November 18, 2008

LPGA facing economic realities

Tour's 2009 schedule features fewer events, smaller purses

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The LPGA schedule for 2009, released Wednesday at the ADT Championship, is as noteworthy for what it lacks as for what it contains. Players will compete in fewer tournaments and for less prize money. But that said, given the global economic climate, the overall mood among top LPGA executives seems to be a sense of relief masking a curtain of uncertainty.

There will be 31 tournaments next year -- down from 34 in 2008 -- plus the Solheim Cup. Total prize money will be about $55 million, compared to $60 million this year, although the average purse will be $1.767 million, about the same as this year. Hardest hit in 2009 will be the second-tier LPGA member who will have long stretches during the year with no place to play.

In total, there are 10 weeks between the season-opener at the SBS Open in Hawaii Feb. 12-14 and the Stanford Financial Tour Championship in Houston Nov. 19-22 with no LPGA event, including -- probably wisely -- the weeks of all four men's majors. Perhaps more importantly are the weeks with tournaments in which the second-tier players likely will not play.

Seven events on the new schedule are no-cut overseas affairs with 70 or fewer players, bringing passport stamps from Thailand, Singapore, China, Japan, Korea and Mexico plus the 20-player Samsung World Championship in California. Throw in the Evian Masters and the Ricoh Women's British Open -- events in which fewer than 90 LPGA players compete -- and the number of events that are effectively limited-field swells to nine, nearly one-third of the schedule.

A player who does not qualify for the U.S. Women's Open could go from July 5 (Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic) to Aug. 28 (Safeway Classic) without a tournament, missing the Open, Evian, Women's British and Solheim Cup with three off-weeks sprinkled in. Similarly, after the Kapalua LPGA Classic (Oct. 15-18) the tour goes to Asia and then the 32-player Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico before the 120-player Stanford Financial Tour Championship begins Nov. 19.

Gone in 2009 are the Fields Open in Hawaii, the Ginn Tribute in South Carolina and the SemGroup Championship in Oklahoma. Up in the air are a venue for what was the Safeway International near Phoenix, which will be run next year by the LPGA, and the purse for the Ginn Open, which will be reduced from the $2.6 million paid out this year.

The Samsung World Championship is also looking for a home -- Torrey Pines is rumored to be in the mix -- and the China tournament has no sponsor and no venue but is on the schedule. The Stanford Financial also is looking for a course in the Houston area, the North American headquarters of Stanford.

Given the economic climate, the LPGA schedule for 2009 has to be considered a qualified success. Frankly, it could have been worse. The real challenge next year will be putting together a schedule for 2010.

About one-third of the tournament contracts expire after 2009, as do the TV deals with Golf Channel and ESPN. Unless there is a dramatic economic upturn, it is not the climate in which to implement a new business strategy, and that is exactly what the LPGA is trying to do, greatly increasing sanctioning fees for tournaments and trying to play hardball in TV negotiations.

The tour takes over ownership of the McDonald's LPGA Championship next year. Owning its flagship event is a good thing. But McDonald's will almost certainly not be back as the title sponsor in 2010 and finding another company to foot the bills will not be easy.

"I wish this economic downturn would have waited one more year," LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens said Wednesday as she unveiled the new schedule. "But I am grateful for the three years we had before that. If we had not undertaken the change in our business model the last three years we would have been in worse shape."

The LPGA has spent most of its 58 years of existence like a salmon swimming upstream, fighting a current seemingly never in its favor yet somehow not just surviving but constantly spawning a new and more talented generation of players and events.

It remains, quite simply, the longest lasting and most successful women's professional sports organization. And it faces now perhaps its greatest struggle, a challenge not so much of its own making as it is a function of a stagnant global economy.

The 2009 schedule is only part of the story, a prelude to the main event -- the 2010 schedule. To say that the coming year might be the most important in the history of the LPGA is not an overstatement. But this is a tour that, while always living in the shadow of the men's circuit, has proven it has remarkable survival skills. Those skills will be needed in the new year.