Upswing: Discussing the LPGA’s popularity surge with Jon Podany

Commercial interest in women’s sports properties is on the rise thanks to an upswing in popularity and media exposure. For the Ladies Professional Golf Association, organisers of the leading tour in women’s golf, the only way is up.

Upswing: Discussing the LPGA’s popularity surge with Jon Podany

Momentum is a word that has come to define Mike Whan’s time as commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).

Since the former marketing executive took the helm in 2011, the narrative emanating from the preeminent women’s golf tour has been one of progress and expansion. Over the course of the past seven years, the circuit’s schedule has grown from 23 to 33 tournaments, total prize purses have swelled to nearly US$70 million, and its overall broadcast audience has surged to around 500 million households worldwide. All told, LPGA revenues have soared by a staggering 88 per cent since 2012.

Commercially speaking, the LPGA has been on the rise for some time, but the rate at which it has been doing business and cutting deals has accelerated dramatically in recent months. Since the start of 2017, the tour has signed no fewer than 16 new corporate partnerships, bringing on board eight new tournament title sponsors, including three already announced for next year.

That impressive haul is testament to the tour’s oft-lauded ‘role reversal’ approach to client management; an overarching sponsorship philosophy that spans the entire organisation - from its front office staff to the players themselves - and which places greatest emphasis on servicing the needs of those who write the cheques above all else. But it could be that there is more behind the tour’s current momentum than an attentive player base and a proactive commercial team.

Jon Podany, chief commercial officer of the LPGA

“It’s a nice confluence of two things coming together,” suggests Jon Podany, the LPGA’s chief commercial officer. “One is the continued growth and momentum and transformation of the LPGA, but I do think there is a societal shift going on here in the form of equality: the #MeToo movement, the #Time’sUp movement, the #SeeHer campaign in the advertising world, companies increasing focus on diversity and inclusion.

“All of those things wrapped together is leading more companies to say ‘hey, if we’re going to value diversity and inclusion, if we’re going to value equality, we need to do that not only in terms of who we hire and who we promote to senior levels and the boardroom and so forth, but we need to do it in terms of how we express our dollars and how we spend our sponsorship and advertising money.’ It can’t just be all male dominated.”

Like organisations across the burgeoning world of women’s sport, the LPGA is seeing the upside of society’s increased emphasis on diversity and equality. Yet its focus on promoting female empowerment is nothing new. From its inception in 1950, the tour has championed that cause as a matter of principle, and its ongoing activities in the areas of women’s leadership and girls’ participation have positioned it as something of a standard-bearer in the eyes of corporate partners.

Podany himself points to the example of KPMG, the professional services giant and major LPGA partner. As well as supporting the LPGA’s Women’s Network, a community of individuals and organisations whose mission is to inspire young women to lead more mindful and purposeful lives through golf, the company sponsors the Women’s Leadership Summit, an annual gathering which takes place in conjunction with the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, one of five major tournaments in women’s golf. “That has become tremendously successful and one of the most sought-after leadership summits for women to attend each year,” Podany says of the four-yearold event. “They ask CEOs and companies to identify those women who are up-and-coming, potential C-suite candidates in the next five to ten years. So it’s quite an honour to be invited to that.”

KPMG has also garnered widespread praise for agreeing to honour sponsorship payments to Stacy Lewis, the 12-time LPGA Tour winner and two-time major champion who is due to give birth to her first child in November. Given that sponsorship contracts in golf usually stipulate that a player must compete in a minimum number of tournaments to be paid in full, forcing many to sacrifice income when they want to start a family, KPMG’s gesture was rightly well-received, and even led to calls for changes to the way such contracts are drawn up in future.

For the LPGA, positive stories like Lewis’s are more than just good PR - they are all signs of progress that highlight how attitudes towards women’s sport are changing. At the tour level, a new tie-up with Aon, the London-based risk management and professional services company, has struck a similar chord. From next year, the firm will sponsor a year-long initiative called the Aon Risk Reward Challenge, which will award a hearty US$1 million to the player on both the LPGA and PGA Tours who performs best on the most challenging holes throughout the regular season.

