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Posted: June 25, 2010

Blondes at the Broadmoor

The faces selling. Women's Open tickets don't reflect reality

Keith DuBay

Colorado Springs - Put yourself in the position of the USGA marketing team, or, say, John Washko, vice president of sales and marketing for the Broadmoor, which will host the U.S. Women's Open July 4-10 of next year.

The last time the women's Open was at the Broadmoor, in 1995, Annika Sorenstam won her first major in front of a record crowd of 95,000. And although Broadmoor CEO Steve Bartolin does not think he'll beat the 131,000 who set the new record for the tournament at Cherry Hills in 2005, he told ColoradoBiz that he is targeting 125,000 to come out in the Springs next year.

Now, as you put on your marketing manager hat, come up with a theme to boost ticket sales. Let's see, who won the women's U.S. Open last year? A name come to mind? No? Not Eun Hee Ji? How about the year before? Let's see, Inbee Park doesn't strike a bell either. Remember that epic Open at Cherry Hills in 2005, when Korean Birdie Kim nearly skulled a bunker shot that ended up going in the hole on 18 to win the tournament? Remember what she said afterward? I don't.

This isn't just any golf tournament. It's the biggest prize in women's golf. Dottie Pepper said she'd give back her two major wins for an Open title. It will bring in an estimated $30 million to the Springs economy and a bunch more in media attention. Any USGA event brings in the big wigs. Want proof? Just hang out by the regional airport and count the number of Gulfstreams that purr overhead.

Therein lies the marketing dilemma for a sport that is undergoing growing pains. Women's golf has gone international and it's a better sport because of it. Call it the Se Ri Pak effect. The Korean golfer won the women's Open and inspired legions of girls to take up the sport and they now dominate the LPGA tour.

Of the 126 card-carrying LPGA members, 45 of them are from South Korea. Even more significant, I counted 37 Koreans among the top 80 money leaders. They must have some great golf schools there; their swings are technically the best on all the tours, men included, according to Tim Odegard, an instructor at Meridian Golf Learning Center who at one time was working with 12 LPGA members and spent some years caddying for his former wife on tour.

But it's hard for the average fan to identify with a player from another country who doesn't speak English. It's even harder for tournament sponsors to market those players in this country. Writers can't interview them about their stories and thereby give them more personality. Many of them are probably intimidated and scared to reveal much over here, even though they all fought their way onto the tour and no doubt have fascinating stories to tell. They're mostly young girls and ladies. Not sure about Korea but many Asian cultures value personal reserve, so maybe it's some of that too.

Marketing Blonde

So ColoradoBiz publisher Bart Taylor, fellow CoBiz writer Jeff Rundles and I piled into the car and headed down for the USGA media day to investigate. It was hosted by the Broadmoor, the USGA and honorary chair, Annika Sorenstam, now retired, the best golfer in history of the women's game. She's a real cool lady, by the way. Formerly reserved as a scared kid, now she's at ease with crowds. After hitting her ceremonial first drive (in the right rough), she casually walked by the putting green and chatted with a few of us media folks.

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I don't get down to that resort enough, and I can't play that course enough. It's a Donald Ross/Robert Trent Jones classic. Every time I play it I appreciate it more. It will play the longest in U.S. Women's Open history at 7,047 yards with par being 71, the first time they'll hit from over 7,000 yards. The previous record was 6,789 yards at Interlocken in Minnesota with a par of 73. So if you subtract 10 percent for the altitude effect, it's still longer. The Broadmoor East's defenses are its hard-to-read greens. Sorenstam told us during the press conference that she received a tip to putt away from the Will Rogers Shrine and statue. She no doubt used that advice to two-putt the wicked 4th hole, a par 3, which Meg Mallon 3-putted in 1995.

The thing that struck me the most about the trip was how they are promoting this Open. Signs on the street lamps have big photos of Natalie Gulbis, a striking blonde who is 67th on the money list with $41,000 in official earnings (not counting her calendar sales). Broadmoor vans sport big pictures of cutie blonde Paula Creamer's smiling face. The official USGA media brochure features eight player photos on it. Let's see: Creamer and Gulbis are there. So is Morgan Pressel (blonde); Christie Kerr (blonde in that photo); Angela Stanford (blonde in that photo); Suzann Pettersen (very blonde Swede) and Sorenstam herself as honorary chair (blonde). There is one player of Asian descent, Michelle Wie, but she's a Hawaiian kid and speaks good English, as do all of the afore-mentioned players, even the foreign ones.

I never saw one promo of a Korean or Asian player, even though non-English speaking Japanese Ai Miyazato is the LPGA leading money winner and six of the other top 10 leaders are Koreans. But isn't this understandable? It's tough to promote someone to an English language audience who can't speak English. Their names are hard to remember. The reality is that we just can't connect with the Koreans. Maybe some day we will as we learn more.

Plus, most women's golf fans are men. That's because most golf fans are men. You can blah blah all you want about not making sex an issue when it comes to promoting a sport, but the USGA seems to have no problem promoting its prettiest English-speaking faces - better if blonde - on its promotional material. The LPGA - which is down seven tournaments and is struggling - does the same thing on its site.

Sorenstam, who is deeply involved with promoting the game and the USGA, was asked why other top women golfers don't get involved. "I don't know. They should," she said.

I think this will all change as the women's sport matures. Other countries, especially the U.S., will regain a larger presence commensurate to its size. But maybe there will be other international influences. Don't forget China is building a lot of golf courses.

Colorado's love affair with the USGA

All those promotional issues aside, Colorado and the USGA seem to have a love affair going. There are two USGA sites in this state and they to be entrenched in our national championship rota: The Broadmoor and Cherry Hills in Denver. In her writings, golf analyst Pepper rates both courses as top desired places to play among the players. One USGA official told me that the course is the most important consideration for deciding on a championship location. Then comes community and financial support and the venue as a whole, including its management.

From the 1960 come-from-behind win by Arnold Palmer to Sorenstam announcing her presence on the scene at the Broadmoor in 1995 to the new wave of golf making it's coming out at Cherry Hills in 2005, something dramatic and historic always seems to happen when the USGA comes here. I know that the Cherry Hills Women's Open got me hooked on women's golf.

Interestingly enough, when CoBiz' Taylor asked USGA official Tim Flaherty if it would ever consider any other sites for its championships - the Broadmoor hosted the U.S. Senior Open in 2008 - Flaherty acted surprised by the question, as if to say, "Are you kidding me?" That's about as close to a no as it gets. Taylor was clearly talking about Colorado Golf Club, whose promoters make it no secret they want major championships at their new course in Parker.

Winners of the US Women's Open Championship 2000-2009:

2000-Karrie Webb
2001-Karrie Webb
2002-Juli Inkster
2003-Hillary Lunke
2004-Meg Mallon
2005-Birdie Kim
2006-Annika Sorenstam
2007-Cristie Kerr
2008-Inbee Park
2009-Eun-Hee Ji
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Keith DuBay of BlueCoast Media Group is a 30-year veteran of the media as reporter and editor, author of more than 4,000 articles and columns focusing primarily on business coverage. He has won more than 30 awards for reporting and writing, has served as communications director of the Transit 97 campaign and has been in private business with his own media relations firm and as a business development officer for two investment banking firms. He helped co-found the Denver Chapter of the Association For Corporate Growth in 1999 and later served as executive board member and president. Contact him at keith@bluecoastmediagroup.com.

 

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