SBJ/20081117/This Week's News

LPGA schedule familiar for ’09, murky for ’10

LPGA officials will announce a 2009 schedule on Wednesday that looks similar to this year’s group of events, but which could change dramatically in 2010 because of uncertainty about the economy and expiring contracts with title sponsors and television networks.

The LPGA schedule consisted of 34 official money events this year and should get close to that number in 2009, depending on the outcome of sponsor searches for three tournaments. The former Safeway International in Phoenix and the SemGroup Championship in Tulsa, Okla., are trying to find new sponsors so that they can stay on the schedule, and the Wegmans LPGA in upstate New York is working on an extension. The tour is expected to leave slots open for those events.

The Fields Open in Hawaii and Ginn Tribute in South Carolina will not return in 2009 because title sponsors opted not to continue. The future of the LPGA-owned ADT Championship in Florida, which lost its title sponsor, is also uncertain.

For now, said Chris Higgs, chief operating officer of the LPGA, the lone addition is the Honda LPGA Thailand, which returns to the 2009 schedule after a one-year absence. The tour will also stage the biennial Solheim Cup next year, a Ryder Cup-style team competition that will be played in Illinois.

The schedule forecast for 2010 could be more ominous given the state of the economy and the number of title sponsorships that expire in 2009.

Of the 24 tournaments sanctioned by the LPGA in the U.S. and Canada this season, only five have contracts with title sponsors for 2010, according to officials with each tournament (see chart).

LPGA tournaments signed past 2009
09 Tournament Signed through
Safeway Classic 2010
Stanford International 2010
CN Canadian Womens Open 2010
Bell Micro LPGA Classic 2011
Kraft Nabisco Championship 2013*
*Kraft has a five-year deal that renews each year

That list could soon include Longs Drugs, which reportedly extended its tournament in Northern California for 2009 and 2010. Also, Corning has a one-year option in upstate New York for 2010, and tournament directors of the SBS Open in Hawaii and the Navistar LPGA Classic in Alabama said extension talks were under way. Terms could not be obtained for the nine international events on the 2008 schedule, but Higgs said a “greater degree” of those tournaments are signed for 2010 and beyond.

He also said it was too early to be concerned about the potential holes in the schedule.

“I think a lot of [current and prospective sponsors] are hoping to get themselves through 2008 and just take a breath before they start looking at 2010,” Higgs said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”

While most tournaments cited the economy as the main obstacle to finding new title sponsors, the LPGA’s rising sponsorship and sanctioning fees under Commissioner Carolyn Bivens, who took the post in September 2005, have created some obstacles in small to medium-size markets. Tulsa, which lost SemGroup as a title sponsor when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year, has not found a new sponsor, in part because of the higher price tag.

“It was a tough sell at $2 million a year and now you’re coming back two years later with a $4 million price tag?” said a source close to the tournament. “That’s not an easy proposition.”

Higgs said it was too early to predict whether the economy would force reductions in title sponsorship fees but hinted that was a possibility.

“The cream of the crop of English Premier League football are looking at corrections and retractions in their sponsorships, and you realize that nothing is immune,” he said.

The challenges at the tournament level come as the LPGA is trying to sell a mid-seven-figure umbrella sponsorship for a series of events starting in 2010. Stanford Financial, which will temporarily shelve its tournament in South Florida to title sponsor the LPGA’s season-ending event in Houston in 2009, is among those looking at the deal.

One sticking point with any suitor remains the LPGA’s lack of a television deal starting in 2010. The tour held informal talks with CBS and NBC about splitting a package of eight events, but it has not discussed a deal with either network since late this summer.

The LPGA is still talking with Golf Channel, which is building a wall-to-wall live programming strategy on Saturday and Sunday that could include live or taped coverage of the LPGA.

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