Can Tseng’s success pay off for LPGA?
Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan stepped out of his limo into a chaotic public square in Taipei, Taiwan, earlier this month and knew that this just wouldn’t work.
Hundreds of media members and camera-toting fans stood shoulder to shoulder so they could get a glimpse of Yani Tseng, the world’s hottest golfer and a native of the small island off the coast of China. Whan had arrived expecting the typical news conference to award Tseng the Rolex Player of the Year inside the Taipei 101 building, not in an outside square.
The presentation of the trophy to Tseng — her
|Yani Tseng has put together a historic string of victories in majors, including the 2011 Women’s British Open in Scotland, where she signed autographs for fans.
But in golf, Tseng has reached a level of domination unlike anyone before her.
She has won four of the last eight majors, and her five major titles are the most by any golfer at age 22. Nancy Lopez didn’t do that. Neither did Annika Sorenstam or Tiger Woods.
Tseng is setting a winning pace that’s never been matched.
The question that hangs with her is whether her star power on the course can move the needle for the LPGA, especially in the U.S.
“She’s the most dominant golfer in history at her age, but how do you capitalize on it, and will it translate to Madison Avenue?” said Ed Kiernan, senior vice president at GMR Marketing and a veteran golf marketer. “If she walked into a restaurant pretty much anywhere in the U.S., no one would know her. Taking her brand and making it mainstream is the challenge for the LPGA.”
Tseng presents a familiar riddle for the LPGA in the U.S.: How do you market an Asian-born player, still trying to learn English, and distinguish her name on a tour that’s increasingly populated by other Asian golfers?
“She’s certainly better known in Asia and around the world than she is here,” said Jon Podany, the LPGA’s chief marketer. “You’ve got to do what you can to give the U.S. audience a chance to know her, respect her greatness and develop a rooting interest. It might be a square peg in a round hole, but you’ve got to give it a shot in the U.S., and we are.
“Over time, we’ve seen that there’s an increasing appreciation for international stars in the U.S., compared to five or 10 years ago. You look at Dirk Nowitzki, athletes that are truly great, and they have a better chance of being appreciated in the U.S. We understand that there’s going to be a stronger response in the U.S. to American players, but we think there’s a real curiosity factor with Yani.”
Tseng, who has greatly improved her English in the last year because she wants to be more fan friendly, is beginning to experience some commercial success, though it’s coming more internationally than in the U.S.
She has an apparel deal with France-based Lacoste that just renewed through 2013, an Audi deal on her left sleeve, and an equipment contract with Adams Golf, which expires this year.
“Tom Watson has always been the face of Adams Golf,” said Jeff Wood, the company’s director of marketing. “We’ve never had a female face like Yani before, and she’s taken that position, for sure.”
She wears Oakley sunglasses and represents two smaller Asian companies, Taishin Financial in her home country and Reignwood, a Beijing-based resort and golf club owner.
In all, Tseng is making about $3 million off the course, industry insiders say.
Her deals are a combination of upfront money and incentives, which pays her bonuses for major victories and Player of the Year awards. She’s won five majors and two LPGA Player of the Year trophies.
“For companies that don’t really know Yani’s impact or value, we haven’t pushed as much on up-front money and we’ve been more willing to do the performance-based deals,” said Ernie Huang, Tseng’s longtime adviser and self-described quasi-agent. “Because of how well she’s played, that’s added up pretty good. … With Yani’s success, we are more aggressively pursuing corporate sponsors.”
Huang, a native of Taiwan who moved to the U.S. in 1973, met Tseng when she was 12 and became her sponsor as she traveled the international junior golf circuit. His relationship with Tseng and her family has made him the most influential person in the golfer’s camp.
When Tseng turned pro in 2008, she spent two years with IMG before breaking away and creating her own homemade team to handle her marketing. The economy was tanking and Tseng was just emerging as a competitive pro golfer, both of which hindered IMG’s ability to strike off-course deals, Huang said, so Tseng decided to try a different approach.
Huang, whose background is in biomedical science, worked with Tseng’s father to assemble a team that handles her golf business.
Naya Hsu, a former Nike employee in Taiwan, usually travels with Tseng and serves as her manager. Two others, Gina Yang in Taiwan and Sherry Lin in Shanghai, monitor her affairs in Asia.
“Perhaps this is not the best business model, but we thought it would work until we find an agent that fits our structure,” Huang said.
That search continues, and Huang isn’t certain whether Tseng will go with a traditional agent relationship or continue to cultivate their homemade approach. Tseng’s team intends to hang on to the Asian territory, which means a new agent essentially would have the U.S. and Europe.
The LPGA, meanwhile, intends to keep Tseng front and center in 2012, although she will share the spotlight with the tour’s other stars like Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Michelle Wie and others. Tseng will be the defending champion for seven tournaments, which will lead to a lion’s share of the promotion for a quarter of the tour’s events.
She’ll also be featured in the LPGA brand campaign with other players that will be shot in mid-November during the CME Group Titleholders in Orlando. The LPGA plans to work with its media partner, Golf Channel, to find opportunities like the one that ran on “Golf Central” earlier this year, featuring Tseng in the Orlando home she bought from Sorenstam.
“I tell people that if they think the LPGA of 1972 is coming to town, they’re wrong,” Whan said. “You have to flip that and say that the best golfers from around the world are coming, and Yani couldn’t be a better ambassador. If she had grown up in Texas, the U.S. media would know what to do with her, but she didn’t. She’s a unique story, and we have to help tell that story.”