SBJ/Jan. 6-12, 2014/In Depth

LPGA seeks additional network TV coverage

Ever impatient LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan took about 30 seconds to admire the growth in the 2014 schedule before he looked at the next column, which listed TV coverage for those 32 events. He instantly sees a lack of over-the-air network coverage of women’s golf.

The U.S. Women’s Open will be on NBC and the Ricoh British Open will be on ESPN. NBC also televised the final round of the Evian Championship, and could again in 2014.

All of the rest will be on the LPGA’s broadcast partner, Golf Channel.

Don’t get Whan wrong. He loves the Golf Channel and puts the Comcast network at the top of the reasons why the LPGA has experienced such rapid growth in the last three years. But one of the most glaring holes he sees is a lack of broadcast network coverage of the women’s game. Whan would like to get to where the majors and a handful of other events are broadcast on NBC.

Golf Channel executives cite the LPGA as a staple of its live content throughout the year, but they say they’re open to considering opportunities when they arise.

“We need to continue to grow and network TV is one place to start,” Whan said. “If we were playing six or seven weekends a year on network, it would not only benefit the LPGA and our players, but it also would be great for our Golf Channel partner. We would bring back a significant amount of casual fans. That’s the next frontier for us.”

The good thing about starting at ground zero for Whan, CMO Jon Podany and their team four years ago is that they had plenty of open frontiers ahead of them. With a schedule that included only 23 events in 2011, the LPGA went about redefining what it stands for and what the players’ roles are, as it pertains to sponsors. In Whan’s words, the LPGA wanted to establish a level of customer focus unprecedented in pro sports.

The LPGA has experienced tangible results from its refreshed approach. The schedule has grown from 23 tournaments in 2011 to 32 in 2014, and the number of televised hours has gone from 200 (most of which was tape delayed in standard definition in 2011) to 350 in HD this year.

The growth in events and exposure has led the tour in some unanticipated directions as well. An innovative team
event — the International Crown — debuts this season with a creative qualifying formula unlike anything else in golf.

The next frontier, outside of TV, is the LPGA’s desire to establish its own version of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup. The LPGA probably wouldn’t go with a multi-event playoff format because of the way its schedule is structured, but it could establish a seasonlong points race. Theoretically, it would culminate with a points champion at the end of the season, and golfers would have to amass enough points to qualify for the season finale.

Landing a sponsor to support the program is at the top of the priority list. “That’s the next big step for us and our players,” Whan said. “It would be nice to recognize someone who accomplished a seasonlong goal.”

Whan also would like to build a stronger profile for the LPGA’s five major championships.

“If you ask 1,000 golf fans to name the five LPGA majors, most of them couldn’t,” he said. “That tells you something. … But the good news is that the golfing world does generally stop when we play an LPGA major.”
Again, Whan said additional TV exposure could help push those majors forward.

“Tournament growth is one thing, but we’ve got a long way to go to build the scope of the LPGA relative to other sports,” Whan said. “Thirty-two events on the schedule is one milestone, but playing just once on network TV all season — we’ve got to do better if we want to attract larger audiences. Tournament growth is great, but it’s just one pillar in a series of pillars as we try to raise the house up.”

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