News & Opinion

Sponsors, LPGA help ease labor pains

Never can a career as a professional athlete seem so precarious – for a woman, at least – as when it’s time to start a family. Playing a sport for a living implies, of course, that the athlete has to play the sport to make the living. Refreshingly, more and more companies that sponsor LPGA players don’t see it that way.

While motherhood once was an uncertain road to go down in professional golf, it’s getting to be less so. Women’s golf made a giant leap last week as two companies with strong ties to the LPGA announced that they will honor their full endorsement contracts with Brittany Lincicome, even as she plays a shortened season while awaiting the birth of her first child, projected to be Sept. 1.

Brittany Lincicome
Brittany Lincicome, who is expecting her first child Sept. 1, won the support of her sponsors and the LPGA for her upcoming maternity leave.

CME Group and Diamond Resorts, Lincicome’s sponsors, join KPMG in giving this kind of support to female athletes who also are mothers. KPMG sponsors former world No. 1 Stacy Lewis, who gave birth to a daughter in October and took six months off from competition. KPMG made the same type of commitment to Lewis that Lincicome’s sponsors have made.

Typically, an endorsement deal hinges on an agreed-upon number of tournament starts. Lincicome has said she will play as long as she can.

In many ways, Lincicome’s sponsorship announcement was more ground-breaking than Lewis’ a year ago. Every time a company commits to its female athletes in this way, women’s sports inch toward a new normal – and one that should have been normal all along. Lincicome disclosed her sponsorship announcement before last week’s Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“I mean, I never thought in a million years that they would do that,” she said. “I feel so honored and blessed to be represented by two great companies that are going to do this. It's just fantastic.”

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Only 2½ months after giving birth to her second child, Catriona Matthew won the 2009 Ricoh Women’s British Open. Now, LPGA mothers are enjoying more support with sponsors and the tour.

Her reaction was almost identical to the one expressed by Lewis, which is to say that both were in disbelief. That’s an emotion born of low expectations, which is how women traditionally have been taught to think. The question now is how to reframe those expectations.

The sheer noise around motherhood is a victory in itself. The LPGA has made that a front-and-center storyline as a handful of its players are choosing to start families. There are 11 mothers competing on the LPGA, according to the tour, and three have won since the birth of their children: Cristie Kerr, Juli Inkster and Catriona Matthew. Talking about something normalizes it, and motherhood is a big part of an athlete’s story. There’s little that humanizes her more. Professional sports are way behind in recognizing – and even marketing – that storyline.

Golf is highly unusual in that a woman’s decision to start a family doesn’t have to be a game-ending one. A career can continue long after that, and it often does. In that respect, golf sets up well when it comes to celebrating mothers in sport. Here’s hoping that other leagues and companies in the sports space are watching. Golf can be groundbreaking in this conversation.

By embracing their athletes as women who pursue their sport through extreme physical and life changes, Diamond Resorts, CME Group and KPMG have deepened their investment in sport. The companies certainly put their money where their collective mouths are, but the LPGA deserves kudos here, too. The tour has set an undeniable tone of respect.

Already this season, the LPGA has revamped its maternity-leave policy, allowing more flexibility for new mothers to return to competition and maintain their status on tour. Lincicome’s announcement of sponsor support came a day before the LPGA rolled out a new brand positioning, with the tagline “Drive On.” The tour debuted a 45-second sports-empowerment video narrated by tour players. The final words?

“This is us crushing it for you, so you can crush it for the next girl.”

Under the direction of commissioner Mike Whan, the LPGA has positioned itself as an organization that empowers women. That makes it an organization in which sponsors want to invest. If you don’t have a product that sponsors respect, then there’s also little chance that sponsors will respect the players who are the lifeblood behind the product. It’s important to note that CME Group, Diamond Resorts and KPMG also title-sponsor LPGA tournaments.

When companies embrace the realities of professional sports, and of the athletes in their stable, it makes their involvement in that arena much more real. The rest of sports should be taking notes. Supporting motherhood as it overlaps sport is the new normal.

Julie Williams covers amateur golf for AmateurGolf.com. She is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules