The LPGA’s Marketing Challenge

The LPGA has a challenging issue in the American market.  The challenge is to change the perception of the LPGA in the mind of the average American golf fan.

What is really behind this challenge?  Let me share a recent conversation I had with other golfers on the Wednesday before the Wegmans LPGA Championship.  I was playing golf with a group of women (all play a lot of golf and are passionate about their sport).  I asked if they watched the LPGA and they all said no because the top 10 women golfers are all Korean.  Their perception is that the LPGA is becoming an Asian tour.  Their declaration that the top 10 players are all Korean is not correct. They were surprised when I told them both Stacy Lewis and Christie Kerr are in the top 10 of the world rankings; and that Stacy Lewis had won two of the last three LPGA events.

On Thursday, I started watching the Wagmens LPGA Championship.  It looked like an American might actually win this major tournament; Paul Creamer, Christie Kerr, and Stacy Lewis were playing well.  Then, on Sunday,  a Chinese player, Shanshan (Jenny) Feng shot an amazing 67 and won.  She is the first Chinese player to win but this means that the current title holders for the four LPGA majors are all Asian (from Korea, Taiwan, and China), and this is “the story” that is focused on in the media.

On the golf channel, both Ron Sirak and Tom Rosenforte raised the issue of what Feng’s win means for the LPGA.  Ron Sirak even suggested that it might mean the LPGA Championship could be held in China in the near future.  In Beth Ann Baldry’s GolfWeek online article she also pondered what Feng’s win means… “For all we know, decades from now this tour might be based in China. Crazier things have happened.”  These golf commentators are adding fuel to the fire and provide even more proof of the “image battle” facing the LPGA marketing team.

So what’s the LPGA to do?  They have tried very hard to position the tour as a “global” tour and promoted Yani Tseng so that fans can embrace her.  This is an important message because the huge growth in golf will be from markets like China.  But frankly, that doesn’t really help with the immediate (and sensitive) image issue facing the tour in its key market, the United States.

It is important to give credit where credit is due and the leaders of the LPGA are reinvigorating the tour overall. For example, they have added events, gotten new sponsors, and they have a really great new marketing campaign for 2012 —  “See why it is different out here.”  I promise, you will enjoy the video below.

They also have embraced social media as I highlighted in my previous blog post “Funny Tweets from LPGA Golfers.”

Now this is all great but the problem is that the message is not getting out to the average golf fan (at least not where I live).  The ads I see for the LPGA are only on the golf channel and mostly shown during coverage of the LPGA.

So what is the LPGA to do?  Well, here are a few suggestions.

  1. Get the Golf Channel to show the new ad campaign during broadcasts of the other tours; especially the PGA.  I get why the new ads are shown during LPGA coverage, but to me this is “preaching to the choir.”  As a marketing professional, this has always been a “pet peeve” of mine — showing ads that are intended to reach new customers to viewers already engaged with your product.
  2. Target an ad campaign to the viewers that “long for the days of Nancy Lopez.”  Heck, get Nancy to do some ads to promote the new breed of American players.  The message is that if you liked Nancy Lopez, then watch Stacy Lewis.  Which brings me to the next issue.
  3. Promote the heck out of your top American players.  Stacy Lewis is #2 in the Rolex world rankings — make a big deal of it.  Play off the developing competition between Stacy Lewis and Cristie Kerr to be the top American.  It’s great that the golf announcers talk about it during the broadcast but take advantage of it in your marketing (use all that great TV footage for some great viral videos).
  4. Expand social media and create a Pinterest strategy.  First, I give credit to the LPGA for having an official Pinterest page; but it has no strategy to engage Pinterest users. The strategy right now looks like they just put up some images as placeholders. They are missing a huge opportunity to brand the LPGA (as well as women and golf)  on a social media site whos biggest demographic is women. I can think of lots of quick wins for their Pinterest presence.
  5. It’s great that the LPGA has embraced Twitter with their players; but now it’s time to see if they can get some love from their brothers on the PGA. The young golfers on the PGA tour “are champions” (excuse the pun) at tweeting and some of the PGA players have huge followings.  I am curious if PGA players follow the LPGA.  If yes, see if they will tweet about it.
  6. Focus on grassroots marketing (and not just when the LPGA is in town for a tournament).  Basically create an outreach program with content that golf associations can use in their eMarketing channels.  There are many golf organizations that are key influencers in their markets and could be the local cheerleaders of the LPGA but they need to be given the messaging and the stories to push.

