I think we can all agree that the LPGA is one sports entity which is rising in popularity. While it is not in the same stratosphere as the NFL, MLB, NBA or even NASCAR, one area that the Tour can look to these other leagues for guidance in promoting its growth is television.
Huh?!? Hound Dog, the LPGA is on TV all the time!
Not this past weekend it wasn’t, not in the United States. Granted, the Canadian Women’s Open might not have been the marquee event on your sports calendar last weekend (it certainly wasn’t for Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa, Karrie Webb or Michelle Wie), but it is an official LPGA event with a purse of $1.7 million dollars (US) and awards ADT Championship points to its top finishers. The NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Watkins Glen is near the bottom of choice venues in its first 26 races, but NBC was there with bells on and they were on-air from green flag to checkered flag. Why? Because they were contractually obligated to be there. NASCAR told them, “if you want the rights to air the races in the Chase for the Nextel Cup and the Brickyard and Daytona, you WILL be at Watkins Glen, Martinsville, and New Hampshire”.
I know NASCAR has a lot of advertising pull, but why can’t the LPGA get a television contract or set of contracts together? Right now each tournament negotiates its own deal or is in a group deal, like the State Farm series which contracts with ESPN. For the most part that works ok, but as we’ve seen more than once this year it leaves some events out in the cold. The Atlanta tournament was scrambling for a sponsor until a month before the event, leaving it no time to work on a network to pick up the coverage. The Canadian event was right across the lake from Buffalo NY, but since it’s in that “nowhereland” of Ontario, American networks brushed it off. The McDonald’s LPGA Championship (for God’s sake!) got bumped from CBS to TGC because the Big Eyeball wanted to air more coverage of its PGA event that week. And don’t get me started on the events in Asia at the end of the season – have any of you ever seen even taped coverage of those tournaments? Maybe they are lesser tournaments but dammit, they count towards the ADT Championship don’t they?
Back in the early ‘60s, Pete Rozelle got his NFL franchises to agree to let go of their local TV deals and go with the CBS contract of regionalized telecasts. If you asked those franchise owners now if that was a good idea, they would tell you to stop asking stupid questions. MLB and the NBA have also reaped the benefits of unilateral TV contracts for many years. In the late ‘90s, each track with a Winston (now Nextel) Cup race worked out its own deal with ESPN, ABC, or TBS. Before the 2001 season, Bill France Jr. fixed that chaos by working out deals with FOX, NBC and TNT. There is no doubt that move accelerated NASCAR’s jump to prominence.
Dude, there’s no way that NBC or ESPN is gonna want to show women’s golf four days a week, 35 weeks a year!
Probably not. But somebody would, given the right set of conditions. What if a cable network like CNBC televised all the rounds of all the tournaments except for the rounds that NBC wanted? What if CNBC-NBC and ESPN2-ABC shared the season, each company getting two of the majors? Or make it a three-headed monster with TGC involved? Each of the companies would have their assigned events at a predetermined rights fee ala FOX/NBC/ESPN with the NFL. The key is having all of the tournaments under one negotiating umbrella, which (despite Ms. Bivens’ current popularity with the tournament directors) shouldn’t be too difficult. They are all in this together. If they have any doubts about the potential gain of this arrangement, they should go talk to Bruton Smith, Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban. Another thing: The more consistent exposure these events get on the tube, the more the advertisers will pay, the larger the purses become, the more likely Annika, Lorena, Karrie and Michelle will show up at your party, the more fans come out to the course, the more the advertisers will pay – I said that one twice but it’s true, the upward spiral would continue.
Lastly, this is THE time to be working on this situation. In the next couple of years, Michelle Wie will begin playing fulltime on the LPGA tour. Bivens and Company need to strike while that iron is hot. I don’t expect this sport to rival the popularity of those others I mentioned, but I’m convinced that with a stable TV contract it would get better overall ratings than tennis or beach volleyball or Texas Hold-em. If they do this right, the LPGA and its tournaments may never have to go hungry again.