Golf Gets Its Biggest-Ever Purse for Women With New Sponsor Deal
(Bloomberg) -- Women’s golf is getting its largest-ever purse with a new sponsorship deal that nearly doubles payouts for one of the tour’s marquee events.
ProMedica Health System Inc. will sponsor the U.S. Women’s Open in a long-term agreement that will make the event one of the highest-paying championships in all of women’s sports. Starting at this year’s tournament in June, golfers at the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in North Carolina will earn a total of $10 million, up from $5.5 million last year. Organizers plan to raise the purse to $12 million over the next five years, which may force other events on the schedule to try to keep up.
“This will, without a doubt, encourage others to think bigger too,” said Mike Whan, chief executive officer of the U.S. Golf Association, which runs the tournament and is the national governing body for the sport.
Financial terms of the sponsorship deal weren’t disclosed. ProMedica, which does business in 28 states, hopes to attract more national attention as it rebrands itself as one of the country’s largest providers of health-care services to seniors. As part of the arrangement, ProMedica will provide on-site health services as the USGA’s official health partner.
“We think this opportunity gets us in front of people and creates awareness of who we are and the issues we feel strongly about,” said ProMedica CEO Randy Oostra.
Viewership for the U.S. Women’s Open on NBC Sports and the Golf Channel rose 62% in 2021, reaching its highest audience since 2016. Women’s golf is still rarely seen on network television.
The U.S. Women’s Open, which was first held in 1946, is also entering several new high-profile venues, including Inverness Club in Ohio and Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan. In 2023, Pebble Beach Golf Links in California will host the tournament for the first time ever.
Whan, who previously ran the women's tour as head of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, said it used to be tough to recruit partners who could invest and raise the sport’s profile.
“I would sit in corporate boardrooms and say things like, `What percentage of your sponsorship dollars go to women versus men?,’” Whan said of his first years at the LPGA in the early 2010s. “And they would look at us like, `No one’s ever asked us that question and we don’t need to answer that.’”
That attitude is changing as investment trickles into women’s sports with viewership numbers up and interest rising. Consulting firm Deloitte said in a 2020 report that women’s sports have already proven their financial value and are just waiting for broadcasters, sponsors and vendors to take advantage. Last year, beer brand Michelob Ultra, a major sports sponsor, said it would commit $100 million to pushing women’s sports and female athletes.
Higher prize money and salaries are crucial for pro female athletes, who often seek out supplemental income as their pay lags behind their male counterparts. WNBA stars often play basketball abroad during the offseason to earn another paycheck and LPGA golfers take second jobs.
“We’re finally getting the respect that we deserve as players,” said Juli Inkster, a hall of fame golfer-turned-commentator. “This is their livelihood. This is how they make their money. For someone who ends 60th on the money list to also have to get a part-time job, I don’t think that's right. It’s getting a lot better and we can still improve.”
Golf still has some catching up to do on equal pay. In tennis, the sport’s four Grand Slam events award men and women equal prize money, though there’s still a pay gap in many smaller tournaments.
The winner of the next U.S. Women’s Open will walk away with $1.8 million. In 2019, prior to Covid-19’s disruption of the sports world, only three women made more than $1.8 million throughout the entire season, said Whan. In the men’s tournament, 2021 winner Jon Rahm took home a $2.25 million prize from a $12.5 million purse, though Whan expects that to rise as well.
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