This blog post may seem like I’m on my soapbox but it just irks me that the golf media has to keep the focus on the large number of Asian players on the LPGA.  Since the media is determined to keep it as a top story; it is up to the tour to create the stories to give the home fans something to embrace.  Many of the American LPGA players are trying hard to step-up and compete (should I say it again, Stacy Lewis is #2 in the world) so they are doing their part.

Golf fans are passionate about their sport and usually have a favorite player (or players) that they follow.  For golf fans that like to cheer for the “home town players,” the LPGA has a lot of great American players to promote in the US market.  Golf fans love to watch great drama unfold during tournament play.  The LPGA has all these things, but right now it seems to be the best kept secret from the average golf fan.

Funny tweets from LPGA golfers

I have been following a number of the LPGA players on twitter and it is really amazing how much information they share about their personal lives.  Yes, they do promote events they are attending and products they use (or should I say endorse) but overall the tweets are not commercial.  In fact, many of the ladies are quite funny.

The best tweets involve photos, food and/or drink, insider jokes, and conversations between players.  Below are some examples.  If you are not familiar with Twitter, I’ll do my best to explain.  One thing to keep in mind is that anytime you see a twitter handle (like @ChristinaKim) just replace it with a name.  Here we go….

Here is a tweet from Christina Kim that represents it all (Photo, Food, Humor – self-deprecation).  Kim replied to a tweet from Nicole Hage.  Hage tweeted a photo showing her recent baking efforts.  Hage says “all done” (and includes a photo) and Kim replies ” You bake, and look like you….”

Christina Kim Tweet to Hage

Now, Kim has been tweeting a lot about her workouts at the gym (which adds to this already funny tweet.)  If you don’t know this…in the tweet above, there is a photo, Kim is the women in the front (that’s Michelle Wei behind her and the photo is from the Solheim Cup).

Nicole Hage

Here is a Photo of Nicole Hage.  I had to add the photo because Kim said  “you bake, and look like you” (so I know my readers would ask, so what does Nicole Hage look like).

Now, many of you who read my blog know I have written about slow play and how it is bad for the game.  So here is a funny tweet between two players about the time it took to play a Pro-Am tournament.

Suzann Petterson Tweet on Pro-AMChristina Kim reply to Pro-Am As you can see, Kim’s reply comes after Pettersens’ text..5:50, Stop exaggerating. Ugh!  The joke is self-evident.  Hopefully, now you get how to read the tweets.

Below is a “tweet conversation” that I loved because the players are exchanging a bit of “teasing” before a match.  Sophie Gustafson and Karen Stupples were scheduled to go head-to-head in match play (this was tweeted the night before the match).

Tweet between Gustafson and Stupples

Gustafson Foot Photo

And, Gustafson attached photo of her foot…to which, Karen later tweeted..love the golf tan.

Here is a great tweet from Karen Stupples regarding a rain delay.

Stupples tweet about rain delay in NJ

I guess as a traveling golfer you see it all.  Here is a photo tweeted from Rachel Connor.

Connor Tweet on Airplane

And how about this tweet from Sophie Gustafson at an airport terminal.  I can’t attach the video but here is a still of the object on the luggage carousel (yup, it’s a Heinken)

Gustafson Video Tweet

There are so many more good tweets I could show but this post would just get too long.  I want to end with two that are not really “funny” like the ones about; but show the great support these players give each other (as friends) on tour.

Kerr tweet to GulbisLincicome Tweet Congrats to OToole

This week, at the ShopRite tournament, the LPGA will promote the use of twitter by adding player’s twitter handles to name tags that go on the back of the caddie’s bib.  Now, as a fan, I already follow my favorites. So the bibs are interesting but I’m not sure it will get me to follow more.  As a marketing professional, I say “good for the LPGA for trying something new;” and I will be interested to see if it impacts individual player’s (i.e. will they get more followers.)  I plan to do my own research and see if I see any spikes in followers for the players.  By the way, the LPGA did tweet about the new name tags.

LPGA Photo Tweet

Finally, are you wondering which LPGA player has the most followers?  Well, it is Natalie Gulbis with 115,855 followers (as of May 28 at 2:38 pm).  This doesn’t surprise me given I wrote a blog post titled “Natalie Gulbis – This golfer is a savvy Marketer.”

What was the biggest surprise last week in golf — Curtis, Tseng, Wie, or Rio?

I was watching Ben Curtis win the Valero Texas Open yesterday and the thought went through my head that he was a “surprise” winner.  He had not won since the Booz Allen tournament in June 2006.  The surprise about the lack of wins between 2006 and 2012 is fueled by the fact that Curtis is a “Major” winner (he won the British Open at Royal St. George in 2003.)  Curtis won just a few years after turning pro and then did not live up to the expectations of a “Major” winner.  Expectations that now Bubba Watson will have to live up to in the coming years.

