BELLEAIR, FLORIDA | There is power in numbers. That’s why Gainbridge, a company involved in supporting female athletes and elevating women’s athletics – 40 percent of the company’s annual marketing spend is steered toward women’s sports – took three events scattered around the globe last week and brought them together as one.
They called it Parity Week. And it packed some power.
Helping to celebrate women and sports, Parity Week by Gainbridge centered around three flagship events and three very well-known athletes who served as acting hosts. The Billie Jean King Cup by Gainbridge Finals, known as the “World Cup of Women’s Tennis,” was staged in Seville, Spain, hosted by tennis great Billie Jean King. King was thrilled to see that the winners were paid a sum equal to what the men’s winners take home in the Davis Cup.
In Arizona on Tuesday and Wednesday, Women in Motorsports North America presented a two-day summit titled “Women with Drive III – Driven by Mobil 1” that was co-chaired by Lyn St. James at Phoenix Raceway. St. James made her name in a predominantly men’s sport, driving cars that fly, becoming the 1992 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.
The goal of Women with Drive III was to tell the story of motorsports and the many opportunities that could be filled by women. It once was fairly accepted that the main entry for a woman in motorsports was only through a father who worked in the industry. (Though St. James said it was her mother who got her into racing.) There were 400 attendees at the summit, and the event was live-streamed to allow many more to participate.
The golf piece of the Parity Week puzzle was filled by a re-energized event called The Annika driven by Gainbridge at Pelican, held at Pelican Golf Club on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It also kicked off its tournament week with a summit that brought together leaders from all varieties of business. Between the golf and tennis events, 180 female athletes competed for prize funds of almost $13 million. That’s progress.
Pelican Golf Club owners Dan Doyle Sr. and son Dan Jr. oversee a fourth-year LPGA event near the end of the schedule that pursues a simple yet noble goal: How can we be the absolute best? The Doyles (and executive director Marci Doyle, no relation, who for years ran the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational) have talked about becoming the Masters of women’s golf. Their tourney formula has gone something like this: Start with a strong and well-manicured golf course (Beau Welling restored a 1920s Donald Ross original just a few years back); offer a lucrative purse ($3.25 million, which falls behind only the majors and this week’s CME Group Tour Championship); and sprinkle in a loaded field (nine of the top 10 players in the world). The big names were there.
“These big events like this, these push our other events to raise the bar. The number of events we have over $3 million that aren’t majors compared to two years ago, I think we’re over double where we were two years ago. Women’s golf is moving in the right direction. It’s just ... we need more people like this to continue to step up.”
With such a solid foundation to build upon, here’s what you might do to elevate the proceedings: Mix in a GOAT. Annika Sörenstam, who exudes excellence – a winner of 72 LPGA titles, 10 of them major championships – officially joined the team last week. Her namesake Annika Foundation is the tourney’s beneficiary. To provide a small sampling of perspective on how many lives Sorenstam has touched in the 16 years of her foundation’s existence, consider: Of the 120 players in the field, nearly half (57) had taken part in some sort of junior, amateur or college event put on by the Annika Foundation.
The players lucky enough to compete at the Annika realize they are part of something special.
“It’s tremendous,” said Stacy Lewis, the U.S. Solheim Cup captain who has worked diligently to narrow the gap in purses between men and women in golf. (Women’s purses were a hot topic at a midweek player meeting, and we’re not talking Louis Vuitton.)
“These big events like this, these push our other events to raise the bar,” Lewis said. “The number of events we have over $3 million that aren’t majors compared to two years ago, I think we’re over double where we were two years ago. Women’s golf is moving in the right direction. It’s just ... we need more people like this to continue to step up.”
Leela Srinivasan is the CEO of Parity, a company that financially backs more than 900 female athletes taking part in more than 75 sports, from golf to tennis to motorsports, to American football and weightlifting. She says that the bolstered support by Gainbridge and Parity not only creates a great narrative across sports, but a shining example she hopes that other deep-pocketed sponsors will see and follow.
“I think you’ll agree this feels like a very timely conversation,” Srinivasan said. “People are really talking about 2023 as the year of women’s sports. We’ve seen incredible growth and interest. We’ve seen a surge in attention this year.”
Listening to King, who will turn 80 this month, is a startling reminder of just how long and how tough this fight has been. Not long ago, she commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the famed “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that pitted King against Bobby Riggs. So that five decades do not fade the memory, here’s the significance of the moment that King created when she beat Riggs. For perspective, 53 million viewers worldwide tuned in to the Super Bowl in 1973; there were 90 million – 90 million! – worldwide viewers who watched King beat Riggs in three sets that year.
Hard to believe that was 50 years ago, but it was a significant steppingstone. At the time, King said women were not allowed to apply for their own credit cards. The Battle of the Sexes and such moments in time represent smaller victories and progress toward a bigger goal.
Sörenstam looks at her newly named golf tournament, and an empowering event such as the women’s summit at Pelican where she spoke, where leaders were sharing stories, and views growth. She sees progress. Better days await ahead, even though she is quick to point out that she and others feel nowhere close to the finish line.
As great as her opportunities have been, rising from a small country (Sweden) to become the best golfer in the world, maybe the greatest ever in the women’s game, Sörenstem hopes that her teenage daughter will have opportunities in sports, or in business, that are even greater. She hopes that the young kids who joined her Share My Passion Clinic on Saturday one day will share her passion. Girls ages 6-14 are asked to write letters to other girls their age telling them why they love golf.
“At the end of the day,” Sörenstam said, “we’re here to provide an inspirational experience, so that covers everybody. I think we just want to do it right. I know that I have partners that feel the same way.”
The Annika capped off a week of high-level female competition known as Parity Week.
Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images