The Undoing of LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens

Last week,broke the story that 15 of the LPGA Tour's most notable players drafted a letter to the board of directors calling for Tour's Commissioner to step down: a coup d'etat, if you will.
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LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivensofficially resigned today. Last week, Golfweek's Beth Ann Baldry broke the story that 15 of the Tour's most notable players, such as Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Morgan Pressel, Suzann Pettersen, Michelle Wie, Se Ri Pak and Natalie Gulbis, convened at the Jamie Farr Classic and drafted a letter to the Tour's board of directors calling for Bivens to step down. Liken it to a coup d'etat, if you will.

The controversy took center stage on the eve of the most prestigious tournament in women's golf -- the US Women's Open. The timing couldn't have been worse in that it overshadowed the event. Having been at the Open, I can attest that the atmosphere was rather tense toward the beginning of the week. Sure it's expected that emotions run high during any major competition, but this was, well, heightened - at least toward the beginning of the week -- I did notice the storm had calmed significantly by Saturday. If it hadn't been for the LPGA's unrelenting insistence upon redirecting focus toward the tournament at hand, politics would have dominated the entire week. To the credit of the players, including those who signed the aforementioned letter, they took the same approach and kept chatter to a minimum.

Now what led to such a drastic move in the first place? As the first female commissioner in golf, Bivens has been controversial from the get go. She was constantly under scrutiny for her decisions, particularly her negotiation tactics and people skills - both of which contributed to her downfall. Over the course of eight months between the time she took office in 2005 and summer 2006, seven high-ranking LPGA executives -- including three in one day -- resigned. She didn't exactly hit it off with the media either. In February 2006, the press boycotted the first round of the Fields Open in Hawaii because of regulations on the rights of photographs taken at tournaments.

Fast forward to two months ago; The LPGA held a Summit at Kingsmill to address some of the concerns at hand. The players discussed what they could do to enhance the tournament experience, like being friendly with fans, interacting with sponsors, growing the brand, making themselves characters for fans to identify with. They acknowledged they were in a good position and a better product than ever before. The general consensus was that it was a tough economic time in general and it was good for the players to be unified and send a positive message.

It appears that gospel only lasted so long.

Bivens' demise has long been in the works, but the tipping point is very clear. Two weeks ago it was announced that Kapalua , the title sponsor for a tour stop in October, had withdrawn from its contract as title sponsor. Unable to find a replacement, the tournament was canceled, cutting back yet another event from the LPGA's dwindling schedule. As of now, there are only 10 confirmed domestic events on the 2010 calendar. So it's only fair for players to be disgruntled and panic. To make matters worse, the news coincided with stagnant talks to renew the Tour's contract with Wegmans, a long-standing sponsor and tour stop in Rochester. Not to mention, the return of the Jamie Farr Classic, another LPGA mainstay, is in trouble as well.

In light of recent events, the uproar from the golf world was immediate and strong -- most were quick to blame Bivens for her hardline approach in negotiations. She was too determined to carry out her business plan for the LPGA, otherwise dubbed as "Vision 2010."The call was to bring the Tour to a higher level, one matchable to the PGA. I'm not an expert, but it makes sense in the grand scheme of things. One of the first rules of large-scale business is that if you rely on one or two revenue streams (corporate sponsorship and TV deals, in this case), you're vulnerable to every little twitch in the economy. I mean, the LPGA is not Ford or GM - it can't take out loans and make cars. But it's big enough that if sponsorship goes down the tubes, it should still pull in significant amounts of money from enough sources so that it's not totally screwed. Any commissioner who fails to make a stab at that problem is just setting the Tour up for another crisis in 10 years if the economy dives again.

Bivens saw the strength in the LPGA as a product and potential for the players to be considered in the highest echelon of professional athletes. Despite old stereotypes, the Tour has its fair share of very marketable rising stars. These ladies are charming, attractive, clever and can play golf pretty darn well. They're the full package. Why sell them short? So she pressed for higher purses, better healthcare and pension packages. She leveraged a deal for the Tour to acquire the Duramed Futures Tour, the LPGA's developmental tour -- similar to how the PGA Tour owns the Nationwide Tour. She secured ownership of two tournaments -- the ADT Championship (however, it was canceled this year because of the sponsor's, Stanford Financial, legal troubles) and LPGA Championship. As for other revenue streams, the Tour now holds the licensing rights to the logo and photographic coverage -- in a partnership with Getty Images. The deals Bivens made with the Golf Channel and J Golf for TV rights to the LPGA will be her greatest triumph and lasting legacy.

