A Man's Business at the LPGA
Jim Ritts relishes his role in expanding events as head of the Ladies Professional Golf Association
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA., AND CANTON, MASS. — In any interview with Jim Ritts, one question is almost sure to come up, namely: What's a man doing as commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association?
Mr. Ritts, an amiable native of Dallas with boundless energy, had a ready answer at the LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla.
But first a word or two of explanation: The LPGA was founded by a group of women players in 1950. In 1976 the group hired Ray Volpe as the tour's first commissioner. Four men followed Volpe before Ritts was named commissioner-elect in June 1995 by the LPGA board of directors.
Wasn't it high time, though, for the longest-standing women's sports association to hire a woman leader?
Ritts is the first to acknowledge that a woman could "easily" be commissioner. "But what I'm pleased about," he says, "is that when they were writing the criteria for the selection process, gender specificity was not a criterion.... I think it's to their credit."
From what he's been told since, Ritts was among 100 candidates, 40 percent of whom were female, including one of the three finalists.
Ritts says he never set out to become a commissioner of a major professional sport, but now is convinced that his previous 23 years of work experience in the communications and marketing/advertising fields were near-perfect preparation for the job.
He began as a researcher for ABC Sports while still in college and most recently was co-founder and executive with education-oriented Channel One, formerly owned by Whittle Communications.
Add these credentials to what he calls a "healthy respect and knowledge of golf" born of playing the game from a young age, and Ritts was the LPGA's choice to lead the tour into the 21st century.
The association wanted commitment, and Ritts was able to give it, agreeing to stay on for at least 10 years. "I made the decision that this is not something I'm going to do at the end of a professional career, sort of the capping off. This is the business that I hope will be the professional hallmark of my career."
Beyond the mere business considerations, though, Ritts wanted to make sure he could make an emotional commitment to the tour. To assess this, he and wife, Linda, an avid golfer, flew incognito to several tournaments.
"I wanted to watch the players, the product of the LPGA, through my wife's eyes and mine," Ritts explains. "We watched them and asked, was there any evidence that they were spoiled professional athletes? Was I going to be involved with prima donnas if I became commissioner?"
What they saw was entertainment and warmth, players who were extraordinarily skilled and worked hard at embracing their fans, whether talking to them around the tee boxes or stopping to sign autographs.
"Very quickly I became evangelical about these players," Ritts says. "Very quickly I had an emotional commitment to trying to create bigger and better venues for them."
Last month at the site of the LPGA's PING Welch's Championship at the Blue Hill Country Club outside Boston, Ritts enthusiastically reported that all the goals established for expanding the tour's presence have already been met well ahead of schedule.
"I've jokingly taken to calling the LPGA the 'More Tour'," he says while grabbing a quick bite to eat before teeing off in a pro-am event. "In 1997 we'll be playing more events for more money, with more television exposure and more fans than at any time in our history."
The number of events will increase from 38 to 41 stops. Two of them actually come on board during the remainder of 1996. The Core States Betsy King Classic, which bears the name of an active player, will be played in Reading, Pa., Oct. 10-13, with the ITT LPGA Tour Championship scheduled for Nov. 21-24 in Las Vegas.
In taking the commissioner's job, Ritts says he was convinced that the business winds were at the LPGA's back, partly because of a significant growth in women's recreational golf. This fact is sometimes obscured , he adds, by the media's "benign unwillingness to accept the LPGA's level of success. That's one of those things I'm going to keep chipping away at."
For the first time in tour history, he says, sponors are waiting in line to join such corporate giants as JCPenney, Chrysler-Plymouth, McDonald's, and Nabisco among title sponsors.
National TV exposure is increasing, with 33 to 36 tournaments available next year. "To me this is critical," Ritts says. "In the past, the golf fan has said, 'Gee, I wonder if the LPGA is on television this week?' What you want them asking is, 'Gee I wonder what channel they're on?' "
After only eight months officially at the helm, Ritts acknowledges that he underestimated the tour's momentum. "We're on more of a rocket ride than I even understood," he observes. "The job is more fun, more interesting, more challenging, and more relentless than I ever anticipated, and I had pretty high expectations. From a business standpoint, it's an absolute dream."
Although confident that he can help the LPGA to grow, he modestly describes himself as "the steward for the next phase." The man who turned things around, stabilized the operation, and launched the tour on its present course, he reminds you, is his predecessor in the commissioner's chair, Charlie Mechem. Ritts calls Mechem "the Cal Ripken of golf" for his record for making it to every tournament during his five-year tenure.
Ritts is no stranger to travel himself and expects to soon reach four million lifetime frequent-flyer miles. And while he doesn't anticipate maintaining Mechem's perfect tournament attendance record, he's a strong believer in the value of "being there." Making himself available to players and sponsors, he believes, is critical to the kind of communications that "overcome chaos and remove distrust."
On the day of the Monitor's most recent visit with Ritts, he was barely into a daunting business trip that had already seen him go from Hilton Head, S.C., to Daytona Beach (where he purchased a home), to Louisville, Ky., to Boston - all in just three days. Much more of the same lay ahead, but he couldn't wait.
"How many businesspeople," he asks, "can say that they just bought a home and are thrilled that they'll be gone for the next 27 days?"