Fans may not have been able to read the writing on Ji-Yai Shin’s hat the day she won the Women’s British Open, but the message was clear. Asian players currently dominate the LPGA tour. The LPGA must now sort out how this new trend impacts its ability to attract sponsors and market itself and its players.
The LPGA is unlike other traditional sports organizations. Sponsors are the backbone of LPGA events. Without sponsors, there are no tournaments, there is no prize money. An absence of sponsors and tournament prize money affects the livelihood of players and the very existence of the LPGA.
In order to attract sponsors, the LPGA has to demonstrate the marketability of itself and its players. Part of this marketability includes being able to get the tournaments on network television. Networks are more likely to broadcast tournaments that boast a roster of players who have a solid following. In order for a player to gain a following, fans must feel they can relate to the player.
The marketability of a player partly depends on the fans’ perception of that player. If there is a communication barrier, fans may perceive the player as aloof and unapproachable. In order to attract fans and sponsors, the LPGA hopes to avoid this classification for its players.
Players also have to work together with sponsors to put on a successful tournament. One of the biggest events during tournament week is the pro-am. In this event, the sponsors and their clients play a round with the pros. The draw for sponsors is that their clients get to spend a round chatting up the players, gathering stories to make their golfing friends envious.
The current crop of Asian players, speaking little to no English, can walk among the fans and play in the pro-ams, but there is a communication breakdown. Unlike their English-speaking competitors, Asian players can’t share tips with the pro-am players. They can’t discuss the course. They can’t offer up stories about the tour. They can’t market themselves and the tour to the sponsors and fans the way the LPGA needs them to.
In what they see as an effort to create an even playing field for players, the LPGA recently announced that players will have to pass an oral evaluation of English skills in order to stay on tour. This ruling takes effect in 2009 for players who have been on tour for two years. Players failing the evaluation will receive a suspension. All prospective tour players will have to pass the evaluation before they can join the tour. If enforced, this ruling could literally change the face of the LPGA tour.
When Se Ri Pak—the golfer responsible for igniting the passion for golf in her home country of South Korea—won her first major ten years ago, she didn’t speak English. Over the past ten years, her English has improved and she no longer uses a translator. Of her own volition, she took the time to learn the language of the sponsors and marketers of the LPGA events. Learning English allowed her to be an active and engaging participant in pro-ams, tournaments, media events, and her own victory speeches.
Although some feel that the LPGA is approaching the situation the wrong way, credit must be given to the LPGA for trying to open up to international players the same marketing advantages the English-speaking players have. By learning English, either because of their own desire or because of mandate, the international players will expose themselves to more marketing opportunities.
It can be said that the job of an LPGA player is to golf—practice, improve, win tournaments. And Asian players have that responsibility cornered. They start playing when they are young and practice with rigid discipline. This dedication translates into their ability to win tournaments. Asian players have won the last three majors; only 8 of the last 36 majors have been won by Americans. Should Asian players be pulled away from their valuable practice time in order to learn English?
But playing golf isn’t all that being an LPGA player entails. Players have to play in pro-ams, mingle with sponsors and their clients, and participate in media events. By not knowing the language common to the majority of sponsors, clients, and the media, international players cut themselves off from these opportunities. The LPGA could argue that this isolation makes it harder to attract and keep tournament sponsors.
Despite the inability of the two key groups to communicate directly with each, there are two clear messages. The LPGA is having difficulty finding and holding on to sponsors, and Asian players are dominating, and will continue to dominate, the LPGA tour. Somehow the communication barrier must be broken. If the LPGA is to thrive, it must learn to work with and retain players, just as it needs to attract and retain sponsors.