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Future prospects for LPGA looking good

Ty Votaw didn’t have to look far for a reason to smile Tuesday. The sun was shining and the sky was blue, but inside the Conference Center at Kingsmill, the LPGA commissioner’s brightest stars were already out.

A trading-card company was introducing a new line of cards featuring high-profile LPGA members.

An hour before, Annika Sorenstam, winner of 13 tournaments in 2002, offered a charming slice of herself as she prepares to take on the men’s tour at the Colonial in Fort Worth starting May 19.

Nearby was the 18th green of the River Course. That’s where this week’s winner of the inaugural $1.6 million Michelob Light Open — the largest purse for a first-time event — receives a check for $240,000.

Votaw has a five-year plan called Fans First. The goal: increase attendance at LPGA events by 15 percent and TV viewers by 10 percent.

So far, so good. After one year, LPGA attendance rose 12 percent. Television audiences grew by 20 percent.

“Those results bode well for our organization and our players,” Votaw says. About halfway through the LPGA’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2000, Votaw realized the organization was doing more than enough to honor its past. It was time to work on the future.

Over the next 18 months, the LPGA interviewed about 1,000 people. The tour sought advice from 150 movers and shakers. The question: Had the LPGA reached its full potential? The answers formed the basis of a five-year plan that Votaw unveiled to 178 players in March, 2002.

Women golfers had to “connect” with the public. They had to be entertainers. They had to be relevant, involved in the issues of the day. They had to let the outside world see them living lives to which it could relate.

Votaw asked his membership to buy into what he called the “Five Points of Celebrity.”

“Performance, relevance, passion and joy, appearance and approachability” — Votaw rattles them off like a telephone number. Some are obvious. Play with more emotion. Make yourself more available to the public. Votaw called it “the circle of life.”

The largest emphasis is on performance. At the seminar, an ex-Fortune 500 CEO who was a NASCAR sponsor explained why racing was so popular. NASCAR prides itself that the top drivers face each other week after week.

Votaw favors the LPGA’s longer offseason. The season ends the third week of November and resumes on a regular basis in March. The fewer the tournaments, the better the fields, the larger the crowds, the happier the sponsor, the happier the player.

Votaw also introduced a rule long called for by critics: LPGA members must play in every tournament on the schedule at least once every four years. The PGA Tour has no such rule, which is why Tiger Woods got away with never playing at Kingsmill.

“It’s been received fairly positively,” said Votaw. “The first question I was asked was, 'What’s the penalty if I don’t do that?’

''I said, 'Rather than think about the penalty, think about what this can mean for the organization, what it says to the sponsors who are paying the freight for you folks to make a living.’”

Votaw said that guarantee is one reason half his sponsors increased their purses this year. There are 27 events paying $1 million or more, compared with 12 just four years ago. The average purse this year is $1.27 million. Total prize money available on this year’s tour is $41 million, an increase of $2.255 million from 2002.

Fans like seeing more good players competing for bigger purses. And they like reading about them.

More people are clicking on the LPGA Web site, and they’re staying longer. Hits at LPGA.com increased 51 percent from 2001 to '02.

It’s a sign, Votaw said, that his players are becoming more “relevant.”

“Whether it’s Val Skinner’s work with breast cancer, Kelly Kuehne, Sherri Turner or Michelle McGann’s work with diabetes, Annika Sorenstam being a chef in the offseason — fans need to find something relevant about players on or off the course,” Votaw said. “It’s Juli Inkster being a working mom.”

Critics and cynics charge that “appearance” is another way of saying “sex.” Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth said if the tour had to go back to selling sex to become more popular, it would “just shrivel up.”

“It didn’t work before and it won’t work now,” she said.

Votaw said the media “misinterpreted” the concept as it applies to his plan.

“When I talk about appearance, I talk not only about what clothes they wear, but how they present themselves to the public and how professional they are in their interaction. All of those things combine to make a player more attractive.”

 

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