Change has come to the LPGA in the four years since Carolyn Bivens took over as commissioner, the first woman hired for the job in the organization's then 55-year history. Bivens was president and CEO of a media planning and buying company. Before that, she was the associate publisher of USA Today, where she also had been senior vice president of advertising.
Bivens made headlines last August when it was announced the LPGA would require all international players to speak conversational English or risk losing tour status. The backlash required the tour to modify its stance and announce that it would push language proficiency courses. She also took some heat last month for suggesting that pros should Twitter during competition to reach younger fans.
But she scored some hits, too. Earlier this year, the organization inked a 10-year deal with the Golf Channel worth a reported $3-4 million, and a five-year deal worth at least that much with a South Korean media conglomerate with TV, digital and magazine platforms. The tour will go to Asia twice and will unveil new venues for some events.
One of those is the LPGA Championship, being played for the final time at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Harford County. Long-time sponsor McDonald's is getting out of the tournament game as a means to make money for Ronald McDonald House Charities. The LPGA will own the Championship, with a new home to be announced in November.
Taking control of the Championship, one of the tour's signature events, allows the LPGA to choose the site, set eligibility criteria and reap all the revenue. In other words, the commissioner says, a chance to control the organization's destiny for years to come.
Here's what else Bivens had to say to Toy Department:
TD: Do you consider the LPGA's time at Bulle Rock to be a success?
Bivens: It has been a wonderful home for the McDonald's LPGA Championship. It helped raise a lot of money for a lot of kids. Fortunately for the LPGA, the owner, Herb Lotman, has agreed that after this year he will turn the Championship over to us and we will own one of our majors. We will be one of the only professional tours to do that. It is exciting and it's one of the things I believe years from now will be very transformational.
But you're taking a step in this economy, without a sponsor or a venue, into a huge black hole. No one can predict when things will turn around.
Bivens: The fact that a sports league or association would own one of its own championships and be able to illustrate and display their best of class of their brand, to set the eligibilty criteria and own all the revenue streams for that event is huge. Yes, it is high risk and high reward, but the opportunities for that to make a difference from a brand standpoint ... over the next 50 years is very big.
After you settled into the job, did you have a 'what was I thinking' moment?
Bivens: I think the biggest challenge for those of us who come from corporate America, which works differently than the sports leagues and associations, is how public doing the business of sports tours and associations is.
Have you made the adjustment or have others adjusted to you?
Bivens: We've all sort of made the adjustment. The LPGA is not a traditional golf association and I say that because we are more of an emerging brand inside golf. We are not the product or service that we were five to seven years ago. Nor are we what we will be five to seven years from right now. As many other women's sports strive for more solid footing financially and more recognition and opportunities around the world, sometimes the sport has to break some china.
That reminds me of the famous Ann Richards quote when she said that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and on heels. Is it harder for the LPGA to get traction and do what you need to do for the future?
Bivens: I would rather be in our position or in our shoes than in anyone else's right now. I believe that there's more upside. I believe that it is still more challenging for women's sports leagues and associations.
Do you feel that you have to set yourself on fire to get noticed and make marketing deals or is recognition coming more naturally?
Bivens: I think that corporate America is much more responsive than the inside-the-sports world is. The corporate world for us is much easier. No. 1, there are more women who have broken into the decision-making ranks, but also the generation of men that are making decisions are very different than the commissioners and LPGA staff before had to deal with. We have to make our case that we are a brand worth investing in, that we pay back more than just hospitality and we can be integral to their business and help generate new business and/or retain business. That we can do. Inside the sports world and inside the world of media, I still do believe that it is more of a challenge for woman. One has to do no more than thumb through the small news holes of most local newspapers right now and just count the number of articles over the course of a week on women athletes vs. men athletes.
The Golf Channel contract signaled a "look at me" moment for the LPGA, that things for the organization were turning. Is that how you feel?
Bivens: I absolutely believe that. One of the biggest challenges for the LPGA over the course of the last 15, 20 years is getting these remarkable athletes exposed to the rest of the world. When one doesn't have a television or media home ... it's hard for fans to follow -- even avid fans. It's challenging to know how to find us. Are we on this weekend? And if we are, what time and where? Thursday is often different than Friday and different from Saturday and Sunday, too. You can't be that hard to find. Even avid fans get discouraged. To have a consistent home helps your avid fans and allows you to reach out and grow your fan base and turn casual fans into avid fans and avid fans into advocates.
You are trying different things -- a rookie blog and Twitter -- not always well received. It must be hard to be part of something as traditional as golf and try to get traction in whatever the new world of communications is.
Bivens: The opportunities with media, I believe, are important to all sports. Everybody's experimenting right now. No. 1: How can we use social media to reach out and create new fans and connections. The next step -- and we're nowhere close to this -- is can you monetize it and how might you do that. Whether it's Facebook or Twitter isn't so important. Six months from now there might be something else. The issue that all sports have is that we don't compete just with sports. We compete with any other way fans spend the little bit of free time they have. Clearly, we are entertainment, which means we have to be reaching out to young people. We have to be generating and creating this interest when they're 12, 13, 14 years old. The 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds aren't into appointment viewing. They'll follow the leader boards while they're skateboarding or doing whatever else they're doing and they're going to do it on their hand-held devices. So how do we reach them and how do we connect with them? It may be a little bit more challenging in golf because golf is traditional, but it is something that cuts across all sports right now -- the NBA, the NFL -- it's how you keep and grow your fan base.
Do you need to have American players to attract U.S. sponsors and fans?
Bivens: That is a question we get asked so often. The conventional answer is yes, we do. And that may be true for the next few years. The reality is that the face of the United States, who we are and our demographic makeup, is not what it was 20 to 25 years ago. I would contend that the LPGA, with 121 international members, looks much more like the United States than the traditional demographic. The white, Anglo-Saxons are not going to be the majority much longer and there are many major markets where they aren't right now.
How many years into the future are you looking? You talk about a focus of five to seven years, but you also talk about 50 years. Where, as an executive, is your focal point?
Bivens: For the long term, dealing with the base of the platform, you look out 10 years. Most of the rest of the planning you do for five years out. A good example of planning and marketing is the NBA. [Commissioner] David Stern began investing in China 12 years ago. They started taking teams over and started doing some of recruiting, looked for partners. Twelve years later, they're seeing some rewards.
So your deal with J Golf, South Korean television, that's looking 10 years out, maybe more?
Bivens: The deal is a five-year deal and the big news about that ... is that it's multi-platform. It's not just cable television rights for South Korea. They own multiple magazines, they have a partnership deal with CNN, they have multiple digital platforms. It's a way of cross generation to introduce current and future members of the LPGA to a very important part of the world.