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Volume 23 No. 13
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‘Reset time’ for sports and sponsorships

As sports return from the pandemic-induced shutdown, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan calls for a reset and rebalance of sponsorships.
Photo: getty images
As sports return from the pandemic-induced shutdown, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan calls for a reset and rebalance of sponsorships.
Photo: getty images
As sports return from the pandemic-induced shutdown, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan calls for a reset and rebalance of sponsorships.
Photo: getty images

The most common question sports commissioners hear these days is, “When will sports be back?”

 

As golf’s global women’s tour, the LPGA was among the first leagues affected by COVID-19. Beginning in late January, with heightened advisories in Asia, we worked with our sponsors to cancel events in Thailand, Singapore and China. However, as the virus spread worldwide, what began as a three-week break has turned into several months. Like most commissioners, I’ve developed more than 10 versions of our 2020 schedule, all based on different “restart” assumptions.

Times of crisis focus the mind and force us to evaluate what’s important. Like any business leader right now, that comes down to people and purpose. For the LPGA, that means: a) protecting the health and safety of our tour professionals, caddies, staff, media and fans; b) being a good partner to our sponsors who are facing incredible challenges; c) showcasing our incredible athletes via TV partners in more than 160 countries; and d) focusing on the long-term success of our tour and our organization.

The support and engagement of our global partners has been extraordinary during this crisis. They have given us insight into how industry leaders are changing expectations for how they’ll spend their sponsorship dollars in the future. Here’s where I think we’re headed:

Sports still matters. Absence truly makes the heart grow fonder. Fans miss the competition, connection, passion and, yes, the relief that only sports can bring.

But the world has changed. We’ve been through a profound and painful shared experience. Many people continue to struggle financially and emotionally as we deal with health, economic and social challenges. Loved ones have been lost. Most of us have reordered our priorities and fine-tuned our values.

Our professional athletes are certainly eager to play again. But we view the decision to resume play as a responsibility, not a race. Our sponsors and players agree: We don’t want to be the reason a “flattening of the curve” was unsuccessful. So many have sacrificed. Who are we to risk that?

Sponsorships will be reimagined

Now more than ever, CEOs will scrutinize every expense, including sponsorships. In making tough choices, they will want their partnerships to deliver beyond “eyeballs,” hospitality or hometown pride. They will require sponsorships to connect with their corporate values.  

Our sponsors have been leading us in that direction. Most LPGA Tour events now include women’s leadership programs. By focusing on values — diversity, leadership, inclusion and empowerment for women — we deepen and broaden our sponsor relationships. Our athletes are the best female golfers in the world; they are also role models for leadership, discipline and confidence. Unlike many other sports, our athletes don’t have multiyear contracts, with no-trade clauses and option years. They are independent businesswomen with budgets, expenses and staff. They get paid only when they play and make the “cut” at a given tournament.

Sponsorships will be reset

Here’s the painful reality: Fewer than 7% of corporate sponsorships worldwide focus on women’s sports. But research by Nielsen found that nearly 85% of fans would be interested in watching women’s sports.

I’ve never met a CEO who said their corporate values support men over women 93% to 7%. Leaders speak passionately about equality, empowerment and diversity. Yet, the way they spend consumer marketing/sponsorship dollars reinforces something else. The corporate world didn’t wait until women made up 50% of board seats before expanding women’s leadership opportunities. So why would anyone think viewership and fan numbers are the only criteria for how you spend billions of marketing dollars? That logic simply doesn’t fly when you promote equality as a core tenet of your business.

Now is the time for companies to reset and rebalance their sponsorships to align with their stated values and connect with an underserved market.  

Resilience will be a hallmark of leadership

There is no playbook for the “next normal.” This is a time for leadership, agility, creativity and most of all, resilience. In this 70th year of the LPGA, we take inspiration and guidance from our 13 LPGA founders and the generations of athletes who followed to create the longest-running, most successful women’s professional sports organization in the world. Resilience is in our DNA; so are determination and drive.

This is the time for all of us in sports to do what we do best. Give our fans something to cheer for. Lead social change. Unite, motivate and inspire. Those are our values at the LPGA. What are yours?

Mike Whan has been commissioner of the LPGA since January 2010.