When the $1.5 million ShopRite LPGA Classic begins Friday at Seaview Resort in Galloway Township, the women’s professional golf tournament will be one of the region’s biggest sports events of the year.
And that fits nicely with what could be called the LPGA’s “Big Fish in Small Pond” marketing strategy.
The Classic will dominate local sports pages and television and radio reports — as LPGA tournaments do in other similarly small markets in which they are played. That includes the Wegmans LPGA Championship outside Rochester, N.Y., the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic in Ohio, the Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Va., and the Safeway Classic in Oregon.
“They’re our pillars,” said LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, who took over in 2010. “If we were a house, they would be the thing we drop into bedrock.”
Just a few years ago, however, markets such as Atlantic City were disappearing from the LPGA scene because of local and national economic troubles as well as the LPGA’s desire for a higher national profile.
The ShopRite Classic wasn’t held from 2007-09.
Now, as the LPGA fights for more domestic tournaments, markets such as Atlantic City are more important than ever.
“These are home games for us,” Whan said.
The Sybase LPGA Match Play Championship in Somerset County two weeks ago was covered by local newspapers but was dwarfed on the sports pages by the New York Yankees and Mets and the hockey playoff series between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.
“The LPGA is always going to struggle for recognition in New York and Los Angeles,” Classic Executive Director Tim Erensen said.
But LPGA and Classic officials say markets such as Atlantic City are the perfect size for the LPGA. The Atlantic City area is big enough to support an LPGA event with fans and business sponsorships, but it’s small enough that the tournament doesn’t become an afterthought.
Atlantic City and Williamsburg are both tourist spots that draw plenty of visitors in the summer. Toledo and Rochester are big enough to support minor league baseball teams.
“Those are the right markets,” Erensen said. “Those are the markets that have proven to have longevity — a big event in a minor-league baseball market. The triple-A baseball market is the perfect market for the LPGA.”
Atlantic City also works because of its proximity to New York and Philadelphia. Philadelphia newspapers and television stations often cover the Classic because it’s the closest event to their market.
Reporters from New York papers sometimes write stories about the event or a hot LPGA personality, such as in 2003 when Annika Sorenstam played in the Classic just a few weeks after participating in a men’s PGA event.
“We get support from Philly and New York,” Erensen said. “We get Baltimore. We get (Washington) D.C. At the same time, we have that big event (with) a small-town feel. It’s the best of both worlds.”
The LPGA didn’t always see Atlantic City that way. The Classic began in 1986, but after the 2006 tournament, the LPGA went looking for bigger markets under then-Commissioner Carolyn Bivens.
The LPGA replaced the Classic with a nationally televised event: The Ginn Tribute hosted by Annika Sorenstam in South Carolina. The event’s purse — $2.6 million — was the largest on the tour. The LPGA featured 35 tournaments and more than $54 million in prize money in 2007. There was a feeling that the tour had outgrown markets such as Atlantic City.
But then the economy crashed and The Ginn Tribute folded in 2008. Sponsors left the LPGA, and tournaments disappeared. The LPGA featured just 24 events in 2010 — the fewest number of tournaments since it had 21 events in 1971. Bivens resigned as commissioner in 2009.
The LPGA brand may have been at an all-time low.
“We can’t hide that we were struggling a couple of years ago,” said golfer Suzann Pettersen, who is ranked No. 3 in the world.
The Toledo and Williamsburg events, such as the Classic, were hurt by the LPGA’s struggles. The Jamie Farr Toledo Classic almost folded in 2009 and was skipped last year primarily because Toledo hosted the U.S. Men’s Senior Open. The Williamsburg tournament ended in 2009 because it lost its sponsor, Anheuser-Busch.
Both events are back this year.
Their return is a sign that the LPGA is headed in a positive direction.
Under Whan, the LPGA has recommitted to the smaller-but-passionate markets. He said he would like the LPGA to return to Elmira, N.Y., where the Corning Classic was held from 1979 to 2009.
The ShopRite Classic, which was resurrected in 2010, is a big part of the LPGA’s revival. The Classic has grown since its return.
Erensen said the tournament will have more than 425 sponsors this year, up 10 percent from 2010. This year, 928 golfers will participate in the Classic’s pro-am. That’s up from 696 pro-am golfers in 2010. The average cost for a foursome of golfers to play in the pro-am is $15,000.
The LPGA, while acknowledging more work needs to be done, also points to positive signs as a whole in recent statistics released by the tour.
This year, five new events were added, along with more than $7 million in prize money.
Television viewership of North American events was up 40 percent last year from 2010. That number is up another 12 percent this year.
The LPGA redesigned its website. LPGA.com got 92 percent more hits during this year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship in California than it did in 2011. The website got 32 percent more hits during the last month’s Mobile LPGA Classic than it did last year.
The tour has 27 events this year.
“We’re not where we need to be yet,” Whan said. “I’m not sure we’ll ever get to where we need to be, but we’re definitely better than we’ve been.”
While markets such as Atlantic City are vital to the LPGA’s future, they are just as important to the tour’s past.
Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth played in the first Classic in 1986. Nancy Lopez, still maybe the best known female golfer ever, won the Classic in 1989. Betsy King clinched a spot in the Hall of Fame with her victory in the 1995 tournament.
Of the 48 LPGA tournaments Lopez won from 1978-97, only four — the Classic, the Wegmans LPGA Championship, the Safeway Classic and the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Palm Springs, Calif. — are still on the LPGA schedule.
It can be hard for an organization to move forward if there’s no evidence of where it’s been.
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