Talking golf with Joe Steranka

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Joe Steranka, who served as CEO of PGA of America, thinks golf being added as an Olympic sport will grow the game.

Joe Steranka's career in sports spans over 30 years.

After stints with the NBA's Washington Bullets and Cleveland Cavaliers and working for ProServ, the renowned sports management company, Steranka recently served as CEO of PGA of America. He joined the organization's staff in 1988 and directed its expansion in event, media, marketing and strategic areas before becoming its second CEO in 2005 (he retired from the post last year).

Here's what he discussed during our recent interview.

Question from Val Ackerman: What have you seen in the evolution of women's golf over the past few decades?

Answer from Joe Steranka: After starting in professional sports with [NBA teams], I went on to ProServ, that represented athletes and events. ProServ was big in the tennis business but added a number of golfers -- Kathy Whitworth and Hollis Stacy, two members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. So I saw some of the parallels and contrasts between women's golf and women's tennis, which had a much higher level of parity [with the men] when it came to sponsorship, prize money, media coverage, than women's golf enjoyed.

When I went to work for the PGA of America … I got more insight into the unique role that golf plays in America. The sport has a great sponsor relationship with corporate America -- on the men's side primarily and to a lesser extent on the women's side -- so much so that it spawned a 24/7 cable network, the Golf Channel, that brings golf into more than 150 million homes worldwide.

What fuels the dreams of every young boy and girl golfer to go out and hit a shot like their heroes, be they Annika Sorenstam or Tiger Woods, is seeing their heroes almost every week on television, playing the sport at the highest level. So, over the course of 30-plus years, it's been great for me to see the overall sports climate grow. But you certainly have seen the men's side of sport grow at a faster clip than the women's.

Q: In terms of historical perspective, it seems like women have been playing golf much longer than other organized sports. Can you talk about the progression?

A: If you look at historical paintings and photographs of golf being played in the British Isles and in America 100 years ago, you see a lot of women playing the game. Whether it was Mary Queen of Scots to Babe Zaharias -- who came to great fame in other sports and then took up golf and was [later] one of the 13 founding members of the LPGA -- women in positions of influence and success [have played the sport]. Marion Hollins, who befriended Bobby Jones and helped inspire Cypress Point and other great golf courses here in our country, was looked at as a great sportswoman of the day.

After the Great Depression, the PGA of America hired A.W. Tillinghast to be a consultant to golf courses that were primarily private clubs and had lost a lot of their members due to the financial crisis of that era. Tillinghast consulted with these clubs on how to build more forward tees, put grass in bunkers, improve the pace of play, lower the cost of maintenance and [improve] the playability of courses so that they could bring more women and beginners into the game. It was seen as an economic necessity for golf, which relies on rounds played, to get a broader spectrum of people playing the game.

Q: Fast-forwarding, what have you seen in more recent years in terms of golf participation trends? Are more girls and women playing?

A: Title IX had a huge, positive impact on golf. And again, the motivation was economic: With the cost of a college education outpacing inflation, the American dream to send our sons and daughters to college was slipping out of reach.

So if there were now another 5,000 college scholarships out there for high school girls to go after because of the addition of collegiate golf programs, that suddenly helped spur the number of girls who were athletically inclined to look at golf as an opportunity.

The Women's Golf Coaches Association was formed 10 years or so after the implementation of Title IX. They've got over 500 coaches in that organization now looking at the girls who learn to play high school golf and put themselves in a position to get a collegiate scholarship. The PGA worked with both the men's and women's coaches associations to provide support and help them in giving expertise to the coaches. So you see more certified PGA and LPGA professionals coaching these teams now.

Q: And at the high school level?

A: The number of high school girls' players continues to rise, although boys' participation has dropped in the last 10 years. We attribute that to other action sports coming online. Lacrosse, for example, wasn't as widely played 10 years ago as it is today. And for all participatory sports, it's a challenge getting our kids off computers and out in the fresh air playing the sport.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Inbee Park, who has won all three LPGA Slams this season, is part of an influx of South Korean golfers to the tour.

Q: Let's take it up a level and talk about the LPGA. It was founded in 1950, which makes it the oldest women's sports organization among the major sports. What should they be thinking about as they look to the future?

A: In 1950, the LPGA was much smaller and much more intimate [than the PGA Tour]. It was a gathering of ladies who loved to play the game competitively and traveled from site to site.

I think Mike Whan is doing a terrific job as commissioner of the LPGA, and [his work] reflects what the world looks at today. Every leading company is more global in how it develops its audience and presents its product.

The LPGA is the most international of all professional sports, men's or women's, in the United States right now. It's based in Orlando, Fla., but it's very much a global sport. Some American golf fans are a bit myopic about sports [and] may bemoan the number of Korean athletes who are dominating the LPGA right now, but the management team there, led by Mike, has been able to monetize that into the biggest media contract they've ever had.

Having said that, the greatest sponsorship pool for media rights or sponsorship is here in the United States, and so that suggests a need to develop a greater number of top American stars. We've seen that recently with the Paula Creamers and Morgan Pressels being succeeded by Michelle Wie and, more recently, Lexi Thompson.

