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Are Nelly Korda and LPGA Tour ready for their closeup?

April 18, 2024
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 07: Nelly Korda of the United States imitates a â  selfieâ   as she poses with the trophy on day five of the T-Mobile Match Play presented by MGM Rewards at Shadow Creek at Shadow Creek Golf Course on April 07, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Orlando Ramirez/Getty Images)

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — The LPGA's first major of the year begins Thursday amid an unprecedented run of women's sports growth. Superstar guard Caitlin Clark spearheaded the moment, leading Iowa to the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Final Four in March, with an astounding 18.7 million people tuning in to watch the sharpshooter, beating the ratings for the men’s title game for the first time. Soon after, Clark being drafted No. 1 to the Women's National Basketball Association by Indiana drew 2.5 million viewers on a Tuesday night, shattering the previous record from 2004 by five times.

The growth goes beyond Clark's uber-stardom. The WNBA's 2023 campaign had its most-watched season in 20 years. The National Women's Soccer League had a 26-percent increase in fan attendance in 2023. The U.S. Women's national team's first-round matchup at the 2023 Women's World Cup last July had a 99-percent increase in viewership from the team's opening match in 2019.

The LPGA has its chance at an emerging superstar potentially taking it to another level in ratings and interest. Nelly Korda's attempt at a fifth straight LPGA win collides with a network audience on the weekend watching the first major of the women’s season, the Chevron Championship, on NBC. A Korda triumph at Carlton Woods to become only the third player in tour history to win five straight tournaments could lead to fervor for the Florida native reaching an all-time high.

Are the LPGA and Korda ready for what that victory could mean?

"Mollie Marcoux Samaan may never have as big a story in her time as commissioner," Golf Channel commentator Tom Abbott said of the LPGA chief who is in her third year at the helm.

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LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan has beefed up the LPGA's marketing department in an effort to bring more exposure to the tour.

Christian Petersen

Korda, 25, approaches her ascension with an "if she builds it, they will come" mentality. The No. 1 player in the Rolex Women's World Rankings has said her success is partly due to staying inside her bubble among her team rather than being outward or forward. The 12-time LPGA winner explained that should she continue flourishing more media attention will come to her. That was evident with Korda sitting for a five-minute interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter before her press conference on Tuesday.

"I feel like for me, the way that I promote the game is just the way I am," Korda said. "I'm very true to myself. I'm never going to do something I'm not really comfortable with."

There of course have been other top players in the past who have had to balance the responsibility of continuing to perform well while promoting the LPGA, and they wonder if Korda could do more.

Stacy Lewis, who became the first American to reach World No. 1 in 2011, recalled having to balance playing and representing the LPGA. Now a U.S. Solheim Cup captain, Lewis was still taking up that mantle this week, advocating for additional TV coverage and expressing frustration that the LPGA T-Mobile Match Play final last month between Korda and Leona Maguire didn't start airing until the middle of the front nine.

"I think Nelly does have a responsibility [to promote the LPGA], and she probably doesn't always want it, just knowing her," Lewis said.

One way seven-time LPGA winner Angela Stanford sees Korda expanding her access is by taking on the Tiger Woods treatment, talking about every one of her rounds, no matter what she shot that day. "I think when you're the best, people want to know, good or bad," Stanford said. It's not a significant change from what she has done recently, as Korda has spoken after 14 of her 18 rounds over her four-victory run.

Former player and current NBC broadcaster Karen Stupples understands the difficulty Korda faces in balancing media commitments and focusing on her own performance. Stupples was overwhelmed by media opportunities when, at 31, she won the 2004 Women's British Open. Stupples was the first Englishwoman in 13 years to capture the major, and she didn't have an agent to sort through all of the requests.

"It was very overwhelming, and I wanted to run away from it because it was so hard," Stupples said. "And now, the older version of me really regrets not embracing it. And I really wish that I had done everything I possibly could at that time, which was my time and my moment to shine."

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Nelly Korda celebrates winning the 2024 Drive On Championship.

Julio Aguilar

Korda did take a moment during her pre-tournament press conference, when asked if the LPGA is poised to grow like other women's sports have, to advocate for more television time. "I feel like when it's tape delay or anything like that that hurts our game," she said. "Women's sports just needs a stage. If we have a stage, we can show up and perform and show people what we're all about."

Getting on network air has elevated the tour's exposure, such as for last year's Chevron, which saw final-round viewership average 941,000 across all platforms, including NBC, Peacock and the NBC Sports app. At its peak, the NBC broadcast reached 1.54 million viewers late in Lilia Vu's win. During last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, the first women’s ever played at Pebble Beach, Sunday ratings for Allisen Corpuz's win in Eastern primetime peaked at 2.2 million and averaged 1.58 million on NBC and Peacock, the highest viewership since Michelle Wie West's 2014 victory at Pinehurst.

The LPGA has since expanded into additional featured-group coverage, signing a two-year deal with ESPN+ to cover six events over two seasons, including this week at Chevron. Korda is in one of the four featured groups Thursday afternoon.

However, the LPGA cannot change how it might monetize its TV rights, as it is locked into a contract alongside the PGA Tour through 2030 with NBC, CBS and Golf Channel. Meantime, the NWSL signed a four-year deal last November worth $60 million annually, while the WNBA's TV deal, pegged at a reported $60 million a year, is up for renewal after this season, with the league having a chance to negotiate during Clark's rookie year.

Matt Chmura, the LPGA chief marketing brand and communications officer, hired 20 months ago, would not comment on financial figures the LPGA receives from its TV agreement. Still, the tour's overall purse has jumped from $85.7 million to $123.25 million this year—mostly because title sponsors have raised their investment.

Marcoux Samaan and Chmura have emphasized building out their communications infrastructure. They created a marketing department with four employees, hired additional content creators and are working on updates to their website and app for later in 2024. They've partnered with Global Prairie to create an updated global brand for the tour and with SeatGeek for a ticketing program to get more data on their fans.

Chmura signals no plans to slow down expanding the tour's content offering, including more off-course ancillary programming. The LPGA has seen its investments pay off in an increase to its internal total media consumption metric. The data point captures all interactions with content across the tour's channels, ranging from social media to TV watching. Two years ago, it had four million a week. This season, it is up to 11.5 million per week.

"We do think that's our responsibility, to get that viral moment going and to get more eyeballs on what we're doing," Marcoux Samaan said this week.

The LPGA suffered from growing pains in its content expansion during the Match Play tournament two weeks ago. With the quarterfinal and semifinal matches on Saturday, Golf Channel's TV window could only air the semis. The tour coordinated ahead of the event with Golf Channel to stream the quarters on LPGA.com.

Then, fans were left in the dark for the first five holes of Korda’s victorious Match Play final because there was only a three-hour window from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET. With her chance for four in a row, Chmura explained the LPGA did not have the nimbleness to set up streaming on the tour's website again to fill in the missing action.

"We're going to continue to look at ways to ensure things like that don't happen," Chmura said.

This rare opportunity may pass the LPGA by if Korda doesn't win this week. This kind of victory streak hasn't happened since Lorena Ochoa won five straight in 2008. Annika Sorenstam was the last to win four in a row heading into a major, and she captured the 2005 Kraft Nabisco (now Chevron) for No. 5.

Among all the potential of this week, the most crucial ingredient is Korda's game, which remains stellar. Golf Channel commentator Morgan Pressel watched Korda on the range Tuesday and said she didn't see her miss a single shot.

"She's in a really good head space," Pressel said. "And to think what could be possible come Sunday, a major on NBC being her fifth consecutive win. I mean, that's really superstar stuff."