According to the 2013 Wegmans LPGA Championship tournament overview, the “event contributes an estimated $20 million to the Rochester economy on an annual basis.” News of the tournament’s downstate departure leaves a deep divot to be filled. Its loss will be felt in the form of community events, vendor and sponsor relationships and local tourism dollars previously spent at retailers, restaurants and hotels.
In a harsh criticism of the move, Democrat and Chronicle sports columnist Leo Roth calls the unfortunate decision a bigger loss for the LPGA. He asserts the tradition, energy and loyalty built in Rochester over the past four decades will be tough to replicate in New York City. Between the lines, however, Roth’s column represents everything that is wrong about Rochester–its signature smugness.
Roth calls the tour “irrelevant” and its players “big fishes in a small pond.” Even worse, he flatly points to a leaderboard flush with first-time winners, essentially complaining that many top players happen to be Asian, not American. In short, Roth sums up these characterizations as parts of a “flawed product.” Unfortunately for Roth, all signs point to sour grapes from a “flawed market.”
Referring to the LPGA as irrelevant ignores the widely-recognized efforts by Whan at the LPGA. One influencer within the golfing community says of Whan, “[He doesn’t] get enough credit for what he’s done to engineer a turnaround at the LPGA. His work will be a case study at Harvard’s business school and every sports management program around the world.”
Like the focus on irrelevance, the overemphasis on LPGA players’ lowly stature in sports undermines any authentic belief that Rochester truly has what it takes to support the sports long-term transformation.
Lastly, Roth’s ethnocentric view of the leaderboard is demonstrative of Rochester’s insular nature. Whan understands where golf’s greatest growth potential lies–Asia. When recently asked if Asia would eventually host a major, he responded “It’s inevitable.”
If one thing is clear, it’s Whan’s ability to embrace the increasingly global nature of the game and the business opportunity that comes with it. In Asia golf appeals to a younger audience with a greater share of female fans compared to the United States. In 2013, Rochester only managed to attract ticket buyers from the United States and Canada. It just doesn’t seem up for a global-scale challenge.
While it’d be nice to agree with Roth’s belief that Whan’s decision was short-sighted, all indicators point to a long-term strategy that uses New York City — an international hub — as a launch pad for the future of the LPGA around the globe. And while the LPGA continues on its mission to take a bigger bite of a multibillion dollar pie, Rochester will likely seek short-term ways to fill an estimated $20 million gap. To borrow Roth’s words, “I emphasize short.”
Who can really blame Whan for leaving? While the LPGA was preparing to build a rocket, Rochester was simply finding ways to keep the same ol’ wheel turning.