WHAT GOLF HANDICAP?;WOMEN'S INVOLVEMENT IS BOOMING, A TREND NOT LOST ON LPGA SPONSORS

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If you believe everything you read in the papers, then the Ladies Professional Golf Association is a must-avoid for marketers thinking sports sponsorship.

Women, you see, are disadvantaged physically to really be competitive, and the lifestyles of some LPGA players tend to offend "mainstream folks."

But if you believe LPGA Commissioner Charles Mechem Jr., then all this talk is hogwash, the LPGA has a long history of corporate support and it remains an effective marketing vehicle for sponsors.

Sorry, controversy mavens, but the evidence supports Mr. Mechem.

CBS executives, sports media observers and golf fans are still debating whether veteran golf broadcaster Ben Wright actually told a newspaper that lesbian golf pros are scaring away sponsors, as well as other revelations including that breasts impede female golfers' swing.

Meanwhile, the LPGA plays on: 38 events in 40 weeks a year, each sponsored and even owned by the likes of McDonald's Corp., Nabisco, Sprint and State Farm Insurance in deals that can be worth upwards of $5 million. Official licensees, supplying service and product, include MasterCard International, Oldsmobile and Rolex Watch USA.

"And we're growing," said Mr. Mechem, who will step down as commissioner at the end of 1995, ending a five-year term. "The LPGA's acceptance and marketing opportunities have never been stronger. Purses have grown 50% from five years ago to $25 million, and next year we should be up to 40 events."

Women golfers up dramatically

Fueling that growth is the dramatic rise in women golfers. The LPGA says there are 5 million female golfers in the U.S. today, and that will double to 10 million by the year 2000. Mr. Mechem also cited the continued support from corporate sponsors increasingly using sports marketing to target women.

A case in point is State Farm. The insurer is in the third year of sponsoring the State Farm Rail Classic in Springfield, Ill. That golf competition never had a sponsor before, and State Farm is now negotiating a two-year extension.

"Our research shows that an increasing number of insurance buying decisions are made by women," said Bruce Callis, State Farm VP. "We've made a strategic decision to shift ad dollars into this kind of programming."

Goal is exposure, not reach

Mr. Callis said State Farm's LPGA objective is exposure. The title sponsor buys the time from a network to air the event and either keeps the ad time or swaps time with other LPGA sponsors. Such time buys can cost between $700,000 and $1.4 million.

For the past two years, State Farm has bought time on regional sports networks to air its event. Mr. Callis said ratings have been low "but it's quality and concentration we're going for. If you're just judging by reach, then [LPGA events] won't do it for you, but reach isn't our compelling criterion."

Another major motivation for marketers is the event marketing staple of client, customer and employee entertainment.

"Our event is known as the `premier entertainment event in the food industry,"' boasted Phil Gutermuth, senior VP-industry and trade relations for Nabisco, which has sponsored the Dinah Shore LPGA event for the past 14 years.

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