She had the best of intentions. To put it simply, it was poor timing. The economic downturn hit in 2008. As SI's Alan Shipnuck noted, it was her unyielding approach and unwillingness to adjust to the financial crisis that led to her downfall. Indeed, she should have revamped her "vision." Her failure to do so resulted in the deterioration of long-term relationships with sponsors and loss of tournaments. She wasn't in a position to present such rigid terms. But interestingly enough, her "difficult" personality was probably what helped her attain the position in the first place. No doubt Bivens is a savvy businesswoman, notwithstanding some of her recent decisions. She wouldn't have been named the first female golf commissioner had she not been qualified. And even if you argue that her prior background wasn't ideal, she didn't land the role of president and chief operating officer of Initiative Media North America by chance.

We're also forgetting that several companies breached contracts because of bankruptcy or other financial woes. The SemGroup filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last July. Ginn Resorts breached its contract with the LPGA when the company pulled out of all its professional golf sponsorships. As for Stanford Financial, well, we've all heard about the fraud charges against Allen Stanford.

The actual beginning of the end was last fall when word leaked about Bivens' consideration of instituting an "English-only"policy. Over the past several years the Tour has increasingly become more international with 121 players from 26 countries. The Korean contingent has been the most dominant and prevalent of the global component, not to mention the most scrutinized. Perhaps they stand out the most because of their strength in numbers - there are 45 LPGA players hailing from South Korea. Or simply because they look different. But more than likely it's because every week the surnames Park, Lee or Kim have an overwhelming command of the leaderboard. And God forbid, they're even winning. Take this past week, for example. Of the 72 players who made the cut, 20 of them were from South Korea. (Yes, 20!) Five of them finished in the top 10, including the 64th US Women's Open champion, Eun-Hee Ji.

As Ji walked off the 18th green minutes after draining a clutch 20 foot birdie putt for the win, NBC's Roger Maltbie caught up with her for the traditional post-win interview. She answered his questions via a translator - who was conveniently at hand. I couldn't help but cringe. Personally, I didn't have a problem with it, but I knew there were plenty that would. Some of the blame for the LPGA's loss of sponsors has been assigned to the inability for many of the international (read: Korean) players to conduct interviews and press conferences in English and communicate effectively in Pro-Ams.

So I could predict the disgust or exasperation by many viewers thinking, "Learn to speak English, you're in America." Well, guess what? That was the point of Bivens' proposed policy. It was never put into action because of the backlash it would have received and did receive when it was leaked to the public. She's not an idiot. In fact, she was quick to recognize the need to adjust accordingly to the growth of non-speaking Tour members. The Korean players themselves know how important it is for them to speak the language. It seemed to me Ji wanted to respond to Maltbie's questions in English, but she couldn't conjure up the words at such an emotional juncture. Understandable. I'd imagine it'd be hard to even form coherent sentences in your first language, let alone your second, after winning the US Women's Open.

Similar to their work ethic on the golf course, the Koreans are also studying hard to master the English language. They take private tutoring classes every week. They understand that it's in their best interest to interact with sponsors in Pro-Ams. To give post-win interviews in English. To communicate effectively with fans. So in retrospect, Bivens' proposal wasn't all that unreasonable. It would have been completely unrealistic (and offensive, no less) to have actually imposed it as an official rule and apply fines to those who didn't comply. The idea behind it was to benefit the Tour and the players. Unfortunately, what was said behind closed doors between administrators was exposed. As a result, the policy was presented poorly and out of context.

Recently, Bivens brought on more negative attention to the LPGA by saying she would love it if players tweeted during tournaments rounds. Now this just baffled me. Apparently her statement was taken out of context. But still. Terrible idea. Perfect example of how her lack of a golfing background hurt her as commish. Most golfers, especially those who have played at a competitive level, will tell you there's nothing more obnoxious than that guy or gal talking on a cell phone on the golf course. If you're going to text, e-mail or tweet, then at least be discreet about it; not to mention put your phone on silent or vibrate. And if you're playing a competitive tournament, then none of the above are factors because it's against the rules. Duh. Plus, it's distracting when focus is such a crucial element of the game.

Bivens always had the best interest of the players at heart. It was the execution that led to her undoing.

Whether or not I think Bivens deserved this fate isn't important. She is inasmuch gone. However, I'd like to emphasize that the recent turn of events doesn't mean the Tour is in the dumps. Sure, the situation is less than ideal. There are the ever-looming questions that need answers and solutions. But harping on the negative isn't going to make things better. In fact, the pundits that have been alluding to the collapse of the LPGA should stop. Repeat after me: The LPGA will NOT fail. (Thrice again.) It's more important now than ever to have confidence in the strength of the brand and its potential for growth. To look forward.

In the end, Bivens' stepping down was the right move. The Tour hasn't wasted any time. A press release was issued this morning announcing Board of Director member, Marsha Evans, as the acting commissioner. Recently retired LPGA starAnnika Sorenstam has also been named as a board adviser. I trust the interim leadership will move immediately to rebuild relationships with estranged sponsors. Contracts will be renewed. New backers will come along sooner rather than later. All will be fine. Here's to a fresh start.

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