Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The LPGA’s English only policy – good business or racist?

The LPGA Tour sent a message to its membership Tuesday that will be heard around the world. As first reported by Golf Week a leading industry trade publication the Ladies Professional Golf Association effective immediately will demand that any aspiring young ladies who want to play women’s professional golf at the highest (and most lucrative) level be able to speak English. And any women who currently play on the LPGA Tour have two years to learn how to converse in English or force being banned by the LPGA. The questions that beg to be asked include:

Is the decision a good or bad business decision?
Will the decision become a public nightmare for the LPGA?
And if the decision is to be deemed a bad decision is it bad enough to be linked to racism

The LPGA notice also read, in part according to Canada’s Globe and Mail: as a follow-up to the communications we have shared with the membership this year, the LPGA has adopted a policy on effective communication in English. Under this policy, all members must demonstrate that they can communicate in English in the following areas of our business: interaction with amateurs during tournament pro-ams, media interviews, and winner acceptance speeches, including thanking sponsors, fans, and volunteers."

Dealing with the specter of linking the LPGA’s thought process to racism – no way. It may one day be considered one of the worst choices a sports governing body have ever made (and that would be a stretch) but the LPGA decision has nothing whatsoever to do with racism.

Speaking the Bouchard-Taylor commission hearings in Quebec City dedicated to letting Quebecers vent on the accommodation of minorities lawyer Guy Bertrand used Montréal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu as an example of how Quebec is forced to make "unacceptable" linguistic accommodations that threaten French.

When called to speak in front of fans at the Bell Centre, Koivu speaks English, even though Quebec's Bill 101 enshrines the right of Quebecers to be spoken to in French, Bertrand said.

Bertrand’s political feelings aside – the suggestion the captain of the Montreal Canadiens speak French merits serious debate not because it may or may not cross close to Quebec bill, but because more than 80 percent of Quebec’s population speaks French. It may not be illegal but it’s not exactly ‘right’ for one of the key spokespeople for a leading French Canadian business to not be able to converse in the language an overwhelming percentage of Les Canadiens home based fans speak.

But does the same rationale hold true for the LPGA?

There are 121 international players on the LPGA Tour from 26 countries on tour; 45 are South Koreans. Sixteen of the top-20 current money earners were born outside of the United States. Eight of those women are South Korean followed by two Swedes, two Australians, a Mexican, a Norwegian, a Brazilian and a Taiwanese.

According to Golf Week it was at a mandatory South Korean player meeting on August 20 at the Safeway Classic, the tour informed its largest international contingent that beginning in 2009, all players who have been on tour for two years must pass an oral evaluation of their English skills. Failure would result in a suspended membership.

“Hopefully what we’re talking about is something that will not happen,” said Libba Galloway, the tour’s deputy commissioner, of possible suspensions. “If it does, we wouldn’t just say, ‘Come back next year.’ What we would do is work with them on where they fell short, provide them the resources they need, the tutoring . . . and when we feel like they need to be evaluated again, we would evaluate.”

Galloway said the policy takes effect immediately, but the “measurement time will be at the end of 2009.”

Hilary Lunke, president of the Player Executive Committee, told Golf Week she believes “much of this initiative stems from the importance of being able to entertain pro-am partners. Players already are fined if the LPGA receives complaints from their pro-am partners. Now the tour is taking it one step further.

“The bottom line is, we don’t have a job if we don’t entertain,” Lunke said. “In my mind, that’s as big a part of the job as shooting under par.”

Se Ri Pak one of the LPGA’s leading players (and a South Korean) made it clear to Golf Week that while she supported the sprit of the policy she believed fines and not suspension of playing privileges where in order.

“The LPGA could come out and say they only want 10 Koreans, but they’re not,” Park said. “A lot of Korean players think they are being targeted, but it’s just because there are so many of them.”

Seon-Hwa Lee, a two-time winner in 2008, thinks everyone “can do a simple interview.” She works with an English tutor in the winter and plans to brush up for the evaluation. Her ability to answer questions without the help of a translator has improved immensely during her short time on tour.

“The economy is bad, and we are losing sponsors,” she said. “Everybody understands.”

Kate Peters, executive director of the LPGA State Farm Classic, supported the news. “This is an American tour. It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience.”

Peters’ comments are at best insensitive. To suggest the LPGA is an “American Tour” does a complete disservice to two of the LPGA’s marquee events – the British and Canadian LPGA tour stops. There are also important LPGA events in Singapore, Mexico, France, South Korea and Japan. At the very least Kate Peters needs a geography lesson, made a statement that is politically incorrect and just isn’t the right thing to say.

"We saw it today for the first time," Rick Desrochers, the Royal Canadian Golf Association's managing director of championships, said of the policy yesterday. "We read it in the press first and almost concurrently got something from the Tour. We run a tournament [the CN Canadian Women's Open]. You would have thought that'd have given tournament operators a heads-up.

"I suppose their intention is right," Desrochers continued. "They're trying to help players. But the area is so sensitive. They're saying that unless you speak our language, we won't let you participate in our game."
Canada’s LPGA Tour stop had been called one of the four women’s majors for many years before losing the designation a few years ago. Two weeks ago 48 of the top 50 ranked LPGA players where in Ottawa for the Canadian LPGA event, an event that raised over $1 million for a local children’s hospital and is one of the biggest paydays on the LPGA Tour. Desrochers comments suggest at the very least the LPGA did a terrible job of communicating their message to their membership – an embarrassing job.

"I am of a strong belief that, yes, we need to learn to communicate," Canadian Lorie Kane, a 12-year tour veteran, told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. "But whether or not you can communicate shouldn't determine whether or not you have a card on the LPGA Tour."

Galloway told Golf Week the LPGA decision had nothing to do with sponsors and said interest in the tour has never been stronger.

“This should be a priority in their professional development just the way working on their short game is a priority,” Galloway said. “We just wanted to be clear about our expectations.”

There will be fallout from the LPGA decision but not as much as there should be. The bottom line – golf as a spectator sport remains a “man’s world”. When a LPGA event comes to a city the event is well supported. But do golf fans travel to attend LPGA events – forget about that. Given a choice golf fans (and virtually all sports fans) will attend a PGA event over an LPGA event – 100 percent of the time!!

Was it a good business decision – that remains to be seen but of this there is no doubt whatsoever – if this is an example as to how the LPGA handles a major announcement the LPGA needs some serious help. Consider this – the LPGA leaked their release to Golf Week – they didn’t post the release on their website. The LPGA had to know there would be a strong reaction and to not attempt to control their message, to run and hide suggests at the end of the day the LPGA is running and hiding. Shame, shame, shame – a real public relations nightmare for the LPGA.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: Golf Week and The Globe and Mail

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