LPGA Wants to Brand its Players

Commissioner Bivens Pushes Marketing with Oscars, Cross-Promos

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The ladies Professional Golf Association is offering its tour players a personal brand manager, and will subsidize part of the cost.

The unprecedented effort-none of the other major sports leagues have such a program-is the brainchild of LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens, the former president-chief operating officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media North America.

"I come from the sales, marketing and business side of the house, where we were always looking for the right marketing association," Ms. Bivens said. "Here I see a bevy of women who would be perfect for different types of products."

The branding coach Ms. Bivens has hired is Wendy Newman, founder-developer of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Person Centered Branding, who will meet individually with players. The LPGA is offering to foot part of the bill if a player signs on with Ms. Newman, particularly for those players at the bottom of the money list.

"What we do is really a combination of traditional and creative marketing and branding," Ms. Newman said. "I don't work against the agents. I'll help [the players] get endorsement deals through their agents. What we try to do is really narrow down what companies to go after."

A personal branding coach is just part of Ms. Bivens' marketing plan. Last month, the LPGA donated tickets and private golf lessons with players for gift bags handed out at the Academy Awards. Ms. Bivens and six players also attended the Oscar after-parties. Later this month, several LPGA players and Nascar drivers are filming a cross-promotion for The Speed Channel.

The LPGA has always played second fiddle to the men's PGA Tour-and other sports-when it comes to sponsors and TV. Last year, for instance, the players on the LPGA Tour pursued $45 million in available prize money from a total of 34 tournaments; the men on the PGA Tour went after a $249 million pot in the same number of events.

perfect mix

But the time seems ripe to take advantage of a big marketing initiative. The LPGA has a perfect mix of young, talented and telegenic players such as 16-year old Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel (17), Paula Creamer (19) and Natalie Gulbis (23); veteran stars such as Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam; and outstanding international players such as Korea's Shi Hyun Ahn, Grace Park and Se-Ri Pak, and Mexico's Lorena Ochoa.

"We need to make a move in the marketplace while our product is lightning in a bottle," Ms. Bivens said.

Marketing the "young guns" of the LPGA seems to be working. At all four LPGA major championships in 2005, attendance, TV ratings and traffic on lpga.com were all up over the respective numbers from 2004. Three weeks ago at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first LPGA major of 2006, TV ratings were up 64% from 2005 and final-round coverage on CBS was up 80%-in large part thanks to Ms. Wie, Ms. Gulbis and Ms. Ochoa all being in contention.

But there still needs to be a note of caution that the "personal branding" doesn't turn star athletes into package-goods. Or worse.

"The LPGA must be careful that it doesn't come across too contrived or as if they are trying to manufacture personalities or identities that do not truly exist," said sports marketing expert David Carter, principal of Los Angles-based Sports Business Group and executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "If this happens, consumers, the media and all that follow the sport will pick up on it."

Some might already have. New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts wrote earlier this month that Ms. Bivens has "an unnatural love for the word 'brand.' ... Someone stop this woman. Bivens will learn, as the NBA has, that fans don't want to be manipulated by marketing."

"Ms. Roberts completely misses the point," Ms. Bivens said. "The most upside opportunity for personal endorsements right now is with women's sports and athletes. If we want to be naive to think marketing their performance and personality doesn't help them, it's a sad statement."
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