ORLANDO, FLORIDA | Tuesday night, along the south end of the flight path of runway 36R at Orlando International Airport, the ’90s girl band En Vogue belted out its biggest hit, “Hold On”, to a crowd numbering just more than 1,000 people. Food stations and specialty bars dotted the outdoor concert venue adjacent to the new Wave Hotel, and all 29 LPGA Tour players in the field at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions walked down a green carpet, dressed to the nines, pausing at the backdrop for official photographs.
That event wasn’t unique. The HGV TOC always has at least three concerts in seven days. The 2023 edition includes country music singer Maren Morris and English indie-pop star Ellie Goulding. In 2022, LeAnn Rimes and Sheryl Crow had the place rocking.
Thrown in the middle of these parties is a pro-am draw, the kind of thing that happens on Tuesday nights at tour events around the world. At PGA Tour pro-am parties, you might get a hip-hop DJ and some chicken fingers. On the DP World Tour, the fare is even more spartan.
Only on the LPGA Tour do you see the likes of Toby Keith and the Goo Goo Dolls performing for players and pro-am contestants alike. The LPGA requires players to make an appearance at the pro-am parties. And they have to dress up. On any major men’s tour, you will see one or two players at most.
So it should come as no surprise that, according to a recent report by SponsorUnited, the LPGA leads all women’s sports in brand and sponsorship deals, putting pen to paper on 940 partnerships in 2022. That was a 30 percent increase over sponsorships from 2021 and an 18 percent rise in new brand partnerships.
These weren’t local used-car dealerships, either. Notable LPGA sponsors include Coca-Cola, Rolex, Epson and CME Group.
“These are relationships built over time. We have partners that have been with us, some of them for decades. The newer ones, we are building those relationships. So anything you do in this space has to be more than a marketing deal. It has to be a bigger platform than just a golf tournament.” – Ricki Lasky
Not only was the LPGA first in women’s sports, the lead was not small. The LPGA led the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) by 17 brand and sponsorship deals. In third was the National Women’s Soccer League, which trails the LPGA by 444 deals.
How did it happen? How did the LPGA become the deal leader in women’s sports?
According to Ricki Lasky, the chief tour business and operations officer, “Ten years ago when I walked in the door (at the LPGA), we were selling golf tournaments. If we got a meeting with a CEO, we were pitching a golf tournament – the pro-ams, the interactions with our players and all the things that we know we are – but that was it. If you didn’t have the budget for that type of spend, then we got the pat on the back and a ‘Thanks for coming.’
“Fast forward to today, a decade later. Now, when we’re talking to a potential title sponsor, it’s not just about a golf tournament. The tournament is the centerpiece. But we’re talking about our entire portfolio. It’s what we can do for you in the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) space; what we can do with (LPGA*USGA) Girls Golf; what can we do for you in terms of women’s leadership and empowerment; it’s how we customize a program that meets your business objectives while remaining very authentic.
“That’s the key. Our relationships feel more authentic to corporations because we are showcasing their messages about diversity and being inclusive through the LPGA. They are able to do it, not always through the sports marketing budgets, but through various buckets across the spectrum. Today, when we put together sponsorship deals, people are pulling funds from the DEI budget or from other areas. That is a huge advantage, because when we do hit that (inevitable) recession, we feel very strongly that we will not only survive but thrive because an LPGA partnership is not just a marketing spend.”
Lasky’s point resonates. The recession, if not already here, is certainly coming. Just this week, Microsoft announced another 10,000-person layoff. Amazon isn’t far behind. Every top CEO is bracing for a 2008-style slowdown. But the LPGA is ready.
“These are relationships built over time,” Lasky said. “We have partners that have been with us, some of them for decades. The newer ones, we are building those relationships. So anything you do in this space has to be more than a marketing deal. It has to be a bigger platform than just a golf tournament. It’s providing an experience for customers and employees; it’s giving back to the communities where they live. This isn’t a marketing peg. It’s in their DNA.
“KPMG, for example, has built this huge women’s leadership initiative. It’s hard to peel that back once you’ve built it. They, like all our partners, want to showcase the top women golf professionals in the world. But they also want to tell their story in terms of what they are doing in their communities and what initiatives they are putting in place to diversify their portfolios.”
If a CEO has a choice between naming a baseball park after his company or sponsoring a college football bowl game or perhaps becoming a partner with the PGA Tour, why would he choose the LPGA?
“We still take a lot of pride in what our players bring to the table,” Lasky said. “That’s still our secret sauce. When you play in one of our pro-ams, the notes I get back are extraordinary. People write, ‘I’ve been to Super Bowls, I’ve been to NBA Finals, I’ve been to other golf property events, and I’ve never had an experience like that. Your players are personable and engaging. They ask about my family, my kids. Every year we host players in our house, and they come back year after year.’ So that’s what we bring that no other partner can. No one else can bring the level of accessibility to their players that the LPGA has.”
“We are not selling you a product. We are building a relationship with you.” – Ricki Lasky
The television numbers aren’t what you’d get if you become the title sponsor of the Sugar Bowl or buy naming rights to Wrigley Field. But the value equation of being aligned with the LPGA, along with the ancillary benefits of being part of something larger than a golf tournament, make it a great business decision for most brands.
“We are not selling you a product,” Lasky said. “We are building a relationship with you. To do that, we have to understand your goals and objectives. I know that there is a reason you came to us. Maybe you’re looking to diversify; maybe you love golf. Whatever it is, we listen.
“I think that’s what makes us different. We aren’t pigeonholed into one way of doing business. We think outside the box. That might mean engaging Girls Golf or Women’s Leadership and ensuring that there are different spokes to the wheel. There might be a title sponsor who comes to us with an idea we’d never thought about, and we run with that and build on it. But it starts with listening and creating something that enhances the brand and the partnership.”
Top: Danielle Kang, defending champion at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, swings away in the 2022 T of C with Hilton and Nautique signage in the background. Photo: Julio Aguilar, Getty Images
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