English-language rule puts heat on LPGA

Response to controversial mandate has forced the association to clarify its rationale behind decision

Response to controversial mandate has forced the association to clarify its rationale behind decision

 

The Ladies Professional Golf Association's (LPGA) recent decision requiring its athletes to master the English language could impact its reputation in the industry and future partnerships, industry experts say.

The league says LPGA athletes need English skills to become more marketable as the organization tries to find title sponsors for its tournaments.

However, some believe that the LPGA's decision appeared to be more behind the times than forward thinking.

“Today, the rules have changed,” says Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR in New York. “You can't continue with the old-rules mentality.”

What irked Asian-American groups and sports columnists across the US was the decision to separate and inform only the Korean players, and to threaten them with possible suspension. Forty-five of the LPGA's 121 international players are South Korean.

The LPGA's English-language mandate came to light in a Golfweek magazine story published August 25. Within days of the story's publication, organizations like the Asian American Justice Center, Japanese American Citizens League, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Organization of Chinese Americans issued statements about the policy.

The LPGA has remained fairly quiet about its communications efforts, despite backlash that has included accusations of racial discrimination. A statement from Commissioner Carolyn Bivens finally appeared on the LPGA's Web site September 2.

Bivens sought to clarify the policy, saying, “We do not, nor will we ever, demand English fluency... we are asking that they demonstrate a basic level of communication in English at tournaments in the United States in situations that are essential to their job... media interviews, the Pro-Am environment, and winner acceptance speeches.”

In addition to the clarification, what is interesting about the statement is Bivens' detailed account of what an LPGA sponsorship includes, which was not a part of the initial news. Athletes are required to entertain and engage sponsors for five to six hours a week because the league's business model does not rely on ads and ticket sales, the statement says.

Critics of the policy are focusing on two points. One is that other US sports do not have the same requirement. Media reports mention Yao Ming's early days in the NBA, and even Si Ri Pak's start in the LPGA.

The other is that 13 of the 37 tournaments in 2008 have been or will be held outside of the US, but league athletes are not required to speak other languages.

“From a PR perspective, a corporation does not want to be associated with something that's negative,” says Jimmy Lee, VP of West Hollywood-based IW Group, a marketing firm that focuses on the Asian-American community. “If the LPGA really wants to global[ize]... they should change with the times and open up the board to people from other countries.”

Lee notes that golf tends to be marketed to a “more privileged community” and there could be an immediate effect on the Asian-American community, which has the highest household income in the US.

“I think they will lose more sponsors than they will get in return,” Lee says.

Yet Jeffrey Graubard, founder of The Graubard Group, which represents the National Hockey League, says that he doesn't expect any long-term fallout for the league. Instead, he believes that it was a smart business move, pointing out that at the global level, companies often conduct business in English.

The initial announcement, though, “was a little bit heavy-handed,” he adds. “It did sound discriminatory the way it was handled.”

Paul, too, says that incomplete or inappropriate communications pushed the league's policy formalization into the spotlight, especially because it stressed that punishment was the result of the policy. Rumors and innuendo fueled the story, he adds.

“Being tough can backfire,” Paul says. The policy and the way it was handled was a failure, he adds, and is an example of not what to do, but what not to do.

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