But was Ben Curtis the biggest surprise?  If we look at the LPGA tour, we could list the fact that Yani Tseng did not win (she finished tied for 10th at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii.)  But it is not a big surprise to me because I may just be the one person on the planet that does not believe Tseng will win every tournament she enters.

Is the bigger surprise the fact that Michelle Wie missed the cut again (making it three missed cuts in a row?)  I don’t think so.  She has missed three in a row in previous years.  The expectation some folks had that she would come out of Standford University and suddenly be great was ridiculous.  Every top golfer in the world talks about the focus it takes to be at the top of their game.  Wie is struggling because she has not been focused on golf in the last few years and it is clearly showing on the course.  Give her time to get mentally “back into the game.”

I think maybe the biggest surprise for me this week was not how well or poorly a professional golfer played; but the announcement that the site selected for the golf course for the 2016 Olympics is under a land dispute in Rio.  According to an Associated Press article it threatens the ability for the golf course to be ready because if they can’t use the land, they have to start from scratch for the golf course design.  This is a big deal given the designer has stated plans to “break ground” in October 2012.

The article goes on to say that “Elmway Participacoes has been trying to claim ownership of the land for the past three years.”  Really?  You would think the city/organizers of the Olympics would not pick a plot of land that someone has been trying to claim ownership of for three years.  But who knows what is really going on behind closed doors.  But the article also stated that this is not the first time a land dispute caused delays for another major sporting event (world soccer) in Brazil.

Bottom line, I want to see my favorite sport in the Summer Olympics — after all, the last time it was part of the Olympics was 1906 — and I would hate to see “a land dispute” keep it from happening.  Let’s hope the golf course designer, Gil Hanse, doesn’t face too many more surprises.

There are no “gimme” putts in major tournaments

The most amazing thing about watching the Kraft Nabisco TV coverage on Sunday was the sound — the sound of the spectators gasping in unison as they watched, what everyone thought was a “gimme” putt lip-out of the cup.  The sound of disbelief that the leader, I. K. Kim missed a one-foot putt.

Instead of winning her first major in regulation, Kim was now in a sudden-death playoff.  The players would play the 18th hole over and over again until someone won.  Well, it only took one playoff hole and it was heartbreaking to see how Kim looked so defeated.  As much as I’m sure everyone was hoping she would win in the playoff, it was not surprising to see Sun Young Yoo make a birdie putt and win.

Once again, we witnessed how golf tests the mental toughness of players.  First, the loss of concentration to miss a “gimme” putt.  It is called a “gimme” putt because it is so close to the hole that if you were playing for fun (not scoring for a handicap or anything meaningful), your friends would say “that’s a gimme” assuming you would make the putt.  So, you’d pick up your ball and move on.  But there are no “gimme” putts in majors.

Then, after such a monumental error, the player must have the mental fortitude to get prepared for the playoff.  You could tell from I. K. Kim’s body language that she was still in shock from what just happened a few minutes earlier.  Her first shot off the tee when left into the rough.  That is when I knew that mentally she was done and it would not be a multiple hole playoff.

Hopefully, Kim will move on and learn from this experience.  We have seen other players “shake it off” after a devastating loss.  I wrote a post about Kyle Stanley’s amazing comeback after losing at the Farmers Insurance Open and winning the next week at the Waste Management Open.

I’ll be watching now to see if I. K. Kim can over come her “big miss.”  Her next opportunity to win will be mid-April at the Lotte Championship when the LPGA goes to Hawaii.

A final note on human nature — the sad thing is that most people will not remember Yoo’s win; but they will remember Kim’s loss.

LPGA – First Major of the Season

This week the ladies play in the first major, The Kraft Nabisco Championship.  In many ways this is “The Masters” for the women.  I say this because it is their first major of the season (as is The Masters for the men), it has been played at the same course (Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California) since its inaugural tournament (again, The Masters is always played at Augusta National), and the winner jumps into “poppies pond” at the 18th hole as part of the tournament tradition and they are given a bathrobe when they get out of the pond. Many have said the robe is the LPGA’s version of a green jacket (o.k., it is not a green jacket but hey, it’s better than just standing in dripping wet golf clothes).

The tournament was not always a major.  It started in 1972 as the Colgate – Diane Shore tournament.  I remember watching it as a young girl and thinking how exciting it was that the company my dad worked for had a golf tournament.  In 1983 it became a major and the sponsor was Nabisco.  Amy Alcott won in 1983 and two more times.  In fact, in 1991 when she won for the third time she jumped in the pond — this was the beginning of the tradition.  The video below gives a great overview of the history of this tournament.

