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Don't Let That Smile Fool You

Inside Commish Carolyn Bivens' hard-nosed drive to remake the LPGA

Despite her 22-year membership at the Congressional Country Club in Washington, Carolyn F. Bivens spent parts of her first year as commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. looking like a duffer lost in the rough. In the months following her appointment in late 2005 as the tour's first female chief, Bivens picked a fight with the media that prompted some key outlets to briefly stop covering the tour, provoked a mass exodus of staff upset by her autocratic ways, and alienated the operators of some of the LPGA's oldest tournaments. That rocky start left many LPGA observers wondering if the former USA Today exec and marketing strategist would survive for long.

But survive she did. Bivens is now 25 months into her tenure, and her shake-up is paying dividends. Tournament purses have risen 22%, to $54.8 million, thanks in part to the influx of deep-pocketed sponsors. And a bevy of telegenic young phenoms like Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome, and Paula Creamer has average viewership up sharply since 2005—by 14% on network TV and 47% on cable. Having endured, and in many instances vanquished, her critics, Bivens is now unquestionably in control of the tour. "The bottom line is that with the path we were on before, we were not going to be growing," says Rae Evans, a Washington lobbyist who serves as chair of the LPGA's board. "She has been an agent of change. I think those [past] criticisms are yesterday's news."

Different strokes

If you think the inauspicious start chastened Bivens, think again. The LPGA chief makes no apologies for rattling cages at the 58-year-old tour, telling more than one interviewer: "I didn't take the job to be voted Miss Congeniality." She sees her game-changing overhaul as crucial to making sure the players reap their fair share of the spoils from the growing fan interest in the LPGA. "There were a number of people invested in maintaining the status quo," says Bivens. "It would have been criminal not to change the business model. The value of the LPGA had changed exponentially, and the contracting and the fees hadn't caught up to that."

The tour Bivens inherited was far from healthy. Since 2001, the number of tournaments had shrunk from 40 to 35, and interest among TV networks was so limited that the LPGA not only didn't receive rights fees but had to buy air time to broadcast. The tour couldn't even afford to provide health care or retirement plans to its players.

Perhaps more important, the LPGA didn't control any of the tournaments on its calendar. That left it vulnerable to the whims of tournament operators. For example, in 2006, CBS decided to move the final rounds of the McDonald's LPGA Championship to early afternoon—a time slot that was clearly unpalatable to the tour. NBC was willing to air the tournament in a better slot for $1.5 million. But the tournament's owner opted for The Golf Channel, which cost much less—about $300,000—but could deliver only a quarter of the NBC audience.

From Day One, Bivens moved fast to reshape the LPGA. She replaced the exiting staffers with a team heavy on marketers and intellectual-property lawyers who could help strike better deals with sponsors, licensees, and networks. For players, she hired a "branding coach" to help enhance their marketability. What's more, Bivens gradually hiked the sanctioning fees charged to the tournament owners to $100,000, from the $10,000 or so many had paid—a fee that wasn't enough to cover the cost of setting up the course and providing weekend child care for players. That triggered a backlash among tournament operators, but many players backed Bivens. "In the past I think our leadership was in a position of wanting to please too much. She wanted to do things differently," says tour veteran Wendy Ward.

Tough tactics

And Bivens began negotiating with new sponsors who could help boost purses, which at an average of $1.4 million each were worth about a quarter as much as PGA prizes. A singular success was signing up Ginn Clubs & Resorts to sponsor a new $2.6 million tournament in Orlando and a separate $2.6 million event in Hilton Head, S.C. But Bivens opened a hornet's nest when she gave Ginn's Hilton Head event the same week long held by the $1.5 million ShopRite LPGA Classic outside Atlantic City. Bivens maintains she offered Larry Harrison, operator of the ShopRite, eight alternate dates. However, Harrison told interviewers at the time that she was bargaining in bad faith by suggesting dates like the July 4 weekend, which she knew wouldn't work. Harrison, who declined to comment for this story, agitated for an insurrection among other operators, but it didn't materialize, leaving Bivens even stronger. "I think the Harrisons were counting on other [tournament] owners to rise up, but they didn't. There was too much fear," says one former ShopRite tournament official.

Still, Bivens has a long way to go. To help boost her bargaining position with the networks, she's staggering the renewals of tournaments so they'll all come up together in 2009. She also is angling for the tour to be more like the PGA and stage big tournaments at storied courses—a shift she thinks will build the buzz around those events. And most important, she won't be satisfied until the LPGA owns and operates more of its own tournaments, as the PGA does with the Players Championship and the Tour Championship.

To that end, she has already gained control of the season-ending ADT Championship held in mid-November in West Palm Beach, which pays two-thirds of its $1.55 million purse to the winner (winners usually get 15% of the purse). That disproportionate payout upset some older tour players, but their complaints have fallen on deaf ears. One more reason Carolyn Bivens won't be winning that congeniality award anytime soon.

With Paula Lehman in New York.

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