February 4, 2008

Ritts Knows The Commissioner's Chair

When Jim Ritts got the LPGA job people said "Who?" Nobody knew him

Ritts returned to the U.S. after two years in Europe.

Ritts returned to the U.S. after two years in Europe.

Jim Ritts doesn't have many visible reminders of his tenure as LPGA commissioner from 1996-99 in his Texas home, but there is an editorial cartoon published when he got the job. The drawing has a simple caption. "It said, 'Who?' " says Ritts. "It was pretty funny, and it was accurate. Nobody knew me. I wasn't part of that [golf] world."

If there was surprise when Ritts -- who had made his mark as a co-founder of Channel One, a television news show marketed to schools -- was chosen to run the LPGA, there was shock early in 1999 when he announced his departure. Only a couple of months after signing a contract extension, Ritts left to become chief operating officer of Digital Entertainment Network, a provider of television-quality programming for the Internet.

"I expected I would be at the LPGA longer, for five to seven years," says Ritts. "I could have continued working at the LPGA -- something I enjoyed and found fascinating -- and watched this speeding [Internet] train take off and have regretted that I didn't go participate in it. … At the time, people didn't understand."

Under Ritts, whose energetic personality and glitzy style contrasted with the fatherly presence of predecessor Charles Mechem, the LPGA made strides. The schedule and purses grew, more events were televised and its international footprint began to expand. Ritts, who was replaced by Ty Votaw in a smooth transition, is proud of his efforts to get the tour more visibility.

"Unless you've sat in the seat as a commissioner, you can't really understand what that world is like. It's unlike any other CEO responsibility I've had," says Ritts. "Name another business where you don't own your product and you don't own your distribution -- the players are independent contractors, and the tournaments are independent business organizations. You don't own either one."

Ritts' initial foray into cyberspace was short-lived. "There were three companies trying to produce original content for the Internet," he says. "It was like having a front-row seat at the nexus of greed." In 2000 Ritts returned to Primedia's Channel One, working in New York until 2005 when he and his new wife, Lisa, took a two-year sojourn in Italy and Spain.

About a year ago Ritts formed a firm to buy media companies focused around large libraries of original content. He watches golf with an insider's perspective. Issues he wrestled with -- catering to marquee names while taking care of the rank and file -- still percolate. "As a marketer, you can build the value of your brand by focusing on your stars," he says, "but you have an imperative to build economic opportunity for the entire organization. There is inherent conflict in those missions."

The best memories of Ritts' LPGA years are personal. "You haven't lived," he says, "until you've spent time with Laura Davies in her Ferrari on the M2. She loves life."