|Critics say the incident could raise questions about the ability of the tour -- and particularly new LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens, pictured above -- to effectively handle complicated business issues.
INITIATIVE NORTH AMERICA PRESIDENT NAMED LPGA COMMISSIONER
Carolyn Bivens First Woman to Hold That Role at Pro Golf Association
That question lingers in the wake of the LPGA’s attempt to revise its standard media credential agreement, which resulted in a two-day coverage boycott of the Fields Open in Kapolei, Hawaii.
The crux of the dispute: Several news organizations, including The Associated Press and Honolulu’s two daily newspapers, refused to abide by the LPGA’s conditions for event access, which they alleged would restrict use by media organizations of their own editorial content. They also objected to policy language that gives the tour “unlimited” use of the media’s content -- primarily photographs -- for the exclusive purpose of promoting LPGA events.
Accused of a power play
The Feb. 22-23 boycott of the Fields’ pro-am and first round led to an eruption of criticism from the tournament sponsor, media experts and columnists who blasted the LPGA for its seeming power play. Ironically, the controversy minimized what the LPGA had coveted most: coverage of the first professional clash among American stars Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Michelle Wie.
(The boycott was limited to several American news organizations; the LPGA said more than 50 domestic and international credential holders went about business as usual.)
Insisting that it was trying to protect its commercial rights and not ostracize media, the tour quickly made revisions to its policy, prompting the AP and others to resume tournament coverage Feb. 24. That action cut short the crisis, but couldn’t erase the negative publicity created by the media boycott. And it certainly didn’t placate the tournament’s sponsor, the Fields Corp., a Honolulu-based distributor of pachinko machines, a Japanese game that is a mix between a slot machine and pinball. This was the first year that Fields sponsored an LPGA event.
“We felt like we delivered. How do you have this good of a product and not allow it to be covered?” said Tim Humes, the event’s executive director, who reports directly to Fields. “My disappointment was more towards the LPGA for not thinking about the impact this would have on our tournament.”
Perhaps, more damaging, the incident could raise questions about the ability of the tour -- and particularly new LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens -- to effectively handle complicated business issues.
But Ms. Bivens, who was responsible for implementing the new media policy, defended her action. She also dismissed the ensuing controversy, essentially describing it as an unavoidable growing pain that’s part and parcel of maturing into a business-savvy sports league.
“The LPGA staff and our organization cannot be in business for the sole purpose of garnering good publicity,” Ms. Bivens said. “Every time any league has changed the language that specifies who owns what, there is an uproar and there is dissension. ... It was going to be controversial whenever we did it. I’m really not sure we would have done it any differently.
“The intent and the outcome is exactly what we needed. For the first time in the 55-year history of the LPGA, our players, our tournament, and the LPGA have a say over the commercial use of our images.”
Ms. Bivens is no stranger to the media; before the LPGA, she was president and chief operating officer of media agency Initiative North America and before that had an 18-year career with USA Today and was part of the paper’s original launch team.
Unauthorized use of players' images
Ms. Bivens said she decided to revise the tour’s media policy earlier this year, in part, to limit the widespread, unauthorized use of images of LPGA players and tournaments. Especially in Asian markets, she said, the LPGA routinely found “players’ faces on coffee mugs or on a calendar, and they’ve never authorized the use of it.”
Such findings prompted the LPGA to use policy language insisting that all photographs taken at LPGA events be used “for no purpose other than the immediate news coverage of the particular LPGA event.” Immediate, in this case, was defined “as no later than 48 hours after the competition has been completed.”
“Our overarching goal for the next three years is to build the LPGA brand and put it at another level,” said Ms. Bivens. “Getting control of the content and how the images are used are very important aspects of building the brand. ... Our rationale was the same rationale used by every major sports league in the world over the course of the last five to 15 years.”
'Purely about profit'
That contention was met with some skepticism. “What the LPGA is doing is trying to control the after-market. It’s purely about profit,” Boston media lawyer Joseph D. Steinfield told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which along with the Honolulu Advertiser participated in the boycott.
Those papers and the AP, which has 1,800 member media organizations in the U.S., expressed concern that the restrictions could regulate when they could publish their own photos or dictate the stories the photos could accompany.
Ms. Bivens said there was no attempt to restrict editorial usage -- “Anybody who read the credentialing language could not have believed that” -- and she was perplexed by media protests because the so-called 48-hour rule had been part of the LPGA’s policy for years.
Nevertheless, the tour has rescinded that policy clause. Said Ms. Bivens: “As long as it’s used for editorial coverage and news coverage we don’t really care when they use it.”
An uncommon policy
Another point of contention is a new -- and uncommon -- policy that grants the LPGA, in exchange for credential issuance, “unlimited, perpetual, non-exclusive right to use photographs taken at LPGA events for non-commercial promotion of the LPGA and LPGA events at no additional expense.”
One sports-marketing expert, who has done consulting work for the LPGA and the National Basketball Association, described the term’s language as confusing and a "little dictatorial."
“Non-commercial promotion? I want to meet the lawyer who came up with that one. Such a thing doesn’t exist,” said Bill Sutton, associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida.
Seeking “‘unlimited, perpetual’ rights is overly aggressive, and it’s not the type of decision you want to make to create a culture of working together. That may not have been their intent, but those words make it seem that way.”
LPGA surprised at reaction
The tour expressed surprise at the media’s reaction. Lacking “in-house photographers,” the LPGA routinely has sought and gained media permission to use photos exclusively for the “narrow” purpose of promoting its tournaments. (The LPGA maintains the right to purchase media photos for all other commercial uses.)
“It’s a professional courtesy that has been extended to us. We didn’t think we were overreaching,” said Eve Wright, the LPGA’s senior director of legal affairs. She said the tour has not yet removed this contractual clause, but added the LPGA and media outlets, including the AP, were still studying its ramifications.
“We’re still discussing that with the LPGA,” Dave Tomlin, AP’s assistant general counsel, said Feb. 24. “In the meantime, they’ve said that the provision is optional for the Fields, and we’ve opted out.”
~ ~ ~
Gene Yasuda is a business editor at Golfweek magazine.