Sorenstam Not Sold on Marketing Plan

Times Staff Writer

As soon as she sat down, among the first words spoken by Annika Sorenstam, besides that she was happy to be here, weren't about why she was at Mission Hills Country Club, but the timing of it all.

"This major has come up really soon," she said.

You think? Two tournaments into the schedule is too soon to play a major?

But this is the schedule the LPGA plays, so the $1.6-million Kraft Nabisco Championship begins today in what could be windy conditions, with Sorenstam blowing into Rancho Mirage in the role of two-time defending champion.

The tournament also marks the one-year anniversary of the introduction of the LPGA's five-year strategic business plan. The indications are that Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner, is right when he says women's professional golf is tracking better than before.

True, there are no Florida tournaments or any Hawaiian tournaments to start the year, but so what?

Average attendance at LPGA tournaments was up 12% in 2000 and the average network and cable viewership was up 20%, Votaw said. That's nice, but what the players should be interested in even more is the 8% increase in prize money this year over last year, with an average purse of $1.27 million a tournament.

"What this reflects is that sponsors are happy with our product," Votaw said.

In fact, they are so happy that he expects to add a Florida tournament to the LPGA schedule next February and another one in October.

But the hot button in the LPGA's business plan got pushed right away last March and it's still getting pushed. Called the "Five points of Celebrity," the LPGA laid out a plan to make the tour more fan-friendly by marketing the players up close and personal.

At the time, Sorenstam said she was all for promoting the LPGA. But she didn't want to be asked to act in a way that didn't reflect her personality.

She suggested that the LPGA embark on a marketing campaign that emphasized the players' abilities on the course.

Sorenstam is still suggesting.

If she were to grade the LPGA's year-old points-of-celebrity campaign, it probably wouldn't rate very high.

As the LPGA's designated cover girl, Sorenstam says she's growing weary of it.

"To designate people to be the media darling, it's always you carrying the banner," she said. "It's just a business, I guess, it's tough, but if you play well, it becomes your role a little bit....

"You've got three top players -- Se Ri [Pak], me and Karrie [Webb]. They are wonderful players. We might not be media darlings, we're not Americans, so we don't really fall into that category the LPGA is looking for.

"But are you going to sit and wait or are you going to do something about it? Maybe find a marketing twist that will make it exciting."

Votaw says the thinking of the LPGA's marketing twist is not to make its own commercials about the players, but to expose them to the mass market on TV talk shows and TV news-entertainment programs.

"On shows outside the LPGA context," he said. "Everybody saw 'Joe Millionaire.' Everybody saw 'American Idol' and the stars of that show on other talk shows."

However, Sorenstam feels it in a different way. And she still feels the burden, whether or not Votaw is really asking her to carry it.

Take the five points of celebrity. Please.

"I don't even know what they are, to be honest. They talk about the five points of celebrity and that's probably theoretically the right thing, but here we are, three individual people, you are going to change them?

"Venus and Serena Williams are very popular people because they are the way they are. Change your marketing around the people. If you can't focus on our personalities, focus on how good we play. Focus on the rivalry.

"I try to do the best, but I can only be me. When I'm on the course, I'm focused. I've got goals in mind. Once I leave the golf course, I'm not like that, but people don't see.

"It's almost like the LPGA wants me to be smiley and I've never played golf for the spotlight. It's tough sometimes because I want to help women's golf and I do think I can, but maybe not in the way they expect it."

Fair enough. But, remember, it's a five-year plan, not a one-year plan. As the year's first major championship begins this morning, it's worth remembering where the LPGA has come, and where it's heading.

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