Women's golf extends its footprint

LPGA connects players earlier as marketers join in droves to promote youth, fitness pitches

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One of the golf industry's best bets for a revenue boost this year comes from a crop of appealing, young, female athletes who are getting attention from a growing number of fans and sponsors.

Although it lags far behind men's golf in numbers, women's golf is on the rise while growth of men's golf remains flat. Between 2000 and 2005, participation in women's golf rose about 20% to 6.6 million, according to the National Golf Foundation. An estimated 7 million women currently play golf, which is about 25% of the total who hit the links.

Annika Sorenstam may possibly end up the greatest female golfer before she's done, but marketers are also backing a wide range of up-and-comers who are trying to make names-and brands-for themselves on and off the links.

"To grow, we need to introduce female golfers to a much broader media audience," says Carolyn Bivens, who joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association as commissioner in 2005 after serving as president-chief operating officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media North America.

"We look to put them outside of the golf industry into mainstream entertainment including talk shows, general magazines, fashion magazines and catalogs," Ms. Bivens says. "It's chic to be a girl and a world-class athlete."

Within the sport, Navistar is a new LPGA Tour sponsor for 2007, with its name on next September's Navistar LPGA Classic. Honda and Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus return after making their tour sponsorship debuts last year. Longtime sponsor Rolex has also significantly increased its support, Ms. Bivens says.

Ms. Bivens' mandate includes personal brand-consulting services to LPGA players.

The 17-year-old Michelle Wie appears in a print and in-store campaign for Sony Electronics via Modem Media, San Francisco (new executions will follow this year via new Sony creative agencies BBDO Worldwide, New York, and 180, Los Angeles).

Paula Creamer is hawking her own line of sunglasses in fashion magazines and is followed at tournaments by crowds of pink-garbed fans imitating her signature color. Natalie Gulbis just renewed her relationship with cable's Golf Channel for a third season of a reality show following her on the tour (see profile at right).

Erica Blasberg, Brittany Lang and the "Asian Invasion" players such as the aptly named Birdie Kim are similarly getting marketer interest. Retailers and fashion labels are expanding their array of golf togs for women. This spring, Chico's joins Liz Claiborne, Ralph Lauren and Escada, among others, in producing a line of women's golfwear.

"Five years ago, brands endemic to the sport had all but abandoned the LPGA Tour," says Scott Seymour, senior VP-managing director of the golf division of Octagon Worldwide. "Today, they're not just doing deals with players to use their equipment, but they're using them in advertising and marketing."

Nike's research shows that the women's segment of golf has more potential for growth this year than the sport as a whole, says Cindy Davis, general manager-U.S. golf.

"There is no doubt that the arrival of these new, younger golf stars is helping to boost the sport," Ms. Davis says.
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