LPGA's Twitter poll to award event entry is exploitation not creative thinking | Anya Alvarez

Anya Alvarez
Scotland’s Carly Booth is one of four players in a Twitter poll with the winner getting a sponsor’s exemption to an upcoming LPGA event. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

Let’s say you were asked to participate in a Twitter poll and, should you win said poll, you would have the chance to play in the Super Bowl or the World Series?

For any sports fan, this would seem like a no-brainer and an opportunity of a lifetime.

But now imagine professional athletes having to participate in a Twitter poll in order to earn a place into an event? Initially, it might seem a little silly to ask people who have devoted their lives to a pursuit to subject themselves to what is a essentially a popularity contest.

Lo and behold, though, the LPGA has traded its credibility for publicity, and thus lowered itself, by asking four professional golfers to participate in a Twitter vote for a sponsor’s exemption in the ShopRite Classic taking place next month in Atlantic City.

The four women? Golf Channel’s Blair O’Neal, India’s Sharmila Nicollet, Scotland’s Carly Booth and Bolivia’s Susan Benavides.

Of these players, Booth is the most accomplished with two wins on the Ladies European Tour. O’Neal won Golf Channel’s Big Break series and has capitalized on her popularity in the golf world as a personality, often playing on sponsor exemptions and recently making the cut in the LET Dubai tournament in December 2016. Nicollet is the second Indian-born golfer to earn status on the LET and has won 11 professional events on Women’s Golf Association of India circuit. Benavides plays on the LPGA developmental circuit, the Symetra Tour, and is the best golfer to hail from Bolivia.

These women were selected for the poll by MVP Index, a sports social media tracking firm co-founded by Jordan Spieth’s father, Shawn Spieth.

Sponsor exemptions are always tricky business. Typically, depending on the event, the main sponsor of a golf tournament will be allotted two exemptions to award to whomever they please, be it an amateur or professional. Not everyone will agree with the exemptions given, but often that’s the point: to stir controversy and interest in an event because of the polarizing figure.

This is why the PGA Tour events continued to invite the fallen star of golf, John Daly, to play in events, despite his often withdrawing halfway through the tournament or shooting embarrassingly high scores.

One could certainly make the argument that more deserving players could have been selected as candidates for the exemption. When I examined this poll, I did not see players who were undeserving, though. What I saw was a completely unlevel playing field in terms of how many Twitter followers each of the ladies have: Nicollet with roughly 357,000, O’Neal with 77,000 followers, Booth with 35,000 and Benavides with 7,000.

In addition to this poll, I saw a shameless attempt by the sponsors of the tournament to capitalize on the social media presence of female golfers without any regard to the false hope they’re setting in place for those with a smaller following.

Take Benavides for example, who initially wrote in for a sponsor exemption.

“I would have much rather just be chosen that way,” she said in an interview with the Guardian. “When I was told about the Twitter poll, I knew I was the one with the smallest following, and Twitter is not big at all in my country so I knew it was going to be hard. But, hey, it’s a chance to play in an LPGA event. How or why would I say no?”

ShopRite Classic executive director Tim Erensen went to MVP Index in search of female golfers on social media who have a strong social media presence in order to conduct the poll.

He described this as “thinking out of the box” to the Golf Channel, and said that this poll could help generate new people to be interested in the game of golf. “For the naysayers, if we get 10 million new eyeballs exposed to our event, that’s not only good for the winner of our contest, but for the 143 other players in the field.”

But let’s cut through the baloney. None of the ladies in the poll struggle in the looks department. They’re all uniquely beautiful, and all have a strong fan male base.

I urge you to go through the accounts of these of these women and see the nice compliments male followers pay them:

“Sexy figure.”

“Wow, uber sexy! You’re so so hot!”

“Fantastic sexiness.”

“Cute hiney.”

“Lovely curves.”

“Nice pic and boobs.”

“Damn what a sexy body.”

If Erensen were honest, he would say, “The ShopRite tournament execs decided we would use these women as clickbait.”

Because, let’s get even more honest, with the combined social media followings of all these golfers, their followings don’t even total 500,000 followers. So when Erensen says they could get 10 million new eyeballs exposed to the event, he’s smoking some really good stuff I want to get a hold of.

This was so transparent in its laziness of an attempt to truly engage potential new fans. You know what makes athletes interesting? Their stories. And you know what the LPGA needs? A more diverse pool of fans, and in order to do that they need to learn to engage with other people outside of pervy old men who stalk the accounts of different female golfers.

Secondly, this is just another sad example of women having to sell themselves short in sports in the hopes that they receive what could be a life-changing opportunity.

Sponsor exemptions can alter a player’s path. Should the exemptee win the tournament, it would give them automatic full status on the LPGA for the following year, along with more sponsor exemptions for the rest of the year. For this tournament in particular, it would also earn a spot in the four majors left for the season on the LPGA.

While it is extremely rare for a sponsor exemptee to win a tournament, it has happened in the past. On the PGA Tour, Jordan Spieth won John Deere Classic on a sponsor exemption. Two years later he went on to win the Masters and the US Open.

It’s gimmicky, erring on the side of tacky, and despite what Erensen believes is creative thinking, it’s just a new way of exploiting women.

As someone pointed out to me on social media though, “Unfortunately, women’s sport is a tough sell in a saturated market. Anya, you have the right to be critical but at least the company is doing SOMETHING for women’s golf. They could easily be throwing it at any number of male sports.”

My response to that: “Women’s sports is a tough sale because even sponsors treat the women like objects to be voted. The notion that just because they’re doing SOMETHING is not a good enough reason to be lazy in their promotion of the tournament.”

As long as women are treated like props in the sporting world to be ogled and used as clickbait, they will never gain a true fanbase or find equal footing with the men.

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