The LPGA’s revelation that it will require its golfers to show proficiency in English is ultimately motivated by one thing: money.
The Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, facing the loss of sponsors in at least three tournaments, is under increasing pressure to make the sport more attractive to potential corporate partners, industry analysts said.
The LPGA Tour, however, has lacked a high-profile American player to serve as the face of a circuit dominated in recent years by international players, many of whom speak limited English.
The tour said next year that it will require all players who have been on the tour for two years to pass an oral test of their ability to speak basic English. Failure of the test would result in a suspension. The rule goes into effect immediately for new players.
“We —and they — understand that in order for them and the LPGA to be most successful, players must be able to effectively communicate with fans, sponsors and media, the vast majority of whom speak English,” LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens said Tuesday. “Unlike athletes in other sports, LPGA players must entertain and engage sponsors and their customers on a weekly basis; our business model does not rely on advertising and ticket sales as others do.”
The approachability of athletes is uniquely important in golf, where individuals play an enormous role in the marketability of the sport. Players often are asked to appear with sponsors at events and interact with corporate partners and fans at pro-ams.
“You can be angry at a [baseball] player, but you can still love the Yankees,” said David Carter of the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm. “The LPGA is nothing but the collective personalities of its golfers. Essentially, the athletes are the brand. From a business standpoint, I completely understand their thinking.”
On tour now are 121 international players, including 45 from South Korea. The most recent world rankings list just three players from the United States in the top 20, but seven from South Korea, two from Japan and one from Taiwan. Many of those players speak limited English and communicate with sponsors and the media through interpreters.
Although most American players have been diplomatic in speaking about the international competitors, their prevalence on tour has not gone unnoticed. Tour veteran Jan Stephenson told Golf magazine in 2003, “Asians are killing our tour” because they were unable to speak English.
“We have two-day pro-ams where people are paying a lot of money to play with us, and they say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’” Stephenson said. “Our tour is predominantly international, and the majority of them are Asian. They’ve taken it over.”
The LPGA has lost several sponsors in the past year. The Ginn Cos. earlier this month said it would no longer support a tournament in Charleston, S.C., and a lack of sponsors has forced the company to break off talks with the Fields Open in Hawaii. It’s also not clear whether the SemGroup, an oil marketing company, will continue to sponsor a tournament in Tulsa, Okla.
No sponsor has publicly voiced any concern over the number of players who don’t speak English. But LPGA observers said it would not be surprising if companies had placed pressure on the LPGA to address the issue.
“There must be some sort of advice coming from the sponsors of these events,” said Scott Minto, director of the Sports MBA Program at San Diego State. “The [LPGA’s] ability to exist depends on the sponsors, so you can see why they want their players to be more engaging.”
The LPGA has made efforts to promote some of its top American players. Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel are seen as two rising stars on tour. Natalie Gulbis has become something of a sex symbol, appearing in a magazines, her own swimsuit calendar and a reality show. But only Creamer and fellow American Cristie Kerr have won on tour this year, and the four majors were won by Inbee Park and Ji-Yai Shin of South Korea, Yani Tseng of Taiwan and Lorena Ochoa of Mexico.
Bivens said yesterday that the players would become more marketable on their own if they spoke English when interacting with sponsors, saying that each golfer “plays a role in maintaining and gaining corporate sponsors for herself and the LPGA.”
“We would be doing our players a disservice if we did not enforce our communication policy,” she said. “In effect, we would be relegating them to secondary marketing and reduced earning potential.”
The LPGA has faced a strong public relations backlash, and there have been some rumblings of legal challenges to the policy. Legal scholars said the tour generally has a right to make its own rules, but some state laws would make it illegal for the tour to explicitly target golfers with certain nationalities or ethnicities.
“There’s a possibility with some state laws that the LPGA could get into trouble,” said Michael McCann, a visiting professor of law at Boston College, who has specialized in sports law. “But it’s not necessarily clear that national origin is being singled out. It would be challenging to make a case.”