State Farm Blasts LPGA English Proficiency Policy

Insurer Tells Golf Group It May 'Re-Examine' Sponsorship

By Published on . 7

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Saying it was "flabbergasted" by the Ladies Professional Golf Association's new policy requiring "effective communication in English on the part of all of our Tour members," State Farm is urging the group to reconsider -- or the insurer may reconsider its sponsorship.
State Farm is both a general sponsor of the LPGA as well as the sponsor of the State Farm Classic Tournament.
State Farm is both a general sponsor of the LPGA as well as the sponsor of the State Farm Classic Tournament.

"It's something we are dumfounded by," said Kip Diggs, media-relations specialist at the insurer, which is a general sponsor of the league as well as of the State Farm Classic Tournament in Springfield, Ill. "We don't understand this and don't know why they have done it, and we have strongly encouraged them to take another look at this."

LPGA defends position
The LPGA claims that the language barrier facing a number of its players is causing problems on many fronts, including the players' dealings with the media as well as the league's sponsors and the customers of those sponsors.

Mr. Diggs, however, said State Farm was unaware that the LPGA was contemplating any such policy. While he would not disclose the value of State Farm's LPGA sponsorship, which runs through next year, he said the policy was something that the company would take into consideration when deciding whether to continue its relationship with the league when its contract expires.

"We're looking at all of our options, but we would hope it would not come to [ending the partnership]," he said. "But this policy does concern us greatly, and as you could imagine, when [the sponsorship] comes up for review, it's something we'll take into account when we look at either re-upping or walking away. We made that commitment, and we're going to honor it, but we reserve the right to re-examine our sponsorships. Right now we have just let them know that this is something we are not pleased with."

State Farm isn't the only sponsor taking note. David Peikin, senior director-corporate communications at Choice Hotels International, said, "We have a great deal of interest in the intentions of the LPGA on this subject. Based on our understanding, this policy is currently under review by the LPGA, and a final decision and any related details will be determined over the next four months. Until that time, we will be closely monitoring LPGA news and announcements."

While the LPGA has issued a statement defending its policy, the group did not return calls at press time regarding the comments of State Farm or other sponsors.

Questionable approach
Ann Wool, senior VP-director at Ketchum Sports network, said it was a mistake for the LPGA not to talk to its sponsors before announcing the policy. "When making a major policy decision it's always wise to notify your sponsors," Ms. Wool said. "I can only speculate that [the LPGA] didn't think this was going to be such a controversial issue, otherwise they probably would have. It was probably a bad move not to notify their sponsors."

Ms. Wool said she understands the intent of the league but that its execution was wrong. "The fact that they are calling it a policy is a problem," she said. "From a PR standpoint that's the fundamental problem. Offering and encouraging players to improve their English so they help themselves and the league be more media-friendly is great. But when you make it a policy and threaten people it turns the whole thing on its head."

Since its announcement, the league has been catching heat from a number of sources including sports writers, community groups and AdAge.com readers. The statement that the league issued today hoped to clarify the group's position on the matter by saying it has worked for many years to improve the language skills of its players through tutors and translators. Instead, the statement seemed to add credence to the argument that the policy is self-serving and only being issued because the league is afraid of losing sponsorship dollars.

"It is imperative for the future success of the LPGA as well as the success of each LPGA player that our members effectively communicate in English at tournaments inside the United States with those who provide for the existence of the tournaments and the opportunities for professional women golfers to make a living doing what they love," the statement reads. "Much of the criticism of our policy has centered around the LPGA's penalty for players who do not meet the minimum language threshold. The penalty is meant to underscore the importance of this issue to the LPGA's long-term business success."

LPGA may need better communication skills
Mr. Diggs doesn't believe the statement is going to accomplish what the league is hoping it will. "There are ways to communicate things and it really sounds like the commissioner [Carolyn F. Bivens] did not listen to what the communications people around her might have encouraged her to [say] or to communicate this in a different way," he said.

"You can see what's intended," Mr. Diggs said, adding, "There's no way I would allow one of my executives to make a statement like this or implement this policy. The policy is troubling. It's one thing to want to be able to promote your product and have players communicate to your sponsors. But when you start to require that people do something and then back it up with penalties, that goes a mighty long way and that's troubling."

According to the LPGA's site, there are 478 LPGA tour members. The Associated Press reported that there are 121 international players from 26 countries on the tour, including 45 players from South Korea.
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