“We’ve got to give full credit to Aon,” says Podany, who reveals that it was the company’s marketing team, not the tours themselves, who came up with the concept. Aon had in fact been in talks with both circuits individually before negotiations over a joint deal took place. “We began detailed discussions back in January at the PGA Show here in Orlando and then from there, over the course of about six months, built up what the programme could look like, how it could work, how they would activate it across our tour.”

KPMG garnered widespread praise for agreeing to honour sponsorship payments to Stacy Lewis during her maternity leave from the game

Precise details regarding the scoring format are still to be determined, but the basic premise of the challenge is that a hole at every tournament on the calendar will be identified as the risk/reward hole. A committee comprised of individuals from both the LPGA and Aon will decide which hole merits the distinction, with the decision based on several possible factors. As Podany explains: “It could be a drivable par-four, it could be a reachable par-five, it could be a hole that has a quirky green that provides unique pin positions.”

With Aon locked in for the lengthy term of eight years, Podany describes the company’s investment as another “significant step” for the LPGA. Not only does it provide another lucrative earning opportunity for the tour’s playermembers, the decision to offer equal prize money for the men and women makes a clear statement about gender equality. And while it was Aon who conceived the concept, it is the latest indication that the links between professional men’s and women’s golf are only getting stronger.

In 2016, the LPGA and PGA Tour announced a strategic alliance that included commitments to work together on areas such as schedule coordination, marketing programmes, media rights and joint events. Since then, the two organisations have proactively sought out mutually beneficial, cross-promotional opportunities, with the collaboration playing out in a number of ways. Podany notes, for example, that LPGA leaderboard updates are now included during PGA Tour telecasts in the United States and across the tour’s digital platforms - a gesture that is reciprocated by the LPGA and its partners. The two tours have also teamed up on PR tie-ins such as joint press conferences with tournament winners and TV appearances, while some LPGA stars even caddied for their male counterparts at the PGA Tour’s Players Championship in May.

What’s more, there remain strong intentions from both sides to establish an officially cosanctioned tournament in future. Podany reveals that two concepts are currently on the table: one involving the PGA Tour itself, and another that could potentially feature players from the PGA Tour Champions, the tour’s senior circuit. “It’s not something that we both threw out there as an objective and we’re not working towards it,” he says. “We’re both working earnestly to try to make that happen. We think it would be a compelling tournament and we think fans would enjoy it.”

As those talks continue, a further component of the alliance is set to be realised in the coming months. With the LPGA’s current ten-year domestic media rights deal with the Golf Channel due to expire at the end of 2019, the PGA Tour will represent the women’s body during the next round of negotiations. Podany reveals that talks over a deal beyond 2020 have already begun, and he’s excited to see what might transpire as a result of having the PGA Tour’s “vast experience” to draw upon for the first time.

Outside of the US, too, there could be major changes on the horizon, not least since the PGA Tour is making significant moves of its own in digital media. Earlier this year, the tour struck a 12-year, US$2 billion global media rights partnership with pay-TV giant Discovery, a deal that will see the launch of a new golf-only over-thetop (OTT) streaming platform in 2019. Following the announcement of that partnership, executives at both the PGA Tour and Discovery indicated they might look to add further golf rights and coverage to the service when the opportunity presents itself.

Were that to happen, the LPGA would be a natural target, and while its international rights are currently held by IMG, whose contract with the tour runs until the end of 2019, talks with interested parties have already taken place.

“It’s certainly a possibility,” says Podany, asked whether the LPGA could look to follow the PGA Tour to Discovery’s platform. “We’ll obviously be talking with IMG but we already are talking with Discovery as a possibility and we’ll explore other options as well as we enter into this phase of determining what the best path for the future could be. So I’d say it’s certainly a possibility but [there are] no foregone conclusions at this time.”

The new Buick LPGA Shanghai tournament will offer a prize purse of US$2.1 million

For now, then, the onus is on the LPGA to continue its recent momentum by growing the commercial appeal of its overall product. Part of that process will involve proactively pushing into new markets with innovative event formats, and part of it will be to ensure sponsors continue to see bang for their buck.

