Natalie Gulbis and Stewart Cink playing together during the 2009 Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge.
PHOENIX -- For more than a decade there have been whispered conversations about the possibility of the PGA Tour assuming management of the LPGA, if not ownership. The previous generation of players -- those women now in their 40s, 50s and older -- never liked the idea, fearing the organization founded in 1950 would suffer in the shadow of the more popular men's tour. Now, according to multiple sources, talk of a cooperative arrangement between the two tours has resumed -- and this time, the idea is not likely to face the same resistance.
While the joint-effort concept is most tellingly being bounced around at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., it is also gaining traction with television executives who are looking for innovative ways to package golf on the small screen key, as well as some market-minded LPGA players who fear the current business model for their tour is unsustainable.
With only two dozen tournaments on the 2011 schedule, including this week's RR Donnelley Founders Cup, in which all the prize money goes to charity, LPGA members are facing the fewest opportunities to compete since 1971, when there were 21 tournaments. In the 61-year history of the LPGA, there have been fewer that 24 events only six times, and four of those were in its first five years. With the loss of State Farm Insurance as a tournament sponsor after this year, there is a real chance the 2012 schedule will have more than half the events outside the United States. This year the breakdown is 13-11.
The fact the Founders Cup is essentially a benefit to help fund the LPGA Foundation is an indication of the difficult state of affairs. The original plan was that the entire $1.3 million purse would go to the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program, a very worthy grow-the-game initiative. But after a mini-rebellion led by Paula Creamer and a few other big-name players, the purse was cut to $1 million and it was decided that half would go the Girls Golf program and the other half to charities designated by the top-10 finishers this week at Wildfire Golf Club at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. Don't be surprised if some Japanese relief charities benefit from that decision.
Clearly, the LPGA could benefit from both the big pockets of the PGA Tour and from the ways in which it could structure added-value title sponsorship deals. Some men's tour sponsors could take on LPGA events for a little more money, and the fact the PGA Tour would use its various promotional platforms to market the LPGA would help get the message out about how much talent there is in women's golf.
There is another reason why the timing of the PGA Tour taking the LPGA under its wing is perfect: Both tours have long-term TV contracts with Golf Channel. Right now, that relationship hurts the LPGA. Because it is down the pecking order behind not just the PGA Tour but the Champions Tour and Nationwide Tour as well, at least 35 LPGA rounds will be shown on delayed tape this year. It's difficult to market a niche product that way. Remember the disaster of putting the Champions Tour on CNBC delayed tape? Lewis and Clark couldn't have found its ratings.
Also, under a deal negotiated by previous commissioner Carolyn Bivens, the LPGA picks up 100 percent of the cost of the Golf Channel production -- about $540,000 a week, sources say. Half of that is passed onto the tournaments, meaning the sponsor starts out down $270,000 for what, in many cases, is a delayed-tape broadcast.
Officially, the PGA Tour says, "There have been no formal discussions" about assuming control of the LPGA. That most likely means that tuxedoes and ball gowns were not being worn when the idea was being batted about. When asked about the matter last year, soon after taking over as LPGA commissioner, Mike Whan said he would seriously consider any idea that has the potential to grow women's golf and the LPGA. Whan is a man who thinks big, and this is a big idea.
Given the increasingly global nature of the game, all of the professional golf tours need to work together better, at the very least to coordinate schedules so that good tournaments do not compete against each other. In particular, the LPGA has too many good players and too good of a story to tell not to get better exposure. It would be an overstatement to say this is a matter of survival, but contrary to past fears, working with the PGA Tour could be a way for the LPGA to maintain an identity that is threatened.
Recent conversations with several prominent players from the generation that opposed becoming part of the PGA Tour revealed that their hard-line position has softened. They now see the enormous benefits the LPGA could reap from a relationship with the PGA Tour, not the least of which would be keeping the U.S.-based tour from being absorbed by the women's tours in Asia. Also, they say, the decreasing number of full-field events -- there are only 10 full-field non-majors this year, including the Founders Cup with no prize money -- shuts out second-tier players, something they say will hurt the growth of women's golf and the tour.
What would the PGA Tour gain from taking on the LPGA? First, a product with enormous growth potential. Secondly, control of the scheduling of a tour that is, albeit it minor, competition for fans. Finally, another bargaining chip in the TV negotiations with CBS and NBC for the contracts that expire after the 2012 season.
Think TV wouldn't like to broadcast a co-ed event? Or how about a PGA Tour event and an LPGA tournament simultaneously on the same venue -- alternating threesomes of men then women playing their respective tees? Sources within TV say they are chomping at the bit to get new, creative formats that shake up the sameness of 72-hole stroke-play events week after week.
This seems like a win-win-win situation, in which the PGA Tour, LPGA and TV partners all benefit. It will be interesting to see if those casual conversations in the PGA Tour headquarters soon become more formal, and that when the tuxedos and ball gowns are broken out, if LPGA officials are invited into the room for discussions about what could potentially be the best thing to happen to professional golf since the invention of relationship-to-par scoring. Stay tuned.