PXG recently announced a sponsorship platform where it will provide tour level fittings and equipment to both men's and women's programs at six major Division I schools - Duke, Cal, SMU, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Vanderbilt. However, in a departure from typical pieces on PXG, the equipment itself isn't the most important part of the story.
Providing elite amateurs and collegiate players with free equipment isn't new. It's the reason why you see a plethora of Ping and Titleist clubs in matching Ping and Titleist bags at high-level state and national junior tournaments. The idea is simple; build (or technically buy...or maybe rent) loyalty during a player's formative years, and if player goes on to play professionally, it's likely that player will stick with the brand as his career progresses. There will always be Bryson DeChambeau scenarios where a player works closely with one OEM (Edel) during amateur play only to sign with another (Cobra) for more money, but this is more the exception than the rule.
The costs associated with this version of marketing are simply a part of doing business for many OEMs, but there is a spending limit. Because budgets allow for a finite amount of equipment to distribute, the equipment sponsors must decide who are the haves and who are the have-nots.
When it comes to equipment sponsorships, every OEM targets the elite of the elite – those with more robust playing resumes. From a quantitative perspective, this group represents a higher-percentage wager. These are the equivalents of First Round draft picks and they get taken care of regardless of gender, college attended or their duration of stay. See: Jordan Speith, Leona Maguire.
Then, there's the "at large" population. These are players who are good enough to make a roster at a Division I school but have procured equipment through more traditional means during junior golf. Put bluntly, male players have a distinct advantage, and according to the current Division I coaches I spoke with, are routinely provided OEM (TaylorMade, PING, Titleist, and Callaway) equipment, free of charge, while members of a collegiate team.
Conversely, female players at the same institutions, at best, can hope for reduced prices via collegiate pricing programs. There are, however, times when coaches call in favors from other sources to gain access to equipment for players, but again, these are exceptions and not indicative of a well-balanced system. With that, I'm not suggesting the system has any moral obligation to treat male and female athletes equitably, and that's what makes this move by PXG noteworthy, if not entirely unprecedented.
Often, this is collegiate discounts are the same as those offered to high school players across the nation. In a strictly monetary sense, female Division I scholarship golfers are often treated the same as the local high school golf team – which speaks volumes regarding the equipment industry's view of female players in so far as their collective ability to provide exposure and bring value to the brand is concerned. I don't believe any company purposely excludes female golfers because of gender; rather it's a matter of resource allocation and the reality that a line has to be drawn somewhere. In this case, the delineation is largely gender-specific.
THE GENDER GAP
There's no revelation in suggesting men and women are not treated equally. In the arena of professional golf, prize money is dictated by how (and how much) revenue is generated by each tour. The PGA Tour (via TV contracts and corporate sponsorships) brings in nearly 10X the revenue of the Ladies PGA Tour, and thus the men play for much larger purses on a weekly basis.
Comparing players who won similar events, women received approximately 20% of what their male counterparts made.
The revenue-driven argument loses some of its luster in an examination of an event like the U.S. Open, which is put on by the USGA; an organization charged to act in "the best interests of the game for the continued enjoyment of those who love and play it." Given the USGA's non-profit status, one would think it would be committed equally to both men and women, but monetarily speaking, it's not even close. Men's US Open Winner, Brooks Koepka, took home nearly 2.5X what Park Sung-hyun did for winning the women's version of the same event. For those scoring at home that's 2.16 million vs. 900K.
Within the collegiate golf world, the differences are equally as stark. One coach I spoke with detailed the awkward, yet undeniable contrast of watching the men's team go through a fitting with a large OEM for its newest gear, while her girls practiced on the opposite side of the range. It would have been more bothersome if it wasn't so commonplace.
Another coach recounted her numerous conversations with players asking for equipment, which puts her in the position of trying to sell the idea that getting a significant retail discount is something special. However, the scores of Pro V1s and stacks of long brown boxes full of free equipment for the men's team sprawled all over the back of the office say pretty much all that needs to be said about the way things are.
At some point, the inequality becomes normalized and female golfers (and coaches) became resigned to the realities of lesser treatment. This is the backdrop against which PXG entered this conversation and when Bob Parson's stated “It is beyond me that the men’s and women’s golf teams are frequently afforded different levels of support,” his response conveys a moral imperative to work to level the playing field – or in this case, the tee box.
I reached out to numerous college coaches for this piece and unsurprisingly, only two replied, both women. The implicit message is this move by PXG meant more to women's programs because frankly, they needed it more.
Can you imagine asking a Division I football player to buy a helmet? It sounds ridiculous because it is. Why major OEMs provide equipment to one gender and not the other is treated as a matter of simple economics, but maybe that rationale won't' suffice any longer.
Should OEMs be required to provide equal support for men's and women's programs at the same institution? You tell us.