Two weeks of US Open golf have begun, and I could not be more excited to watch as the game’s best compete for the national championship titles. There has been extra buzz around this year’s US Open Championships, because, for the first time in history, the US Open and US Women’s Open are taking place on the same golf course in back-to-back weeks. The venue, Pinehurst No. 2, is one of golf’s most iconic championship sites, having hosted multiple men’s major championships and a Ryder Cup, but next week will be its very first time hosting a women’s major. No other golf club has ever accommodated two majors in one year, let alone in consecutive weeks. Both events are expecting record attendance, and NBC and ESPN will broadcast 49 hours of live coverage reaching golf fans in 180 countries.
There has been no shortage of controversy regarding the less-than-ideal condition of the golf course that the Women’s Open contestants will inherit after 156 men play their practice and tournament rounds. LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, however, sees it as an “… opportunity to have more people watch the U.S. Women’s Open than have ever before” because of the historic nature of the double-header and the carry-over media from the men’s event that will give unprecedented coverage for the women. Kelly Thesier, Director of Media Communications at the LPGA Tour, also added, “The level of interest [in US Women’s Open] has been extraordinary this year. Just looking at how many times US Women’s Open has been mentioned by the media, especially on social media, we already see it as a victory. “
I’m siding with Whan and Thesier but for reasons beyond the halo effect of the men’s US Open and the Pinehurst No. 2 legend. The LPGA has been making great strides in growing and reshaping its brand in the last few years and is a completely different tour than the one I joined in 2009 as a rookie. Partly due to the global recession, the LPGA lost nearly a third of its events between 2008 and 2011. However, the LPGA has since rebounded fully by acquiring 13 new title sponsors and 11 new marketing partners. Last month, KPMG announced its decision to take over the title sponsorship of one of the LPGA’s five major championships; the newly branded KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2015 will have a purse of $3.5M, up $1.25M versus this year’s LPGA Championship. This bigger, better major’s weekend rounds will air on network television via NBC, giving the LPGA an opportunity to reach an audience that it cannot through the Golf Channel. On the sponsorship front, KPMG has had an ongoing partnership with Stacy Lewis since 2012, and the company’s decision to increase its exposure and investment in women’s golf to this extent signals the value that the LPGA delivers for corporate sponsors.
So KPMG cares about women’s golf and obviously, as a former LPGA Tour player, so do I. But why should YOU care?
LPGA is a global tour… and that’s a good thing
The LPGA is capitalizing on its strength as a truly global tour. Of the approximately 270 current active LPGA members, there are 132 international players representing 29 countries. Some of the most exciting young stars in the game right now include New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, who won two LPGA events (three professional events globally) as an amateur before the age of 16, England’s Charley Hull, who earned 2013 Rookie of the Year honors in Europe and starred on the European Solheim Cup team at age 17, and China’s first and only major champion, Shanshan Feng. Additionally, 2013 LPGA Player of the Year, Inbee Park, along with numerous other stellar competitors from South Korea, has created an insatiable demand for the sport in their home country.
The global nature of the LPGA tour’s membership is reflected in their tournament schedule. In 2013, the tour signed new events in China and the Bahamas, adding to the existing tournaments in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The 2014 schedule features 15 events outside of the US. The LPGA is also piloting an international team match play event called the International Crown next month, an event which would not be possible without the diversity of the tour’s constituents and the competitive parity among them.
The global nature of the tour and its stars set the LPGA up extraordinarily well for golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016. Even in nations where golf is in nascent stages of growth, fans will tune in to root for their national hero(es) competing on the world’s biggest stage in sports. Women’s golf will play a significant role in expanding golf’s fan base and in the increase in participation in countries like China, New Zealand and Norway, all of which currently have players ranked top ten in the world. This is good news for the golf industry and its various stakeholders, who have become increasingly concerned over the declining participation of golfers in the traditional golf bastions of the US and the UK over the last decade. While innovative ideas like 15-inch holes and 6-hole golf courses may help make golf more accessible and fun, I believe sustainable growth will come from youth development in international markets.
The rise of American golf
Arguably the most impactful story of 2014 has been the stellar performance of American golfers. Since the introduction of the Rolex Rankings in 2006 through March 2013, American players had occupied the number one spot for a total of 5 weeks. As of June 2013, only one player in the top ten represented the US. Since then, the Americans have roared back. Stacy Lewis, who won five tournaments in 2012 and three, including a major, in 2013, is currently world number one. Aside from Lewis, young stars such as Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson, and Jessica Korda, have all stepped up to the winners’ circle this season. In particular, Michelle Wie, considered the game’s most transcendent star, is once again showing signs of greatness with her recent return to form, thrilling fans and the golf media alike.
Fans are captivated by the high level of competition amongst the LPGA’s American and international talents, and the LPGA is seeing double-digit growth in TV ratings for events in North America. 2014 ratings rose 25% year-over-year and 60% of these events enjoyed record-setting TV ratings. Thesier revealed that the big American stars’ standout performance, and greater media exposure have directly translated into more interest from a greater variety of brands wanting to sponsor LPGA events. The aforementioned KPMG deal is a prime example of the caliber of corporate sponsors who are choosing to associate with the LPGA and women’s golf.
LPGA “gets” social media
The LPGA has always been an extremely fan-friendly tour, but its robust social media presence has enhanced their fan engagement even further. We are seeing the rising importance of social media in engaging sports fans. Teams, leagues, and brands alike are rolling out comprehensive social media platforms to take advantage of this trend. The LPGA’s communications team took note, and with the help of social media consultants at Digital Royalty, instituted a social media training program for its members. In 2013, the Twitter handle of every player’s personal account was printed on her caddie’s bib. Soon, tweets tagged with #LPGASeeWhy – a call to “see why it’s different out here” – quickly proliferated in the Twittersphere. Thanks also to creative initiatives like Jessica Korda’s Google+ Hangout session and a series of #LPGAGolfies (selfies taken with a GoPro placed on the bottom of a golf hole), @LPGA’s social media numbers have grown rapidly. Within the last 12 months, Facebook likes grew by 169%, Twitter followers by 67% and Instagram by 250%. Young, social media savvy players have made the LPGA one of the most accessible and fan-friendly professional sports tours or leagues, and these women are a tremendous asset to any brand that partners with the LPGA.
The 69th US Women’s Open and Pinehurst No. 2 will draw record crowds and TV audiences across the globe, and I’ll be glued to my TV on Sunday to see who among the deep pool of talent and big names will persevere through the toughest test in golf and emerge as the champion. But beyond these two weeks and this season, what will be most interesting to watch is:
1. How the LPGA brand will continue to evolve in its home market and abroad and
2. How brands will evaluate women’s golf differently in the runway to Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.