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‘It felt like the right time’: Why the LPGA self-funded a docu-series

Jin Young Ko hits off the tee during the CME Group Tour Championship in December. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

​​The LPGA Tour this week joined a growing list of sports leagues turning to documentaries to tell the stories of their athletes. After Formula 1 rose to even greater national prominence with the popularity of its Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” the PGA Tour announced a 2022 documentary series with Netflix earlier this month.

Instead of waiting for a partner to back a documentary of their own, LPGA Tour commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan opted to bet on the athletes herself. On Monday, the LPGA released the pilot episode of “LPGA All Access: CME Group Tour Championship,” a series offering a behind-the-scenes look at LPGA Tour action.

“We decided to fund a pilot on our own, and try to use that to develop more interest and have it be something that can be around other tournaments, or even season-long,” Brian Carroll, Senior Vice President of Global Media Distribution for the LPGA, told Just Women’s Sports.

Carroll has heard multiple pitches for an LPGA documentary over the years, but the ideas had never gotten the necessary funding to move past the initial stage. In one of his first meetings with Marcoux Samaan, who took over for 11-year commissioner Mike Whan last August, Carroll floated the possibility of filming the documentary themselves. The two started considering the options immediately.

“We feel like we have this really rich content to be able to share with the world,” Marcoux Samaan said at the CME Group Tour Championship in December. “That’s a part of our investment, too. How do we get that content out more aggressively?”

Inspired by the success of Netflix’s F1 documentary, the tour decided to work with toldright, a video production company led by former Golf Channel producer Adam Hertzog, with whom Carroll and Marcoux Samaan both had connections. After a debate over when to start filming, the group landed on the CME Group Tour Championship with full buy-in from the golfers. The series features the budding rivalry between CME champion Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda, cooking scenes and pickleball matches with two-time LPGA winner Gaby Lopez, 2021 Rookie of the Year Patty Tavatanakit’s preparations for the red carpet and more.

“We had the glitz and glamour of the Rolex Awards, the big money of $1.5 million on the line to the winner, and so many storylines that converged there that it just felt like the right time to do it,” Carroll said. “And it really paid off.”

The LPGA hopes that a sponsor will pick up the rest of the series after Monday’s launch. Now that they’ve built the foundation, Carroll and Marcoux Samaan think the storytelling could evolve in multiple ways, whether it’s filming around the majors or zeroing in on athletes’ careers.

The home-run scenario, of course, would be a full-season series, but the tour has had only preliminary discussions about the potential for a year-long deal. The PGA Tour’s Netflix partnership, which Carroll and Marcoux Samaan were unaware of when they initially decided to film at CME, can only help their case.

“We feel like the LPGA has so many great stories that this is the time to get into the documentary series,” Carroll said.

The rest of the three-part series will run on the LPGA’s website and YouTube channels at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Two of the players we spent a lot of time with were on the green celebrating with Jin Young Ko,” Carroll said. “So I don’t think we could’ve scripted it much better with the way it turned out.”

Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.