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LPGA SEEKS TO BOOST IMAGE, INCREASE TAKE FROM TELEVISION POT

When Bill Blue was named LPGA commissioner a year and a half ago, he stepped into a position that Golf Digest called "one of the worst jobs in golf."

With good reason.

While the Ladies Professional Golf Association had grown steadily, it still was hampered by gaps in its tour schedule, shaky sponsorship for some of its events and insufficient prize money, a major complaint on the part of the players.

Always No. 2 to the PGA Tour, the LPGA had fallen to third on golf's totem pole, behind the flourishing PGA Senior Tour and further back on the consciousness of sports fans. Exposure was lacking and, in short, the LPGA was looked upon as a tough sell.

Eighteen months since his appointment, Blue and the LPGA have made some progress.

Prize money has improved to a record $15.5 million, and for the first year two LPGA events have $1 million purses. The tour has moved into some big-market areas like Las Vegas, Houston and Westchester County, N.Y., and has scored with the initiation of a Ladies Skins Game.

The LPGA is not struggling. But in order to flourish it still faces two significant hurdles:

Capturing greater interest from Corporate America;

Attracting more television exposure.

"The key issue for us is awareness," Blue said. "We must promote the image of our players as great golfers. Over the past 1 1/2 years, I think the respect level for our tour has increased a great deal. We've grown rather dramatically in terms of the size of purses, more TV appearances, more network appearances."

A sports fans' first reaction to the letters LPGA? Almost surely it is Nancy Lopez. The second? Probably Jan Stephenson; maybe Pat Bradley. After that?

LPGA stars such as Patty Sheehan, Ayako Okamoto and Betsy King, each of whom has been a tour earnings leader, haven't received the kind of notoriety their success would lead one to expect.

The LPGA wants its best players to be more of a big-name draw, especially since the top draw, Lopez, has stated she soon will limit her playing schedule in order to devote more time to her two children.

The talent worthy of celebrity status is there. King and Beth Daniel were dominant last year and are in their prime, as is Sheehan. Those three have 63 victories among them.

"Television certainly is the top priority," Blue said. "That's where you can get your message across the quickest."

The LPGA will make seven appearances on network TV this year and nine on cable (ESPN, TNT and Prime Network). That's well behind the Senior Tour, which has nine network events and 15 cable tournaments (all ESPN).

"We'd like to have between 10 and 12 network events, if the structure of television remains basically the same as it is now," Blue said. "We'd like 15-17 events on a cable network capable of reaching 60 million homes. By 1995, that's what we would like."

The special events are one road Blue is using to more exposure.

The Skins Game was seen on NBC, and close to being finalized are three season-ending events: a U.S. vs. Europe competition similar to the men's Ryder Cup; a match-play tournament involving top money winners; and a grand-slam event that will match winners of the four majors.

The key to television exposure, however, is getting corporate dollars to support it.

Golf is on television not because of good ratings, but because corporations either want to reach the upscale audience that does watch or simply want the prestige of being associated with golf. The PGA Tour requires new sponsors to buy commercial packages that sometimes cost more than $1 million if the event is on network TV. Sponsors reportedly pay $350,000 to $400,000 to get Senior Tour events on ESPN.

"If we're successful in getting four or five comprehensive sponsors, a tournament can be on TV at virtually no cost (to the individual tournament)," Blue said.

Getting them was what Blue, 49, was hired to do. He got the job because of his expertise in marketing and corporate deal-making, and already has had to do some fast operating to keep the level of corporate support for the LPGA from slipping.

The LPGA has lost 11 tournaments in the past two years. This year, it lost eight events and added nine for a total of 36. When sponsors pulled out of events in Los Angeles and St. Petersburg, the tour was left with a three-week layoff in April. Two of the sites (L.A. and Ohio) took Senior Tour events.

Blue says the reshuffling was a one-year aberration won't happen again.

"The size and scope of the turnover has been completed this year," he said. "The reason tournaments don't go is because they haven't developed the proper foundation.

"You can have a title sponsor say, 'I want to do an event, here's how much I want to spend and here's where I want it.' That works as long as the title sponsor has an interest in golf," Blue said.

"Hypothetically, a tournament with a $350,000 or $400,000 purse needs $1 million to be put on. The title sponsor may cover the purse. But if you don't have three-fourths of that amount built on local support, meaning solid sponsorship in the $20,000 to $30,000 range from corporations, you're in trouble."

Despite the upheaval, the LPGA has maintained a solid schedule of events in its January-to-March warm-weather swing and its May-to-July Eastern swing. Now Blue says the weak sisters on the tour have been eliminated.

"We have built a new sponsor base," he said. "We have established an aggressive program of seeking out sponsors interested in long-term relationships with us. We have to look for companies whose products are directed to women."

Blue says the LPGA has not been hurt by the Senior Tour.

"They are going after sponsors that have a totally different focus than our sponsors," Blue said. "It is true they will absorb some of the TV windows that are available to us, but that has not impeded us from being on TV."

Executives at ESPN agree.

"It doesn't seem as if the Senior Tour has had any effect," said Rich Caulfield, ESPN programming manager. "The new LPGA administration has been very aggressive in terms of trying to line up corporate sponsorship. . . . We have been offered and are considering more LPGA events for next year than ever before."

Some marketing experts contend that many male corporate leaders prefer to buy into men's golf, play in pro-ams with PGA stars and wine and dine clients at the PGA Tour.

"It's true CEOs would much rather play with golfers they idolized when they were younger," Blue said. "There are a certain percentage of tournaments in existance because the CEO is pro golf. But they are becoming fewer because CEOs have to answer to shareholders. . . . We have information that the preference is to play with our players. No. 1, we are very hospitable. No. 2 is the golf swing. The tempo and mechanics is much more closely attuned with the amateur player. They can learn more by watching our players up close."

Another male-oriented mind-set that the LPGA faces is the women's game isn't as exciting as that of the men. While it's true the men play on tougher courses and hit their drives 50 yards farther than the women, Blue says other women athletes don't have to put up with such comparisons.

"Our players are playing women's golf, not men's golf," Blue said. "We should not be compared to them. It isn't done in women's track and women's tennis. We don't compare ourselves to the men. We are the world's best women's golfers."

No one questions that. However, what the LPGA would like to see is a little more recognition of the fact -- in the media and from corporate sponsors.

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