LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens was on the phone in her Daytona Beach office one recent afternoon when her train of thought momentarily derailed.
Peering through the window at the lake that backs up to tour headquarters, she saw an alligator, one of her least favorite aspects of life in Florida.
"I think it's a stick and then it starts moving," Bivens said. "It just creeps me out. I don't even like the geckos, much less those things."
The moment might have been analogous to Bivens' position as leader of the LPGA. Though safe and secure in her office at the time, there are plenty of alligators nearby.
As Bivens and the LPGA come to Kingsmill for this week's Michelob Ultra Open, she oversees an organization in transition.
The LPGA Tour is younger and more Asian than even when Bivens took over in September 2005 as the organization's first woman commissioner.
The LPGA is dealing with the retirement of arguably its greatest player ever, Annika Sorenstam, but has seen an influx of promising young players.
The struggling economy led to the demise of several tournaments and a slight decline in purse money from a year ago. But the tour itself is on firmer financial ground and for the first time has a long-term TV deal, with the Golf Channel beginning in 2010.
The tour dealt with the backlash last year from a ham-handed attempt to get its young Asian players to learn English more quickly for promotional and marketing purposes. Yet LPGA golfers remain among the most accessible and accommodating professional athletes anywhere.
Bivens took a few minutes to discuss the current state of the LPGA and what lies ahead.
Q: What's your view of the general health of the LPGA Tour?
Bivens: "The general health of the LPGA has never been in better shape. … We have the first-ever 10-year domestic television rights-fee deal, beginning next year. We have a consistent home. That's been something that the LPGA has desperately needed for a number of years. No. 2, we have an extremely strong new partner in J Golf, a South Korean rights partner that owns multiple platforms — digital, as well as multiple print and cable platforms. That allows us to build a fan base around the world and to reach more people than we've ever been able to reach.
"We've had the last three years to be able to shore up the foundation of the LPGA, so that this year we're able to provide more in the way of player benefits, and we're able to provide more for our sponsors and our partners. Last year, the LPGA delivered almost $2.5 million worth of cash for our tournaments. That's a 40-percent increase over the year before and an all-time high.
"Is it difficult, and do we have a number of (tournament) renewals? Absolutely. If we could be renewing in a different time frame, we would sure have chosen that. We also had scheduled a number of these renewals to coincide with the new television deal. We didn't want tournaments to extend beyond not knowing what the new television partner with the platform would be."
Q: There are plenty of successes, but a lot of casual fans see the demise of several tournaments — the Oklahoma tournament, the Corning tournament, both Ginn tournaments. How challenging is that for the organization?
Bivens: "It's challenging, but no more challenging than every other league and association and every other business around the world is dealing with. Last year, we were fortunate in that there were three new, full-field events that were played. SemGroup (title sponsor of the Oklahoma event) was one of the first organizations hit by the economy. Then Ginn, and the entire sports world was hit by Ginn's troubles across the board; we were buffeted by the same things.
"But we have a new California event for next year. And this year in Phoenix, we had a watershed event (March 26-29) for the LPGA. It was the first time in the LPGA's history that we were able to sustain and conduct a tournament, regardless of whether or not there was a title sponsor, and that's a very … big … deal for us. That's a new era."
Q: How much of what the LPGA hopes to accomplish in the future is star-driven? How much do you miss Annika?
Bivens: "Personally, and inside the locker room, we miss Annika a lot. Annika added a great deal to the tour out on the golf course and in front of the fans. We couldn't talk Annika out of retiring, but she couldn't have picked better timing. We've got Lorena (Ochoa), Morgan (Pressel), Natalie (Gulbis), Cristie (Kerr), Michelle Wie, Vicky Hurst. It's an awfully exciting group of young women.
"I think the best test of that was the first event this year (the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in Hawaii). Annika was the defending champion, so were going up against television numbers from Annika in 2008, and the television ratings were up 35 percent this year."
Q: There are 10 foreign tournaments out of 29 money events, not counting the British Open, with several in Asia. Given the influx of young Asian players, are there any concerns that the LPGA can continue to be a fully sustainable domestic tour, or might it have to extend its reach globally to succeed?
Bivens: "It's interesting. Most sports are asking themselves that question in reverse: How much do we have to invest to be able to be seen as a global sport and to begin to get some traction outside of the United States? The LPGA looks at this as we're in a pretty fortunate spot. There's an interesting statistic. If you look back at 2002, how many U.S. players were in the top 10 on the LPGA money list, there were three. If you look at how many U.S. players are in the top 10 on the money list at the end of 2008, there were three. Nothing has changed, except in 2002, those other top players were primarily from Europe. At this point, you still have Europeans on that list, but now there are more women from Asia. China and Taiwan and Korea are better represented.
"The LPGA, and that's my point, for a very long time has been a global organization, in terms of the membership as well as the events that they play. As part of our strategic plan, the organization will continue to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 percent of our events internationally. We view that as an advantage, especially as you go through cyclical downturns in economies. Some of those will be leading recessions and recoveries. It's sort of like having a balanced portfolio. The other part of that is as you count up the number of tournaments that we have outside of the United States, four of those are in Canada and Mexico, again reflecting the membership and the interest."
Q & A: LPGA COMMISSIONER CAROLYN BIVENS
Q & A: LPGA commissioner says tour 'has never been in better shape' despite challenges
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