There's a great player development effort that the Swedes adopted 20 years ago and the Koreans took to a new level 10 years ago, in part because they had two great athletes in Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak, respectively, who inspired a generation of young girls to follow them.

But we need a breakout star in America for the LPGA to leverage and get young girls to want to be the next Lexi Thompson.

Q: In addition to having great players who resonate with fans, are there other steps that could be taken for women's golf to attract more interest?

A: I think women's sports in general and the LPGA in particular are challenged because the number of options we have to watch and consume sports grows every year. Your existing audience gets stretched thinner and thinner in terms of the amount of time that they can devote to any sports content. And so the competition continues to grow.

How women's sports and women's golf address that, I think, needs to be dealt with differently. There is a great move to digital marketing and social media marketing and being able to talk very specifically to a certain demographic of consumer. The espnWs are leading the way. The iVillages are leading the way. Other social media platforms are doing that as well.

[Figuring out] how women's sports fans can be aggregated and monetized, and then introducing the right sponsor who is committed to utilizing sport as a way to build a relationship with that audience, is key. We're not able yet to bring the number of eyeballs to women's golf that will get mainstream ad agencies or sponsors to invest in the sport. So we've got to build great digital marketing platforms and relationship marketing initiatives that can be brought to a handful of sponsors that are going to be true partners in helping activate the sport.

RJR Nabisco, back in its heyday, did some of that for women's tennis and later in women's golf. We need a number of key sponsors like that to help grow the sport at the grassroots level and connect it more with mutual customers of both the sport and the company that's sponsoring it.

Q: How would you contrast the audiences for men's and women's golf? Same or different?

A: There's a lot of overlap -- pretty much the same demographic watches women's golf and men's golf. Men can all relate to how far women hit the ball. The average 15-handicap man who hits it 220 yards can be impressed by some of these women who are belting it 250, 260 yards out there.

Q: My husband's in that category. He's a very avid golfer, and he loves to watch women's golf.

A: Yes. We're not able to hit  4-irons 250 yards like some of the PGA Tour players.

Q: Could you ever imagine men's and women's pro golf combining their tournaments, mirroring what's done in tennis? Or are they destined to continue as separate sports?

A: The Olympics will probably do a good job at bringing attention to both. I expect there'll be more competitions conducted in the countries that hope to send Olympic athletes to the Games. Some of those could combine men's and women's competitions together, which I think would be fabulous. It'll demonstrate that you can aggregate the two and that it's not going to cannibalize one or the other's audience.

When it comes to the tours doing it, my experience is that would have to be a sponsor-driven request. Each of the tours has the responsibility for maximizing sponsorship that turns into purse dollars for their respective tournaments. If a sponsor would like to combine the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn., on the PGA Tour with another tournament on the LPGA, and find a way to do it over a certain number of days, that's where that would have to happen.

You do have some operational challenges with the size of the fields. It takes many more days to add an identical field of women players or identical field of men's players to the tournament. That's the reason you see those big events being two-week tournaments in professional tennis.

The 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, that has the men playing the first week and the women playing the same course the second week, is one example of a combined event. The Olympics will be only the second time that's happened. Hopefully, it will spawn at least some discussion about the potential to do combined tournaments for the top men and women in the future.

Q: What's your opinion about women entering men's tournaments? Is that a good strategy to grow women's golf?

A: Babe Zaharias played in a few men's tournaments 50 or 60 years before Annika did it. Those are great one-offs, but the goal of every great athlete is to win, not to make the cut; not to participate; not to get in the game; but to compete at the highest level and win championships, be they individual sports or team sports. So if a woman comes along who can compete, week in, week out, to win on the men's tour, I think that'd be fabulous for golf or for any sport.

Q: Let's switch gears. What benefits will the Olympics bring to women's golf?

A: Adding golf to the Olympic Games and getting it state-sponsored support is great for the game, and it also helps address this age-old view in many circles that golf is elitist; it's for moneyed families who have the economic means to get their kids to participate in an expensive sport.

But the great appeal of golf is that crosses class and economic lines. You don't need to be the tallest, or the fastest, or the strongest, to play, or even excel at golf. It's a great combination of athleticism and, you know, mental strength. And so it really has the opportunity to be the most populous of all sports.

Q: Is there anything else you think that the key decision-makers in women's golf should be thinking about or focusing on as they look to build the sport in the future?

A: The business of sports is like every other business. It's driven by supply and demand. The demand for women's sports content is not as great as it is for men's sports content, and so it's going to take a more sophisticated and, I think, digital-/Internet-/social media-driven approach to build and aggregate a following.

I think the opportunity at the grassroots level needs to be equal for boys and girls. Some of the new initiatives like the alliance of the PGA and the USGA with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, or the PGA Junior League Golf, or the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship that Augusta National is sponsoring with the PGA and the USGA, are examples of access at the grassroots level [which are] blind to gender.

But when it comes to sponsorship and media, I think we have to be realistic in how we're going to grow any sport. At some point, you have to let the market decide.

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