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Assessing the New LPGA Realignment

By: Nancy Berkley


If a reporter had not scooped a story a few days ago - which turned out to have some errors in it and has since vanished from the Internet, it is likely that the news of the LPGA's business reorganization and related promotions and dismissals would have gone unnoticed for a while at least. The LPGA has had a poor track record in dealing with the press and once again found itself in a defensive posture which led to the issuance of a better-late-than-never press release.

Read the official LPGA press release for yourself on Cybergolf (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/lpga_tour_realigns). At this time, the official release is still not on the LPGA.com website, offering yet another insight into the public relations skills of the LPGA.

What is the realignment? A quick summary of commissioner Carolyn Biven's announcement is that the LPGA is realigning its business units to achieve strategic objectives and, to that end, some high-level executives are being promoted and one at least is leaving the organization. Thank goodness Dr. Betsy Clark, VP of Professional Development, is not leaving, although her area is now reorganized into Tournament Operations and Player Services, which strikes me as a strange business-group name since I don't know who the "player" is. Is it the LPGA player or just a regular golfer-player like me?

In the corporate financial world, reorganizations and realignments happen all the time. Interestingly, reorganizations do not occur all that often in large golf associations like the USGA, PGA, NGF and NGCOA, to cite a few examples.

The game of golf is loaded with tradition, and traditionally, new executive directors are selected only as leaders retire, and most often they come from the ranks of the existing executives. And successions do not usually involve reorganization.

Bivens was an exception to the internal-promotion route when she was selected to replace the previous commissioner, Ty Votaw, in 2005. Bivens came from the media world where she had led an extremely large and successful unit of Initiative Media - a global media company and, before that, was at USA Today.

Over the years I've observed that business executives tend to focus on areas where they are most comfortable. That makes sense. For Bivens, that area is TV and brand marketing. So I am not the least bit surprised that the strategy of the LPGA under Biven's leadership is and will continue to be about getting better media exposure for the LPGA members. And that means bolstering the TV exposure of LPGA tour events - worldwide.

What about fans? The importance of fans is mentioned in the Bivens press release, but, reading between the lines, fans are tools. They are there to help the LPGA Tour and members. For Bivens, growing the fan base is not the end - it is the means. For golf historians reading this, compare Biven's "LPGA Members First" strategy with the LPGA's 2002 "Fans First" strategy.

What about golfers? Remember: Fans are not always golfers. What also is not mentioned by Bivens is any sincere interest in growing the number of female recreational golfers in the U.S market. If her LPGA-member-first strategy succeeds, which results in financial stability for the LPGA Tour and its playing and teaching members, that will be great.

If it fails, it will be her undoing and, in the reassessment, we will revisit the importance of fans and golfers themselves and develop with more urgency the programs that grow the game at the grassroots level.

Biven's strategy is not unique. In fact, a "my-organization-member-first" strategy is standard operating procedure in golf organizations. It may, in fact, be the single most important clue as to why the number of golfers has stalled in the U.S.

Selfish interests prevail in the golf industry. I believe that if the USGA could line up all of the golf courses for its competitions for the next 20 years, it would not be very interested in whether the fan base or number of recreational golfers grew much at all, provided of course, it could still regulate the game's equipment and make money on the U.S. Open. Some readers may remember how the broad-market USGA members drive was ditched years ago about the same time the idea to put a golf museum in New York City was launched. Both were bad decisions for different reasons.

Similarly, if the PGA of America knew that its golf professionals could find work for the next decade through just attrition and aging of its current membership, growing the game would be nice but maybe not all that necessary. The PGA controls the total number of golf professionals and by controlling supply it controls pricing. So as long as the PGA members' dues are enough to keep the PGA association in the black, the status quo of a flat golf market (about 26 million golfers) may not be so bad. Actually, both the PGA and LPGA should be taken to task for not attracting more female teaching professionals to the game. The number of female professionals has been about the same for almost a decade.

These are harsh words, I know, and thank goodness there are a few industry leaders that are exceptions to my theory. For example, Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, brought the first Golf 20/20 conference together with the challenge to grow the fan base. M.G. Orender, as president of the PGA of America several years ago, established "Play Golf America" to grow the number of golfers and also increase the fan base.

Of course, these objectives fed their business interests, but for a year or two, they took their "association blinders" off and thought outside their boxes. Unfortunately, at the time, it was difficult for them to move the industry towards their views. On a more cheerful note, that may be changing. In hard times, the golf industry stands to benefit from stimulus packages both internal and external.

My concern is that as focus on the LPGA worldwide television strategy drives the LPGA, the interest of fans and ordinary women golfers will become secondary. There is an increasing risk that there will not be any major organization seriously concerned about the growth of recreational female golfers at least in the U.S. That may not matter because maybe there weren't any anyway.

I will never forget the LPGA 50th Anniversary celebration in 2000. I moderated a panel of top female golfers - both young and old, including those who were there at the beginning like Peggy Kirk Bell and a young high school student trying to make it on the Tour. The panelists were inspiring - what a game we were part of!

I asked for questions from the audience, which included serious recreational golfers. One woman stood up and asked: "How do I - not a professional golfer - become a part of this? What can I join?"

The question stumped the panelists; they really didn't understand it. I turned the question back to the audience. The attendees included LPGA executives and golf professionals and not one suggested that perhaps this woman wanted a member organization just for regular golfers - maybe even like the old fashioned Red Cross swimming card that demonstrated basic skills.

This summer the Teaching and Club Professional division of the LPGA will celebrate its own 50th Anniversary. What a contribution those professionals have made to the game. Perhaps the "membership" question will be asked again, and perhaps the answer will be different and better.

Which only proves that, like most golfers, I am an optimist. Golf will survive and with good leadership, it will grow again. But it probably won't be because of the LPGA's realignment and new strategic objectives. Growth will be driven by something else.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Consulting, is an expert on women's golf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women. She is a contributor to Golf for Women magazine and Chair of the Advisory Board for Golfer Girl Magazine where she writes a special series on careers in the golf industry. She chaired a panel at the World Scientific Congress of Golf in Phoenix in March 2008 and was a guest speaker at the Northern California Business Women's Conference held at Poppyridge Golf Course in Livermore, Calif., in June 2008. Nancy also consults with golf facilities on how to attract more women golfers. She is a resource for golf-industry trends and marketing advice on her website www.nancyberkley.com. Nancy also offers a Quick Question-Free Help Line on her website. After a career as a lawyer and business executive, Nancy founded Berkley Golf Consulting and The Woman's Only Guide to Golf to share her long-time passion for golf and to help grow the game. Nancy describes herself as a bogey golfer who is too busy to play enough golf. Contact Nancy at info@nancyberkley.com or on www.nancyberkley.com.