idea that sometime in the future those basketball
players might be sitting around watching us play on NBC or
CBS--maybe both!--and they'll say, 'How did those girls figure
it out on their own?'"
expense of the women.