April 19, 2009

Time To Think Globally

As golf weathers the economic crisis, Ron Sirak says the world's professional tours should consider joining forces

With players like Michelle Wie a draw in both the U.S. and abroad, the world's tours could be better served not competing with one another.

With players like Michelle Wie a draw in both the U.S. and abroad, the world's tours could be better served not competing with one another.

Among the painful benefits that result from a recession is an economic Darwinism that forces virtually every enterprise to rethink its business model. In tough times, it is the nimble who survive, those clever enough to evolve with the changing economic landscape. For decades now, professional golf tours have existed in silos of varying heights scattered across the world's landscape. Perhaps now is the time to tear down those walls.

Last week, Michelle Wie was in Korea to play in a KLPGA tournament. Next month, Paula Creamer will skip the Michelob Ultra Open at the Kingsmill Resort, one of the top LPGA stops, to travel to Japan to compete in a JLPGA major championship. And Tiger Woods, who commits to virtually every PGA Tour event at 5 p.m. on the Friday before the tournament, announced his appearance in the Australian Masters later this year eight months in advance so organizers can cash in on his presence.

The common thread that ties together those appearances by three global stars is money. All will receive appearance fees, a practice of paying players merely to show up that is common around the world but not allowed on the PGA Tour or the LPGA. Wie can still command six figures when playing abroad, Creamer will get $1 million to appear in Japan and Woods, of course, is the king at $3 million a pop. But is what's good for the players good for the tours? Do the tours need to get out in front of this globalization of the game?

The LPGA is down five tournaments from last year and may lose more, making the prospects for 2010 decidedly gloomier. The PGA Tour benefits from the fact most contracts with title sponsors run through 2010, with many extending beyond that. But with automakers and financial services firms the two largest sponsor groups, there must be concern for the future of some events. Perhaps it is time for all the world's tours to begin thinking globally.

One of the things that happen in economic downturns is consolidation. The strong absorb the weak and the struggling join forces to survive. Now appears to be the time when professional golf tours should be considering, if not a merger, at least a much greater level of cooperation. The business model of professional golf is extremely sound, tapping into a highly desired demographic craved by sponsors. But those sponsors are consolidating, which means there will be fewer, and the tours might need to follow suit.

There will always be minor tours, locally based and paying modest purses. And these will remain as they always have been -- feeder tours for the big show. It is those top dogs which need to pull together to ensure that the best talent competes on quality venues for the richest purses most often.

The LPGA is the oldest and most successful women's professional sports organization in the world. The JLPGA offers purses that are comparable to the LPGA. And the Ladies European Tour, while meager in terms of prize money, taps into a rich golf history in Britain and Scandinavia and a growing market on the European continent. How about those three tours merge?

A schedule could be constructed in which one-third of the events are played in Europe, one-third in the United States and one-third in Asia. The WLPGA -- World Ladies Professional Golf Association -- would formalize a trend already under way. This year the LPGA Asia swing includes Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Korea and China while it also has the Evian Masters and the Ricoh Women's British Open in Europe. Existing events on Mexico and Canada could be considered part of the North America leg of the tour.

As for the men, the European PGA Tour has cleverly outmaneuvered the PGA Tour in terms of global conquest. Among the non-European stops for the European Tour are China, India, Singapore and Dubai. Why not make these stops events that don't have to compete for PGA Tour stars but rather are part of their schedule. This would eliminate the conflicting-event rule that limits the number of non-tour tournaments a PGA Tour member can play each year.

One issue would be what to do about appearance fees. Should they be allowed in this new global tour? They seem to make complete sense. These fees don't take away from the prize money for the others players -- and, in fact, probably increase that prize money by enhancing the profile of the tournament through the presence of the biggest names in the game.

The shortened PGA Tour schedule, with the Tour Championship now in September, has already created a larger window of opportunity for PGA Tour members to play abroad. But there are still those events -- Dubai, Qatar and the BMW European PGA Championship come to mind --when tour members must choose whether to play the PGA Tour or the European Tour.

That conflict can be eliminated through merger. But if a merger cannot be worked out between the two major men's tours then they at least need to work with a much greater degree of cooperation, coordinating schedules so that big-money events do not compete against each other. The goal, after all, should be to have the best players in the world going head-to-head most often.

While the discussion is centered on consolidating tours, there is another issue that needs to be raised. Perhaps it is time for the PGA Tour and the LPGA to join forces. By acting as one they can leverage their combined strength to create a better television product by coordinating TV times and organizing tournament schedules so as not to step on each other's premiere events. Have the women's events end at 3 p.m. and the men on the air from 3-6.

For decades now the world's professional golf tours have competed against each other and in doing so have pushed each other to grow. Perhaps the next steps in that growth process need to be taken together. The economic adversity faced by all right now brings with it opportunity for those clever enough to see it. A different world will emerge from the mess we are in, and that change should include the world of professional golf.