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You are here: RE: THINGS KOREAN * Articles & Info * How the LPGA Bungled English
Taking Aim at Korean Players, the LPGA Bungled English
How the
LPGA Bungled on English; Aiming to make its Korean stars learn the language to ease sponsor relations, the women's tour fell flat
From The Wall Street Journal
September 13, 2008
By John Paul Newport
The LPGA, under Commissioner Carolyn Bivens, tried to pull itself out of a public-relations mess last week by rescinding the harsh penalty it had proposed only two weeks before against members who can't demonstrate a "basic level of communication in English." The penalty -- suspension of playing privileges until the player brings her English up to snuff -- would have gone in effect after the 2009 season for any Tour member of at least two years' standing, thus giving newcomers time to adjust.
The penalty proposal, which was reported in Golfweek Aug. 25 and defended by the Tour a week later in a memo to members, was part of a broader communication initiative that has been evolving for years. "Unlike athletes in other sports, LPGA players must entertain and engage sponsors and their customers on a weekly basis," Commissioner Bivens wrote in the memo. Mostly here she was talking about the pro-am rounds that precede competitive play, for which participants pay an average of $15,000 per foursome. That money, on the LPGA, is the main funding source for tournament purses. "It is imperative for the future success of the LPGA as well as the success of each LPGA player that our members effectively communicate in English at tournaments inside the United States with those who provide for the existence of the tournaments.

Seon Hwa Lee crammed for months to deliver a speech in English

The communication program itself enjoys broad support, but the penalty proposal was a tone-deaf blunder. Almost immediately it attracted a storm of protest, primarily because it was seen -- by the media, by some players and sponsors, by civil-rights groups and even by a couple of California lawmakers who questioned its legality at tournaments taking place in that state -- as aimed at the Tour's large South Korean contingent.
At face value, the now-scotched penalty didn't discriminate against one nationality more than any other, since it applied equally to all players, but as a practical matter it certainly would have affected the Koreans disproportionately. Among the Tour's current crop of 120 international players, probably only about a dozen would fail to meet the vaguely defined English-language requirement, and all are Korean.
At face value, the now-scotched penalty didn't discriminate against one nationality more than any other, since it applied equally to all players, but as a practical matter it certainly would have affected the Koreans disproportionately. Among the Tour's current crop of 120 international players, probably only about a dozen would fail to meet the vaguely defined English-language requirement, and all are Korean.
One reason for this is the sheer size of the Korean contingent, 45 players, by far the largest from any non-U.S. country. (Sweden is second, with 15.) When Se Ri Pak, the first Korean superstar on the LPGA and the woman primarily responsible for inspiring the current generation, was a rookie in 1998, she was one of only three Korean competitors. Learning English, which she quickly did, was almost a matter of survival. These days, with 44 fellow countrywomen following the Tour, plus many parents, coaches and other hangers-on from the homeland, not to mention Tour-supplied translators, a young Korean player has less urgent incentive to master English. And the number of Koreans on Tour is unlikely to fall soon, given the high number of them who have entered this fall's qualifying tournament and who are members of the Tour's developmental circuit, the Duramed Futures Tour.
Another disincentive is that many Korean players have rich sponsorship arrangements with companies back home, so their need for English to help them secure contracts with American companies is less than it might be otherwise. In fact, the top Korean LPGA players, such as Ms. Pak and Mi Hyun Kim, are practically national heroes. Here's a fact that helps explain the relationship of Korean players to their homeland: The LPGA's single biggest source of income these days is not U.S. television, but Korean television.
Still another factor is that many of the Korean players are very young and inexperienced. Some bypassed college to turn pro as teenagers and are accompanied on Tour by one or both parents, who often are less interested in having their daughters spend hours learning English than in spending the time practicing golf. Reading between the lines of several statements Ms. Bivens has made on the subject suggests that getting through to the Korean parents was one reason the Tour felt it needed to raise the possibility of yanking a player's Tour card. (The LPGA declined to make Ms. Bivens available for this column.)
To be fair, most Korean players do make a diligent, sometimes heroic effort to master English. When Seon Hwa Lee, now the No. 10 player in the world, realized halfway through the 2006 season that she would probably win the Rookie of the Year award, she crammed for months to be able to deliver her acceptance speech in English, which she did with great emotion, and now speaks the language with ease.
Furthermore, Koreans aren't the only players who struggle. Whereas in some European countries, such as Sweden, English is a de facto second native language, players from countries whose languages aren't Indo-European in origin, such as Japan, Taiwan, China and Thailand, often find learning English extremely difficult.
The Tour's proposed policy did not demand fluency, merely that players acquit themselves adequately in three specific situations: media interviews, acceptance speeches (so they can thank the sponsors) and pro-ams. And in recent years, the Tour has been aggressively offering players assistance. In 2006, in conjunction with Kolon, an international Korean conglomerate, it launched a cross-cultural training program that supplied all non-U.S. players with tutors, translators, language-learning software and other services.
In backing away from the penalty, the Tour has not abandoned its player communication program, and has said it will announce revisions to the policy by the end of the year. It might, for instance, decide to substitute fines for suspensions.
As lamentably ill-advised as the suspension concept turned out to be, it wasn't an attempt by the Tour to discourage international growth in its ranks, as a few media commentators implied, but rather part of an ongoing effort to manage and accommodate that growth. In the long term, the Tour views this internationalization as overwhelming positive.
Since 1997, when internationals accounted for only about a quarter of Tour membership, compared with more than half today, total prize money has roughly doubled, to $64 million from $29 million. That is modest compared with the PGA Tour's Tiger Woods-fueled rise to $279 million from $81 million, but still decent. And some of that increase comes from new international sponsors, such as Grand China Air. Individual tournaments have also adapted their marketing to reflect the new global emphasis. Anheuser-Busch throws a lavish reception for its Asian distributors at the tournament it sponsors each year in Virginia. The Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., advertises heavily in Korean-language newspapers in Southern California and draws a big Asian crowd.
Beyond that, there is the less-complicated positive of attracting stronger fields. "The talent level these days is incredible," said Val Skinner, a six-time Tour winner and occasional television commentator. "For players from my generation it's exciting to see so many women come from all around the world to throw their hat in the ring here."
In the short term, there are plenty of what Ms. Bivens might call management challenges. This year only three Americans have won on the LPGA Tour: Paula Creamer (three times), Leta Lindley and Cristie Kerr. The Tour lost two events for next year, with other defections possible, and the downer economy won't make replacing them easy.
Also next year, the Tour's television contracts expire. This year only 14 rounds spread over eight tournaments will be shown on the major networks. Most but not all of the rest appeared on the Golf Channel, ESPN2 and other cable outlets. Financially, domestic television (the LPGA buys its TV time rather than sell rights) has not been much more than a break-even proposition. Its main benefit, apart from the exposure, has been to create a television product the Tour can sell to Korea and other overseas markets. That is one more reason the Tour needs its global partners as much as they need it.
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