LPGA can find its niche

First, Annika Sorenstam retired. Then Carolyn Bivens made tournaments disappear. Now, Lorena Ochoa has retired.

It’s been a rough couple of years for the LPGA. The future is not necessarily bleak, however. If nothing else, things are looking up because the reign of error of former commissioner Bivens is over.

Bivens was a woman with a plan. Unfortunately, it was the wrong plan at the wrong time presented by the wrong woman. She had the idea that the LPGA had undervalued itself, that it was time to raise purses, increase benefits for the players, and rewrite the contracts between the LPGA and tournament sponsors on terms more favorable to the LPGA.

Her intentions were noble. Her plan, while I never really agreed with it, was at least defensible at the outset. Then the economy went south. Tournament sponsors had to rethink their financial commitments. Even if willing, many were unable to raise purses or take on new contracts that pushed more costs onto them.

Did Bivens adjust her plan to the economic realities? No, she stuck with it even as sponsors started dropping left and right and the tournament calendar became more full of holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.

It didn’t help that she had poor interpersonal relations. Instead of trying to build bridges with sponsors, it almost seemed that she went out of her way to alienate them—and ultimately drive a number of them off the schedule.

On top of all that, she showed questionable judgment in specifics, too. For example, it appeared that the LPGA had struck paydirt with the ADT Championship, an event with a unique format and nearly a winner-take-all prize. It worked very well as a season-ending event; in fact, that was the perfect slot on the schedule. Yet, somehow, Bivens decided it should open the season instead, so it disappeared from the 2009 schedule. Worse, it never appeared on the 2010 schedule as a season-opener, Bivens having done her bridge-burning act with ADT.

The LPGA went from 34 tournaments in 2008 to 27 in 2009. Midway through last year, the way things were going, it looked like it might end up with 20 or less in 2010.

The players finally took action, pulling their support from Bivens and essentially forcing her out. Acting commissioner Marty Evans made repairing sponsor relations and building the schedule back up her first priority and new commissioner Michael Whan has done the same. Disaster was averted as they managed to put together a schedule of 26 events in 2010.

On the player side, the LPGA is now without its Players of the Year for the last nine seasons—Sorenstam from 2001 to 2005 and Ochoa from 2006 to 2009. Sorenstam became the face of the LPGA because her record was so extraordinary that she entered best-ever conversations—and her one-tournament venture on the PGA Tour in 2004 didn’t hurt her profile.

Except for 2007, Ochoa wasn’t at that level of dominance, but she was at an age (28) when you would normally expect her to have a lot of years left. Ochoa was one of the most likeable stars in any sport—a genuinely nice person—and her game had some flair. She will be missed. But, except in her native Mexico, she never came close to the level of recognition as Sorenstam, so her loss shouldn’t be a devastating blow.

The player who really moves the needle, and could single-handedly lift the prospects of the LPGA is Michelle Wie. If she were to go on a winning spree, the LPGA would suddenly become a hot property.

Wie isn’t quite the lone hope. Paula Creamer has enough appeal that she’s already been used in national ad campaigns, and enough talent that she’s won eight times at the age of 23.

Of course, Wie is still a question mark. Will she be able to harness the immense potential she showed as a 15-year-old? No one knows. As for Creamer, she hasn’t exactly come up big in big moments yet, though there’s still time, of course.

Then there’s the Asian question. As a group, Asian women (particularly Koreans) are the biggest force in the game right now. But since the decline of Se Ri Pak, no individuals have been able to stand out from the pack.

Right now, there are two on the verge of doing so. Jiyai Shin was nearly Player of the Year in 2009, and Yani Tseng has won two majors at age 21. Despite the language barrier, both actually show signs of having personality, especially Tseng. But, let’s face it, neither has glamour, nor is the American public likely to warm to an Asian star as much as they would an American.

So, if Wie and Creamer fall short of dominance, is the LPGA doomed to irrelevancy? No.

It may not zoom into the consciousness of the average American, but the LPGA is a niche sport. With the right leadership and an improving economy, the LPGA should be able to bounce back from the doldrums of the last couple of years and occupy the same niche that it has for most of its existence.

A dominant player would help, but that’s not necessary. The organization did fine in the years when Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan, and Pat Bradley were sharing top billing.

It may not be able to achieve the benefits for its players or the boost in purses that Bivens envisioned. But there’s no reason it can’t boost its number of tournaments into the low 30s again.

In fact, it needs to do that. The old administration operated with the philosophy that it would be fine to have fewer, but better, tournaments. Not this many fewer, though. With so many off weeks in the schedule (July and October are the only full months on the 2010 slate), it’s easy to drop off the radar. And it’s harder for individual players to make their mark and rack up multiple victories if there are fewer events to play in.

Only 14 of the LPGA’s 26 tournaments in 2010 are in the United States, and many of the overseas events receive little coverage here. That makes it tough to make a connection with fans. Also, many of the tournaments are limited-field events. That makes it tough on the players trying to make a living.

To better serve its players and its fans, the LPGA needs more tournaments, even if purses are lower. Fortunately, new commissioner Whan seems to understand that.

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