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LPGA's top golfers inspire amid record prize money but U.S. viewership drop

By
Alex Butler
Golfer Lexi Thompson has finished in the top three of two major championships this season on the LPGA Tour. Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE
Golfer Lexi Thompson has finished in the top three of two major championships this season on the LPGA Tour. Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE

Aug. 24 (UPI) -- With a record $70 million in prize money, the LPGA Tour seems like it is in a better place than ever. But LPGA commissioner Mike Whan says viewership in the United States isn't what it was in the 1970s.

Whan says he "failed" in his objective to make sure the sport has enough network TV to ensure casual golf fans are watching consistently. Some of the tour's top golfers hope to change that by inspiring the next generation of young players.

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"All of us athletes try to inspire others to get involved in any sport at a young age, and we want to be role models," World No. 3 Lexi Thompson told UPI. "We want to give back to the game and make sure it keeps on growing.

"Not only are we doing something we love, but we also want to show that to little kids. I think golf is doing a great job of with all the programs, especially women's golf. I think it's huge because we are seeing a lot of girls picking up a club at a young age.

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"Getting them involved and making sure it's fun and interactive is important to make sure the game keeps growing."

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Thompson, 24, was a child prodigy. At 12, she became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open. At 16, she set a record as the youngest woman to win an LPGA tournament. She grew up in Coral Springs, Fla., where she had a front-row seat to watching some of the best female golfers in the world.

Morgan Pressel also was an LPGA Tour phenom. Pressel, 31, looked up to golfers like Nancy Lopez and Juli Inkster and then became the youngest woman ever at 17 to win a modern LPGA major championship. She is now friends with the golfing legends she previously admired from afar.

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"I used to watch the LPGA play at Doral and Ibis Golf and Country Club growing up," Pressel said. "That was really inspiring for me. For us to be out here, maybe we can inspire the next generation. That's kind of a neat position to be in."

Overall golf participation increased in 2018, according to the National Golf Foundation. The number of first-time golf course players rose from 2.5 million to 2.6 million last year, and about 35 percent of those new golfers were women. The 128 active international players on the tour represent an LPGA-record 33 countries.

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Whan has succeeded in growing the LPGA's international viewership and exposure. There has been an 86 percent increase in TV coverage and 250 percent increase on network TV in the last five years with 170 countries holding TV rights. The LPGA has 33 globally televised events in 2019 compared to 22 in 2011.

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"Is it as great in the States as it was in 1972? It isn't," Whan said at the Women's PGA Championship. But I would say the profitability and opportunity to provide for our members in 2019 is nothing compared to 1972."

While its viewership might be dwarfed by the PGA in the United States, the LPGA surpasses the men's tour in Korea. The LPGA averages 83,743 viewers per tournament in Korea compared to 14,287 for the PGA Tour.

Pressel expressed enthusiasm for the LPGA tour's future at a media day for the recently announced Gainbridge LPGA tournament in January at Boca Rio Country Club in Florida. "The LPGA is the longest-running women's sports organization in the country. It's really on an upswing ... TV, purses, events, everything is headed in the right direction," she said.

"I think the LPGA is in a really good position. I love coming here and being able to put a spotlight on women's golf."

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Fighting for equality

Thompson said she hasn't closely followed the United States Women's National Soccer Team players' fight for equal pay, but she admires the 28 team members who are suing the United States Soccer Federation for gender equality.

While the purse for women's golfers is on the rise, it is nowhere near the nearly $400 million total purse of the men's tour. PGA Tour stars will receive a combined $70 million in bonus payouts alone for the FedExCup.

"I think it's great what they are doing -- showing how they feel and how much they want to change it," Thompson said of the women soccer players.

Thompson recently appeared in an advertisement alongside fellow athletes -- including soccer stars Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd - - in which the golfer discussed the stigmas and strengths of female athletes.

"Women in business and women is sport is growing tremendously and it shouldn't be underrated," Thompson said. "I think it was important for me to just kind of give that message and share it with everybody."

Two-time major winner Stacy Lewis says she is "frustrated" by seeing the huge gaps in pay between the men and women, despite the golfers playing the same sport.

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"At the men's Tour Championship this week, the person finishing last will make more than most of our winners do in a week," Lewis said. "I think any female athlete would be/should be paying attention to what women's soccer is fighting for.

"I think it is very courageous what they are doing, fighting for something that has never been done before. If they continue on this path of success on the field, they could make women's soccer more popular than men's in the United States. It just takes people believing in them and those who are willing financially to give them a chance."

Thompson said golfers are treated "very well" at LPGA tournaments, but Lewis and fellow golfer Cristie Kerr said it's hard to even watch or attend a PGA Tour event when seeing the disparity in pay and caddie amenities.

"I'm not saying we're the same product as the PGA Tour, or that we should even make the same money," Kerr said on a July podcast. "But we should not make 10 percent to 15 percent of what they make. I think that's wrong. We're getting there, but there's no reason we can't, in leaps and bounds, catch up. We need to catch up."

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She called the PGA Tour a "very different experience" because of the number of tents and amenities tournaments provide weekly, but said the tour's increased revenue allows for more spending.

"I don't go to very many men's events, if at all," Lewis said. "It's hard enough watching it on TV. Just to see a male doing the same thing I am, and working just as hard and then to see how much more they make."

She said it was "so frustrating that it makes me not want to watch," noting that "our caddies are not taken care of, we rarely get courtesy cars and we have to fly commercial." In sum, "Life on the LPGA tour is very different than the PGA tour. I do know that."

Joint tournament

The idea of a joint tournament has been discussed between the PGA and LPGA for some time.

Men's and women's golfers unite each year for the Victoria Open in Australia, with the fields playing at the same time on the same course, in alternating groups and in different tournaments, for the same prize money.

LPGA commissioner Whan said the LPGA is "much closer" to another mixed event. He also said the LPGA and PGA will announce something soon, but wouldn't provide specifics.

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"I could see a joint event with the PGA Tour in the future," Lewis said. "I think all of the top LPGA players would support it. I would just hope the top PGA Tour guys would support it too."

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