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Tough LPGA times mean difficult decisions for sponsors

GolfAnheuser-BuschUnited StatesMajor League BaseballBaseballBoard of Directors

Transport yourself to Brussels, St. Louis or wherever Anheuser-Busch InBev's Czar of Sports Spending may work.

Bask in your corner office with the high-rise view, mahogany desk and life-sized cutouts of Natalie Gulbis and Kasey Kahne. Have an assistant schedule your pedicure, tip the chauffeur and pick up sushi for lunch.

Then ponder the question du jour: Why in the name of Babe Zaharias would you renew support of the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill?

Granted, the $2.2 million LPGA Tour event is petty cash for an annual sports advertising/sponsorship outlay that Reuters news service estimates at $1 billion. And yes, the tournament in seven years has drawn player raves and produced marquee champions - see Sorenstam, Annika.

But the economy - does the word "derivative" make your hair hurt? - remains in the dumper, sponsors are fleeing, and players just staged a palace coup.

Seven tournaments have vanished since 2007, leaving an already thin schedule anorexic. The casualty count could reach 10 with Anheuser-Busch, Owens Corning and Wegman's debating whether to bail on their events.

In short, the aura surrounding the LPGA is as toxic as subprime mortgages.

Amid the uncertainty last week, Golfweek magazine reported that 15 LPGA players had signed a letter calling for the termination of commissioner Carolyn Bivens.

Not some gang of grenade-launching backbenchers, mind you. We're talking the likes of Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Suzann Pettersen, Cristie Kerr, Michelle Wie, Gulbis and World Golf Hall of Famers Juli Inkster and Se Ri Pak.

The group encompassed every tour constituency. Domestic and foreign. Young and old. Champions and prospects.

Come Monday, less than 24 hours after completion of the U.S. Women's Open, Bivens' four-year reign was history.

Based on results and reputation, her exit was long overdue.

Players and sponsors considered her difficult, and the hemorrhaging of tournaments was unacceptable and embarrassing. Her learn-English-or-else edict to the LPGA's dozens of international golfers was ham-fisted and tone deaf.

"We had to change something," said Dawn Hudson, chair of the LPGA Tour's board of directors.

Board member Marsha Evans replaces Bivens for the interim. She is a retired Navy rear admiral who served national leadership roles with the Red Cross and Girl Scouts.

Eclectic background notwithstanding, Evans says she has no interest in the gig full-time. But you know how that works: If in the weeks and months ahead Evans talks sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch InBev off the ledge, the tour may deadbolt her inside company HQ and siphon the gas from her Mercedes, anything to keep her on the job.

Presuming a new commish in 2010, some have mentioned retired Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez and Sorenstam as possibilities. Curious because according to USA Today, a recent LPGA name-recognition poll ranked them Nos. 1 and 2.

Lopez, 52, hasn't made a cut since 2002 or won a tournament since 1997. That she remains the sport's most visible figure is a tribute to her but an indictment of the tour.

Whether an iconic golfer or savvy business type, the next commissioner's task is more challenging than a blind approach over water from a buried lie in the rough.

Only 10 tournaments are contracted for 2010, and the next event in the United States isn't until the Solheim Cup team competition in late August near Chicago. The only full-field tournament in the U.S. between now and Labor Day is the final weekend of August in Oregon, a void that erodes what already is a limited fan base.

Indeed, given the influx of Asian players and decline in American support, the most pressing issue confronting the LPGA's new leadership is whether to become an even more global tour with only occasional appearances in the States.

Would such an approach appeal to Busch's new partner, Belgium-based InBev? Will company execs be swayed by promises of a more sponsor-friendly commissioner?

Or, do they consider Bivens' departure further evidence of a business on the brink? Have they already decided the Kingsmill tournament's fate?

An Anheuser-Busch spokesman could not be reached, but in April the company's vice president of media and sponsorship told Reuters that the brewery is not inclined to curtail its sports connections.

"There's a reason we got to approaching a 50 (percent domestic) share ... and we're not going to abandon some of the things that have gotten us there," Dan McHugh said.

Anheuser-Busch has contracts with Major League Baseball, the NFL, NHL, NBA, Bowl Championship Series and World Cup soccer tournament. It sponsors golfers such as Sergio Garcia and Gulbis, as well as Kahne's NASCAR team.

So put yourself in that posh office. Lean back in the ergonomically correct chair and answer the following:

Is $2 million-plus better spent on the Michelob Ultra Open or an extra Super Bowl commercial?

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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