New LPGA boss has responsibility, opportunity
LPGA commissioner Carolyn F. Bivens knows the tour is close to a breakthrough that she can ill afford to botch.
Not since Ray Volpe was named the first commissioner in 1975 has the women's game needed someone to guide it through such a critical stage of its development. Bivens, who was an original member of the launch team of USA Today in 1982, is committed to the LPGA realizing a potential that may be bigger than even she realizes.
"I don't think the tour has ever been in better shape," Bivens said yesterday. "You're going to see us take off at the top of a crescendo this year. I know there are people who say, 'Is there too much hype around the LPGA?' I think we're going to exceed everybody's expectations."
During yesterday's pro-am round of the $1 million SBS Open, it became apparent that the youth movement is in full swing. Despite Michelle Wie opting to skip the first full-field event of 2006, you still had 17-year-old Morgan Pressel, 19-year-old Paula Creamer and 20-year-old Ai Miyazato crowding the interview room.
Creamer already has shown what she can do by winning three times last year en route to finishing second to Annika Sorenstam on the money list. She was named the rookie of the year and became even better known for her penchant for pink.
"Paula Creamer, Natalie (Gulbis) and Christina (Kim) are drawing out new and interesting audiences," Bivens said. "I call them crossover audiences, people who are on the fringes of the golf world, but come out to the tournament or tune in to see what this is all about.
"There are the girls who are 8, 9 and 10 years old who show up at tournaments with pink ribbons in their hair and pink skirts, hoping to be noticed by Paula. In South Africa a couple of weeks ago in the Sunday round, there was a guy I'd guess somewhere in his mid-20s who was wearing pink slacks and a pink shirt hoping to be noticed by Paula."
And then there's Pressel, who would love nothing better than to follow the model Creamer set as an 18-year-old rookie last year. She's as outspoken as she is talented, taking several shots at Wie through the years, setting up rivalries that fans love to follow.
"What we have is about 150 very unique, very distinctive personalities, all who are very, very good inside the ropes," Bivens said. "They all are their own people outside. I've been quoted that Morgan doesn't edit much of her comments. And I think that's going to lead to some interesting excitement."
But as good as this youth movement is for ticket sales and sound bites, marketing this product is the key to long-term success. And who better than Bivens, who spent part of her career as the president and chief operating officer of Initiative Media North America and was the senior vice president and associate publisher for USA Today as well. She oversaw worldwide advertising and advertising operations for the largest daily newspaper in America.
She believes the key to the LPGA Tour is not depending solely on ESPN and the Golf Channel to market the product.
"Our distribution outlets right now are primarily the Golf Channel and ESPN," Bivens said. "They've been terrific partners and are terrific partners. But those are primarily male audiences. And the audiences that we track there don't reflect what we're seeing coming out on the golf course.
"Advertisers expect us to have many more women. I believe that there are many more women who are showing up, and not showing up on ESPN2.
"From a marketing standpoint that means we have the opportunity to appeal to a wide audience and different targets. That's the opportunity. And the real question, the things I think you all will be watching, is can we turn the buzz and the interest and the conversations into a commercial success, so the women have more endorsements, opportunities and play for purses that begin approaching those of the men."
To do that, the tour needs to go where the women are and that's part of the challenge Bivens is willing to meet head-on. How well she markets the product into new markets will go a long way in determining the LPGA Tour's long-term success.
"We have to introduce more to the non-golfing world the personalities of these women off the course," Bivens said. "There are a lot of women's publications that are vying for circulation, and by that, I don't mean increasing, I mean stabilizing.
"We've got 30 moms on the tour who do a remarkable job of keeping families together, raising kids and their career just happens to be golf. And I think that's some pretty interesting stuff for a lot of other general interest women's publications. A lot of these publications are trying to reposition themselves for a younger, very active audience. And that's the kind of thing, we have to be able to tell these stories."