Yesterday, the LPGA Tour announced that Princeton University Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux Samaan will be its new commissioner, replacing soon-to-be USGA CEO Mike Whan. Marcoux Samaan is coming into a far better situation than Whan did in 2010. Television viewership of the LPGA Tour increased 21% in 2020, compared to 4% for the PGA Tour. Yet despite this positive momentum, women’s golf on network TV is still a rarity. For Commissioner Samaan, increasing the LPGA Tour’s presence on major networks should be priority number one.
The tour’s recent product has been outstanding. The start of the 2021 season has brought back-to-back victories by Jessica and Nelly Korda; drought-busting wins by Inbee Park, Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, and Ariya Jutanagarn; and a triumphant display of golf by budding star Patty Tavatanakit at the ANA Inspiration. The players are engaging and entertaining, and strong venues like Wilshire Country Club, host of the Hugel-Air Premia LA Open, put a refreshing emphasis on skill and strategy.
So it’s all the more disappointing when LPGA Tour coverage falls short. Take this past January’s Diamond Resort Tournament of Champions. Given a rare block of time on NBC, the Sunday broadcast struggled with pace-of-play issues, a heavy commercial load, and a format that often highlighted the male celebrities in the pro-am competition more than the actual professional golfers. In a relatively quiet portion of the golf calendar, the Diamond Resorts TOC was a rare opportunity for LPGA stars to be front and center. It was a shame to see them pushed to the side.
To put a fine point on this @lpga coverage from @NBCSports and @GolfChannel—not only is this coverage transparently, laughably substandard to any normal PGA event, but the LPGA *pays* NBC for the trouble. I wonder if it comes with a satisfaction guarantee?cc: @mollysolomon_gc
— Big Randy (@BigRandyNLU) January 24, 2021
Commissioner Whan has spoken about the importance of raising players’ profiles by getting them on network TV. As important as Golf Channel’s coverage of the women’s game is, its ratings pale in comparison to those of the big networks. That’s why the LPGA Tour’s overall increase in broadcast hours (from 100 in 2010 to 500 this year) doesn’t tell the whole story. We also have to consider how often the tour has appeared on network TV.
Going back 20 years to the 2001 Nabisco Championship (now called the ANA Inspiration), this was the coverage package:
- Thursday: 3:30-5:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Friday: 3:30-5:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Saturday: 4-6 p.m. ET (ABC)
- Sunday: 4-6 p.m. ET (ABC)
That’s a total of four hours on network TV. Not great, but something.
Flash forward to the 2021 ANA Inspiration this past April:
- Thursday: 12-4 p.m., 7-9 p.m. ET (Golf Channel)
- Friday: 12-4 p.m., 7-9 p.m. ET (Golf Channel)
- Saturday: 5-9 p.m. ET (Golf Channel)
- Sunday: 5-9 p.m. ET (Golf Channel)
Zero hours on network TV. That’s not a good look for the first women’s major after the shortened 2020 season. And the issue will persist throughout the 2021 schedule. The third major of the year, the Evian Championship in France (co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour and the LPGA Tour), will also be a Golf Channel-only affair.
In 2001, all four majors and a total of ten LPGA tournaments had a slot on a major network. In 2021, that total is eight, including the Solheim Cup. This is a surprising step backwards.
Worse, the LPGA Tour occasionally gets bumped from live coverage on cable TV by tertiary men’s events. Earlier this year, 50-year-old Annika Sorenstam made her first LPGA start in 13 years. The greatest female player of the modern era was hovering around the cut line on Friday, but for the whole week, the Gainbridge LPGA was tape-delayed on Golf Channel. Shown live instead were the Champions Tour’s Cologuard Classic and the PGA Tour’s opposite-field Puerto Rico Open.
— Marina Alex (@Marina_Deee) February 28, 2021
The LPGA Tour’s new TV deal, which was negotiated by the PGA Tour, will come into effect in 2022. We’ll see what kind of impact it has. In the meantime, there may be other ways Mollie Marcoux Samaan can get more exposure for her players. One strategy would be to capitalize on the LPGA Tour’s supposed “strategic alliance” with the PGA Tour and try to put stars of the men’s and women’s games on network TV together. Here are three forms that idea could take:
A jointly sanctioned PGA Tour/LPGA Tour event
Mixed-gender formats have been gaining steam internationally. The ISPS Handa Vic Open in Australia has been a success, and the inaugural Scandinavian Mixed, hosted by Sorenstam and Henrik Stenson, will take place in a couple of weeks in Sweden. Whan has hinted that the PGA and LPGA tours have discussed doing something similar. Obviously this would be a big gain for the LPGA Tour. But if you think there’s no upside for the PGA Tour, dig a little deeper.
— ISPS Handa Vic Open (@VicOpenGolf) February 9, 2020
Despite its strategic alliance with the LPGA Tour, the PGA Tour does not appear to take pains to promote the women’s game. Some recent comments by Jay Monahan in a deposition, which suggested that he knew next to nothing about the world’s top female golfers, didn’t help that perception. So supporting a mixed-gender event with equal pay could be a savvy PR move for Ponte Vedra.
A revived Skins Game
Back when the PGA Tour had a silly season, the annual Skins Game was a primetime Thanksgiving-weekend staple. The casual format allowed fans of the men’s game to see how the Annikas and the Karries of the world stacked up against the Tigers and the Phils. That’s something viewers just don’t get to do anymore (especially given the lack of publicly available advanced statistics in women’s golf, but that’s another topic). With the recent comeback of made-for-TV charity matches, it would be refreshing to see some of the LPGA’s many charismatic personalities get in on a Skins Game revival.
New-look international competitions
The LPGA Tour doesn’t have direct control over the Olympics or the Presidents Cup, but the new commissioner should be asking anyone and everyone why golf’s international competitions are so gender-segregated. The Olympics reaches a worldwide audience like no other, so it’s a shame not to have a team or mixed element in the golf competition. What a missed opportunity to see Jordan Spieth and Danielle Kang or Patrick Reed and Lexi Thompson (two words: content bonanza) pair up in red, white, and blue! The President’s Cup could use some freshening, too. It’s routinely lopsided in favor of the Americans, and unless it takes place at Royal Melbourne, it’s probably going to be a snoozefest. Adding in female players would immediately level the playing field and give the Presidents Cup an identity separate from Ryder and Solheim.
None of these ideas would be simple to accomplish, but Mollie Marcoux Samaan has a responsibility to reshape the future of LPGA Tour coverage. With more exposure on network TV, players would get better endorsement deals, companies would pay more to sponsor tournaments, and fans would have more chances to get invested in the personalities and storylines of women’s golf.