Is marketing the sex appeal of LPGA golfers good for the game?
AT THE LPGA'S SBS CHAMPIONSHIP IN February, seven players convened at a house on Oahu's North Shore for a photo shoot that quickly turned into a sisterly gabfest. Bags of peanut M&Ms and Red Vines were passed around while makeup was applied and bikinis were tried on. The conversation floated lightly from beach reading (the Twilight series is the rage on tour) to coveted hairdos ("I wish I could get mine to be long and kinda wild like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman") to, inevitably, their respective love lives. With a nod to an eavesdropping reporter, the players tried to speak in code.
"Anything new with...you know?"
"It's the same. We're still, like, hanging out."
"What about the other one?"
"Still there, if I want it."
Finally, Anna Grzebien stated the obvious: "We're talking about boys, of course. It's the only topic that matters."
Professional golf can be the loneliest pursuit, but the camaraderie is real among these players, who comprise the so-called "Wilhelmina 7." What started as a marketing gimmick has fostered a true team spirit. When Kim Hall was in contention to win last year's Bell Micro LPGA Classic, her six comrades followed her over the closing holes, hooting and hollering. "I haven't had that kind of support since college," says Hall, who went on to finish third.
The W7 was born last year when Wilhelmina Models, the global beauty factory that counts Rebecca Romijn, Fergie and countless runway glamazons as clients, decided to break into women's golf. The inspiration came when Dieter Esch, then the Wilhelmina chairman and now a company consultant, attended an LPGA tournament in Florida. "Like many people, I had certain stereotypes of LPGA players," Esch says. "I was surprised to discover how many of the players were young and athletic and attractive and very personable. To be honest, the tour has done a pretty pathetic job marketing its product, and I knew we could do much, much better."
Esch conceived the idea for the Wilhelmina 7 ("It could have been six, it could have been eight, but seven sounded right," he says) and set about cherry-picking young players who were still trying to establish themselves on tour and who were unencumbered by preexisting management contracts and endorsement deals. Esch is unapologetic that appearance dictated who he recruited. "This is how the world works," says Esch in his clipped German accent. "Beauty is used to sell everything. Why should golf be different?"
Wilhelmina hoped that the critical mass of grouping seven fresh-faced players would create enough buzz to attract corporate dollars, but in this economy no deals have been consummated. "There are very few endorsement contracts out there for anybody right now, so we're all just staying patient and trying to look at the big picture," says Mikaela Parmlid, one of the W7. "The time we're putting in now for the photo shoots and interviews will hopefully in the future lead to more endorsements." So the W7 thus far has been less an advertisement for Wilhelmina's marketing muscle than the bountiful charms of the seven spotlighted players.
Grzebien is a red-haired, freckled Rhode Island native with a fun, flirty vibe. Her active social life is the source of endless amusement and fascination to her fellow players. Hall is a blonde, blue-eyed Texan with an excess of spunk and palpable intelligence that served her well at Stanford. Doe-eyed, willowy Sandra Gal is six feet tall, seemingly all of it legs. Her shy demeanor belies an uncommon depth Gal speaks five languages, including her native German. Minea Blomqvist's blond hair and blue eyes betray her native Finland. She is a sweetheart who surprises with a sharp wit.
Johanna Mundy is soft-spoken and thoughtful with a fetching English accent, while Sweden's Parmlid has a distinctive head of wild curls and a mellowness imbued by her adopted hometown of Venice Beach, Calif. Last year's lineup included Stacy Prammanasudh, a two-time winner who decided to leave the W7 at the end of the '08 season. (Much like the Supremes or Destiny's Child, the faces may change but the name stays the same.) Stacey P. was replaced by Paige Mackenzie, though she too recently left the W7, albeit regrettably, due to complications arising from a preexisting business relationship (Wilhelmina is searching for her replacement). "When I heard about the W7 last year I was so jealous I wasn't part of it," Mackenzie says. "I thought it was such a great idea and such good exposure for the girls involved."
Exposure is the key word here. Wilhelmina has not been shy about flooding the Internet with glamour shots of its players, and it was W7 representatives who pushed for the steamy photos that adorn this story (though, it should be noted, no one at Golf Magazine tried to talk them out of it, either). This leads, inevitably, to an unresolved question that dates to the 1980's, when a nude Jan Stephenson shared a bathtub with some strategically placed golf balls: Is selling the players as sex objects good for women's golf?
"People say this is demeaning to female athletes," says Bob Aube, the W7's manager. "You know what? Those fat old guys riding around in golf carts and chomping cigars on the Champions tour are playing for more money than the LPGA players. That's demeaning to female athletes!"
The athletes in question defend themselves with equal vigor. "The only reason this is an issue is because golf is a such a conservative, traditional sport," Parmlid says. "It's okay for women athletes in other sports to be attractive. Women's tennis, beach volleyball, swimming, track they're just girls, too, and it's effortless the way they combine their sexuality with their sports, and no one gives them a hard time about it."
Hall makes a slightly different point: "The LPGA has such a high retention rate for fans. The key is to get them to pay attention in the first place. Anything we can do to bring in new fans is a positive, and the tour has been very supportive of our efforts."
Indeed, anytime there has been a kernel of news about the W7 it has been featured prominently at lpga.com. "Any partners who recognize the overall appeal and talent of our players and find ways to market that potential is great for all of us," says David Higdon, the LPGA's chief communications officer. The W7 members did not seek the LPGA's blessing before signing with Wilhelmina, Higdon says, but the tour has subsequently looked for ways to work with the W7, realizing their potential for attracting a new breed of fans to the game.
Not every member of the tour is enamored of the image the W7 is portraying. Three veteran players spoke with varying degrees of distaste but none would go on record for fear of upsetting their colleagues and starting a media food-fight. Said one of the players: "Why do we have to take our clothes off to get noticed? At least with Natalie [Gulbis] and her bikini calendars you could dismiss it as just an aberration. But now there's seven more of these girls and just because of the sheer number it sends the message that this is all the tour is about, which is untrue and unfair."
The W7 members are sensitive to this critique and take pains to point out that they hope to be judged on their results, not their cheesecake pictorials. "All of us want to be known first and foremost as golfers," Gal says. And all are hungry to become the first active W7 member to bag an LPGA win. "Whoever it is," Gal says, "the rest of us will be happy for her. The nice thing is that when one of us has success it reflects well on all of us."
Back in Hawaii, at the beach house, the photo shoot ended and the members of the W7 underwent a quick metamorphosis. Long, flowing, expertly curled hair was pulled into a ponytail and stuffed under a hat. Teeny-weeny bikinis were exchanged for polo shirts and knee-length skirts. Painted toenails were crammed into Soft-spiked shoes. "It was fun to be a girlie-girl for a little while," Blomqvist said. Now it was time to go to the golf course. Time to go back to work.