“It’s a multi-pronged approach,” says Podany. “Number one is making sure our teams working with the sponsors are doing everything we can to deliver the value and meet the metrics that they set out to determine our relationship is successful - whether that’s the media delivery or the hospitality experience. Secondly, we’ve got to continue to grow the LPGA, increase the audience that we deliver and the number, reach and quality of our tournaments. And then thirdly is the player piece.

“We continue to reinforce to our players how important it is to provide a good experience to our sponsors and they have been central to that - their accessibility, their personality, their willingness to try to leave the tour better than they found it and, as we say, act like a founder, like the original 13 founders of the LPGA who had to do everything they could to ensure the success of the organisation. It’s their organisation and if they want to continue to grow it, they’ve got to do their part and they wholly buy into that.”

Of the two primary types of corporate partnerships offered by the LPGA - one-off tournament title sponsorships, and official marketing partnerships for companies who want to activate their association year-round - it is the former category that represents “the lifeblood of the tour”, according to Podany. Tournament title sponsorships not only help prop up the annual event calendar, he says, they also provide the bulk of its prize purses, with 16 events on the tour now offering in excess of US$2 million.

Three such deals have been newly signed for 2019 and beyond. The first of those will see Dow Chemical Company back the tour’s first-ever team event, the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, at Michigan’s Midland Country Club. Featuring 72 two-player teams competing in both foursomes and four-ball for a US$2 million purse, the inaugural edition will run from 17th to 19th July next year.

“That will be compelling TV and compelling for fans on-site,” says Podany. “There’s always a different dynamic with the player personalities that come out when they’re playing with a partner. You get the high-fives and the fist bumps, the hugs and so forth, so we’re looking forward to that one.”

BMW events around the world are always first-class. We’re excited about going to a new market within Korea to showcase the LPGA given our popularity there

Jon Podany

Carmaker BMW, a prominent backer of golf around the world, has meanwhile attached its name to another newly created US$2 million tournament that will take place at the LPGA International Busan course in South Korea in October of next year. Located near Busan, Korea’s second-largest city, it will be the first professional event held at an LPGA-accredited facility outside of the United States. The tournament will also be a chance for the LPGA to engage its avid following in a country that has become a dominant force on the circuit; at the time of writing, three of the world’s top four players hail from Korea, while last year Koreans combined to win no fewer than 15 of the tour’s 33 tournaments.

“BMW events around the world are always first-class,” says Podany. “We’re excited about going to a new market within Korea to showcase the LPGA given our popularity there.”

Also in October 2019, the tour will head to China for an all-new tournament, the Buick LPGA Shanghai, at Qizhong Garden Golf Club. With a purse of US$2.1 million, that 72-hole stroke play event will be run in conjunction with WME | IMG China and the China Golf Association for the next five years. For Podany, the duration of that deal is further testament to the tour’s current trajectory. “It speaks well to how confident our partners are and where the LPGA is going,” he says.

On home shores, too, confidence among partners is growing as the tour continues to add new tournaments to its schedule, including recent events in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and new dimensions to its on-course product. Next year’s schedule will begin with January’s inaugural Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Orlando, with the winners from the last two LPGA seasons set to be joined by a field of 45 celebrities and other amateurs to compete for a US$1.2 million purse. Perhaps most importantly for the LPGA, that tournament will be aired on network television by NBC, which has committed to showing four hours of coverage across the US.

For Podany, the new tournaments will have the combined effect of showcasing a different side to the LPGA, further positioning the tour not only as a leading American sports property with a strong domestic footprint, but as a culturally diverse organisation with a global outlook and a uniquely international complexion.

“That seems to be where the world is headed and we’re already well-positioned in that regard,” he says. “A lot of the American leagues are trying to expand their international footprint and we’re already there in a very natural, authentic kind of way. We have a real strength in Asia and that, combined with the player commitment and their understanding of the importance of partners and treating them right, and companies realising more and more that they’ve got to do more for women’s sports, means we’re probably as well positioned as anybody.”