With unprecedented growth in Solheim Cup ticket and sponsorship sales, the LPGA is preparing to use the September event at Crooked Stick Golf Club as a cornerstone for its new, racier marketing campaign.
The LPGA, working with the Indiana Sports Corp., quickly sold out the event earlier this year and expects more than 150,000 people to come through the turnstiles for the three days of practice and three days of competition for the international women's golf event.
"We had so many ticket requests, we had to have a lottery," said Solheim Cup Director Kelly Hyne. "That's a first for the Solheim Cup."
The first Solheim Cup in 1990 drew fewer than 20,000 for six days. Sports marketers have taken notice of the growth.
"We've signed close to 130 corporate sponsors," Hyne said. "That's double the 65 signed up for the event in Minneapolis in 2002." Sponsorship packages range from $2,000 to $250,000, and though event organizers declined to divulge total sponsor revenue, they said they've sold more $250,000 sponsorships-three-than in years past. The 2002 Solheim Cup, the last in the United States, had one $250,000 sponsor.
Though the biennial Solheim Cup is the women's equivalent of the Ryder Cup, pitting the 12 best women players from the United States against Europe's 12 finest, few thought it would easily exceed its multimilliondollar budget. But organizers say the event is surpassing expectations.
"This event is growing up very fast," said Karen Durkin, LPGA senior vice president and chief marketing officer. "Some are viewing it as the fifth major."
LPGA officials are eager to link the new ad campaign to the growing event and connect the players with a growing list of international sponsors and fans.
The LPGA in June introduced a $7 million ad campaign with the tag line "These Girls Rock," replacing the more staid "Positively Amazing" campaign. LPGA officials said 10 percent of the campaign could be linked to the Solheim Cup.
"The Solheim Cup is now one of the grandest platforms to showcase our players," Durkin said. "It's our Super Bowl, our Olympics, so naturally we want to tie our ad campaign into that. We're certainly carving out a larger piece of our marketing pie for the Solheim Cup this year."
Local sports marketers said the Indiana Sports Corp. deserves much of the credit. This year marks the first time the LPGA has formed a partnership with another entity to promote and conduct the event.
With 40 hours of coverage scheduled on the cable network The Golf Channel, plus fans and sponsors coming from 11 countries, the event is a good showcase not only for the LPGA, but also for central Indiana.
"Ticket sales show more than 40 percent of the fans are coming from outside of Indiana," Hyne said.
The Solheim Cup is run by the Solheim family, which operates the Phoenix, Ariz.-based company that makes Ping golf equipment. ISC officials were so confident the event would be a success at Crooked Stick they offered to co-finance it in the event sponsorships fell short. If the tournament goes into the black, as it likely will, profit will go toward organizers' designated notfor-profit foundations and charities.
The LPGA has had staff on the ground in Indianapolis almost two years preparing for the event, which will run Sept. 9-11. Dozens of staffers are working out of a temporary office at Crooked Stick preparing for the final push. Officials for most LPGA tournaments also will descend on Crooked Stick the first week in September, eager to network with current and potential corporate partners, Durkin said.
The buzz created by the unique match play event and the new ad campaign has drawn a mix of local and international corporate sponsors, including DSW Shoe Warehouse, Rolex, Merrill Lynch, Liz Golf, Cummins Engine Co., St. Vincent Health and Aces Power Marketing.
"Things are coming together for the LPGA, and I think the corporate sponsors for their major events are showing that," said Milton Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a locally based sports marketing consultancy. "The timing is right for the LPGA and its players to make a big splash, especially with its new ad campaign."
Not all the buzz surrounding the campaign has been positive, however. Susan Nelson, executive director of Landor Associates, a San Francisco-based branding firm, admitted calling the golfers "girls" initially made her "take a gulp," though she now finds the campaign humorous and doesn't view it as disrespectful.
In recent conversations with reporters, LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw explained at length the word "girls" was meant to convey "more of an attitude than any kind of description of age or maturity level."
LPGA officials have launched the campaign through some of the nation's largest print publications and will use it in banner ads promoting the Solheim Cup that are scheduled to run in USA Today's sports section the first week of September. LPGA officials said more ads might run in local media in September, but those plans aren't final.
The new ad campaign was developed with the help of Chicago-based Element 79 Partners, which has done work for Frito-Lay, Supercuts and Gatorade.
The bedrock for the campaign was a two-year study led by Denver-based The Bonham Group that showed the LPGA fan base was trending younger. The LPGA in turn decided to target 25- to 54-year-olds.
The LPGA is also parading out a new line of young stars, including a pair of Americans, 18-year-old rookie sensation Paula Creamer and 22-year-old Natalie Gulbis, while still feeding off the star power of 34-year-old Annika Sorenstam, who will play for the European squad. While American Michelle Wie has also given women's golf a big boost, she is not eligible for Solheim Cup competition because she is still an amateur and not a member of the LPGA.
"The star power of the LPGA could be rising to new heights," Thompson said. "But they still need a spotlight to shine, and this year's Solheim Cup is a pretty critical stage for that light to shine."