This year all the golf pundits are saying Yani Tseng will win.  It seems like a “no-brainer” given she has already won 3 times this year, won last week by 5 shots, and is the number one female golfer in the world.  But I’m hoping for an upset like last year.  In 2011, Stacy Lewis beat Tseng by three shots.  Below is a nice video for Stacy Lewis.

Don’t get me wrong.  Yani Tseng is an amazing player but I want an exciting major — and that will only happen if someone can challenge Tseng.  My ideal ending on Sunday would be to see Cristie Kerr go head to head with Yani Tseng and win.

What Does the Natalie Gulbis Swimsuit Photo have to do with Charity?

The Bleacher Report is “the US’s 4th largest sports media site with 25+ million monthly readers,” and they reported that the release of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo of Natalie Gulbis was timed perfectly for a charity that is auctioning a chance to caddy for Gulbis in an upcoming LPGA event.

So I went to the site for the charity and to my surprise it is not some big foundation but an Episcopal School in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Not only do they have Natalie Gulbis but they also have the chance to be a caddy for David Love III as an auction item. You can bid on them or “pay now” for one of them for $8,000.

What a windfall from a PR perspective for the Charity. Now, you might think it makes sense that Davis Love is listed because he lives in Charlotte and went to the University of North Carolina (in Charlotte) but how did they get Gulbis?  She did not go to school in North Carolina and she lives in Arizona. I was hoping it was just plain luck on the part of the charity but my curiosity got the best of me and I wanted see if I could find the connection.

Well according to another article I found at Golf Channel, “A parent who works in sports marketing for consulting firm McGladrey helped secure the caddy spots.”  And, surprise, surprise, both golfers are clients of McGladrey.  Also according to the Golf Channel Article, the head of the school said they did not know that the SI swimsuit edition was coming out.  Really?  The parent who works for McGladrey surely knew when their client’s swimsuit press would be released.

Whether or not the school was aware of the PR windfall they were about to get this week is probably not that important; but it is clearly not as big a “coincidence” as the original article in the Bleacher Report implied.  That makes me a little bit sad because it would have been fun if it were just luck. Wouldn’t it have been great if Gulbis was just a person supporting a charity she liked (i.e. no sports marketing connections).  Maybe that makes me a bit of an idealist but it would have been a better “story.”

I guess the only other outstanding question is will someone pay $8,000 to spend 4 or 5 hours to caddy for Gulbis?  We will most likely find out after February 25 (the night of the charity event) — I’m sure the folks at McGladrey are already working on the press release.

Natalie Gulbis — This Golfer is a Savvy Marketer

As a professional golfer, Natalie Gulbis has only one win (in 2007) since her rookie year on tour in 2002.  Her current world ranking is 121.  If you just look at her golfing statistics you would not assume she was one of the LPGA’s stars; but she is – mostly because of her off-course skills in marketing her personal brand.

This week she is in the news because she is in the 2012 Sport Illustrated Swimsuit edition and she isn’t exactly wearing a swimsuit. She is wearing body paint that looks like she has on a swimsuit.  Her photo is very sexy and there is even a video of the photo shoot.

The debate that has come up is whether or not this is good or bad for golf.  My question is why is this up for debate?  Professional athletes have been posing provocatively for years in magazines and commercials (did people question if David Beckham’s Super Bowl underwear ad was bad for professional soccer?)

Anyone that follows golf knows that Gulbis has always marketed herself as a “sexy” golfer.  She did her own swimsuit calendar for years, she posed in FHM  (For Men Magazine) which is most known for it’s “sexiest woman in the world” list.  She is often referred to as “a golfer, model, and business woman.”  She seeks out publicity – she was even on the Celebrity Apprentice (not a high mark in my opinion).

One thing I do find interesting is the LPGA banned her 2005 calendar from being sold in the “souvenir shop” at the 2004 US Women’s Open.  Yet, in 2008, she received the William and Mousie Powell award, given by the LPGA, to the player who “in the opinion of her playing peers, through her behavior and deeds best exemplifies the spirit, ideals and values of the LPGA.”  For me, what her peers are saying is that Gulbis does a lot of good for the reputation of the tour.  Why?  I think because she also brings a lot of positive press to the tour via her charity work, her promotion of golf, and the exposure from the number of major bands she represents (i.e. MasterCard, Lexus, Adidas, Taylor Made, Sky Caddie, etc.)

As a woman, do I want women athletes objectified? — Of course not.  But the reality is that sports are in the entertainment business and like any field of entertainment, sports needs savvy marketers –like Gulbis — to create awareness of their sport.  You can approve or disapprove of her recent choice but you can’t discount her ability to bring awareness to her sport.  And since the LPGA needs more fans, they need “personalities” like Gulbis — At least until they have another Annika to promote.

Six-Player Sudden Death Playoff

The ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open was decided in a six-player sudden death playoff.  I had never seen a six-player playoff and wondered if it was a record.  Sure enough, six players is the largest number of players in a LPGA playoff; but this is not the first time it has happened.   According to the LPGA records, in 1999  at the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic there was a six-player playoff.

The Australian Open playoff was won by a teenage American, not Lexi Thompson (as most would assume) but by 18-year-old Jessica Korda.  She won on the second hole of the playoff with a birdie.  Korda is currently ranked #285 in the world and beat a number of stellar players. Here are their Rolex World rankings:

It was interesting to watch because a lot of the press coverage about Korda was that her dad is a well-known tennis pro in Australia and won the Australia Open Tennis title in 1998.  So even if Korda did not have the hype Lexi Thompson has had (Thompson has been called “the young American phenom”), she must have felt some additional pressure with the attention she was getting in the press.

On the other hand, maybe what Korda was feeling this week was great karma from her dad.  As she said in her press conference  “It (Melbourne, Australia) is a really special place for my family. For my first win, I honestly could not have thought of a better place.”

Yani Tseng – Close to Tears?

I was watching a golf news recap after the second round of the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open and the commentator briefly mentioned that Yani Tseng was close to tears on the course. I missed the start of the segment so I went online to see what I could find.

I read the press conference notes and it turns out that Tseng shot an 8 (or a quadruple bogey or snowman) on the par-4, 7th hole.  She said in her press conference, “I almost cried; but no I didn’t.”  Tseng then went on to say, “I don’t remember when I had an 8 for the last time. Wait, I remember. It was last year at Evian.”  She was referring to the Evian Masters which is held in France in July.

Tseng recovered at the end of the round of the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open and was six shots behind the leader.  Today, at the end of round three, she is just two shots off the lead. I would not be surprised if she wins.

The reason Tseng’s admission of being near tears fascinates me is because it speaks to the enormous expectations these young talented golfers put on themselves.  Tseng is 22 years old, last year won eleven times; and since her rookie year in 2008 has won five majors.  Tseng was named the LPGA’s Rolex player of the year for the past two years. With all those accomplishments, why was she close to tears (or so hard on herself) over one hole?

Now, I know that a PGA pro cried a few weeks ago but it was because he lost a huge lead on the final round of what would have been his first professional win.  But Tseng’s admission that she almost cried after an 8 in an early round was odd to me.  Odd because she still had a lot of golf to play and could turn things around.

I guess the only explanation I can come up with is that Tseng is human and her emotions just got the best of her.  Sometimes when you watch the pros play they seem like machines hitting one amazing shot after another.  So it is actually kind of refreshing to know that even “the best of the best” are human and hit a “snowman” once in a while (or in Tseng’s case, once a year).

Yani Tseng Best Swing in Golf

One of my favorite shows to watch on the Golf Channel is Morning Drive. I found it one morning when I was channel surfing because I was tired of the “same old, same old” on the morning network shows.

The show has a lot of guests from the golf world and last week Annika Sorenstam and Hank Haney were on the show.  When asked who had the best golf swing, I expected Haney to mention a male golfer but to my surprise he said Yani Tseng.  I think Annika was pleasantly surprised because she had a big smile on her face and quickly agreed with Haney.

What stuck with me was why Annika thinks Yani Tseng has the best swing.  It is that the swing is “repeatable under pressure.”  Any golfer can relate to that statement.  Sometimes you listen to golf experts talk about the swing and it is all about swing plain, club head speed, the grip, clearing your hips, etc. and you quickly realize how much goes into a great swing. It can be overwhelming to have all that swirling around in your head.

As an amateur golfer there is nothing more frustrating than starting off the round feeling great because you are swinging well which results in decent shots; then suddenly you hit a bad shot and you can’t figure out what just changed in your swing.  And even though there is nothing big at stake (like a career) you start to feel “under pressure” to fix it.  And often times it is that self-inflicted pressure that makes it even worse.  At that point, golf really becomes a “head game” and you go from feeling great to awful in just a few shots.

I think it is great that Yani Tseng has the ability to repeat her amazing swing under pressure.  For me, I’m just happy when I can repeat my decent swing for a full round of golf.  Of course, then the next thing to worry about is putting.