THE INTERVIEW – MIKE WHAN
John Huggan sits down with the LPGA Tour Commissioner to talk about the women’s game – where it has come from and its future.
To say that Mike Whan has been doing a good job is something of an understatement. Commissioner of the LPGA Tour since 2010, the 52-year-old American has overseen a huge growth in prizemoney and tournaments on the women’s game’s biggest circuit. In seven years, total purses have risen from US$40million to $67million; the number of events from 23 to 34. How has he done it? Whan sat down with John Huggan recently to discuss all of the above and his plans for the bright future of what is golf’s first truly World Tour. Let’s get right to it. You’ve been the head of the LPGA for eight years now. How are you doing?
[laughs] Nothing that sleep can’t cure. I’m enjoying myself. I like the players and the growth we’ve had. It’s taxing physically, but that is the same for the players. None of us are flying in private jets. So physically it is taxing, but emotionally it is rejuvenating. And what about the business side of things? Are you where you want to be at this stage?
Unfortunately for me, I explained in 2010 where I wanted to be in four or five years. That was 32 events. We’re at 36 now. I wanted to get to $60m in total prizemoney and we are beyond that. So the good news is we are ahead of our objectives. We have also reached 500 hours of television annually, from a base of 200. My target was 300. Plus, we have gone from 60 percent tape-delayed to 90 percent live. Are those the main targets? More money, more tournaments, more TV? Is it that simple?
My main objective at the start was simply letting my members play. I told them I wasn’t going to worry about what they were playing for, or what the TV deals are. Let’s just play. Back then, whether you were a player or a fan, it was hard to love the LPGA. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But the players were not playing enough to be competitively sharp. And we weren’t regular enough for the fans to count on us. We weren’t filling the need for either camp.
Once we started playing regularly, the money started to take care of itself. I have never in my eight years sat across from a sponsor and told them I needed them to come up with a bigger purse. With more
tournaments came more competition to be the best on the schedule. So the money took care of itself.
Objective number two was delivering better television to our fans. We had to give them a better product to watch. I don’t mean scoring; I mean being on regularly at times the fans could rely on. Week in and week out. Then we had to sell out TV rights to 150 countries, not 15 countries. No Tour makes money at events these days. Over a season, we lose more money than we make on golf tournaments. But the TV money means we make a profit. Especially when we are now in 175 countries.
Don’t get me wrong though. Those were just foundational goals. We haven’t “made it.” We’re like any business – if you are standing still you are going backwards. All we’ve done so far is build the foundation. You have an incredibly international cast of players. There are good and bad aspects to that for an American-based tour. What are they as you see them?
There are no bad aspects. When I arrived I told the players “growth” was a six-letter word and the “W” stands for “World Tour … get over it.” We are worldly. And we’re not going back to the 1970s when the players drove to events that were 85 percent US-based.
If we want the best to play each other every week, we have to follow the Olympics, not a regional US Tour.
The downside of our goal circuit is that the changes have maybe come too soon and too fast for our fan base. But the best sporting event in the world is the Olympics. They have figured it out. They put on an event that is so good the best in the world all strive to get there. It’s a hometown event open to everybody. And that’s what we try to do every week.
What I see happening is reassuring. In America there are Ai Miyazato fan clubs. That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. So it’s not a problem commercially that so many of the best players are not American?
Oh, that bothers Americans. They want to be the best. But it’s not a problem for me. I say to sponsors I can deliver an All-American tour if that is what they want. But you know who wants to watch that? Americans. If I did that, sponsors would be quick to complain. An All-American event in America provides only one-third of the value. They don’t want that. They want 175 countries watching and big ratings in Korea and China and Japan and Taiwan. And to get those, you need the best players in the world competing.
So the only challenge for us, as the first truly “World Tour”, is time. For some fans – and some media – it will take time for them to catch up.
In 2010 being so international was seen as your biggest weakness. Now it is our greatest strength. And everyone knows that, to the point where I get other tours in other sports asking me how we pulled this o.
We’re not that smart of course. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. But when I look at how much money the NFL and the NBA have spent trying to be global – 100s of millions of dollars – we do ok selling to our 175 countries. Should you continue to be based in America?
I want to be like our sponsors. I want a global brand. But I also want to have a home. I look at tennis and find it to be a little nomadic. Players play from their homes. So it’s not really a Tour. It’s a bunch of individuals flying in from all over every week. Then they go home.
The dierence is that most of our players move to America, where we still have 60 percent of our events. So we are a tighter group. When we fly home, we fly home together. Your scheduling strikes me as a bit allover-the-place. Does it make sense to you?
That’s a goal of ours. We do travel a lot. Maybe too much. But I don’t have the leverage that the PGA Tour has. I can’t say to sponsors, “here’s your date fellas.” But we are getting there. In the last couple of years our schedule has made more sense. And that will continue in the coming years. The LET isn’t doing too well at the moment. Is there any move for you to swallow them up, or help them out?
I have made it clear to them that we are here to help them in any way we can. We’re having dialogue about that.
But I will say that my goal of giving women the opportunity to play golf for a living has a border round it. I’ve said that to my board. And I’ve said it to the LET. I don’t think I run a US Tour. I run a global tour. And that works
so much better when there are really strong regional tours. The players need somewhere to compete on the way up. What would or could you do to help the LET?
I would invest heavily in building 10 more full-field LET events. I wouldn’t care how much they played for. I wouldn’t care if they were on TV. I’d get their members playing. Once we have those events, purses will increase and TV will step up. But you can’t get ahead of that goal. I’ve looked at the winning scores on the LPGA Tour. They are quite incredible. The average winning score through the first five months is 17-under-par. That makes me wonder about the strength of the courses and how they are being set-up. Are they too easy?
I don’t want more dicult. I certainly don’t want to watch players grinding away trying to make par on every hole. I’m not saying that.
I know. But I deal with a lot of course owners. They all want a US Open-style course. They want me to set-up their course so that one-under par wins. But that’s not what I want, even if that is what they believe the best courses are.
What is fun is watching the best players in the world play their best. I’m not setting it up so that 20 under wins. But that is what you are getting in many weeks.
I want the course to be about 6,600-yards and may the best player win. Isn’t the ideal a bit of everything you just mentioned?
Maybe. But what we need to get over is the notion that majors have to be really hard.
Look at Royal Birkdale this year at The Open Championship. It was a phenomenal event. And if the only negative I hear afterwards is the winning score was too low, I don’t care. That’s just silly and the view of those who have been around too long and are stuck in history. I mean, who gives a shit? The golf was phenomenal. The players loved it. And the fans loved it too. We should focus on that. We should deliver great golf for the people who want to watch it and not worry about contriving a winning score. But when the winning scores get as low as we have seen on the LPGA this year, are you really providing the variety and the challenge required to identify the best players? They are going to find it harder to separate themselves in a wedge and putting contest.
Could be. It doesn’t sound like I’m going to talk you into this. Maybe not. But it’s my job to stimulate debate here.
[Laughs] Fair point. But I really don’t care what the winning score is. Sometimes the rough grows thick, sometimes it doesn’t. Whatever, I’m not stressing over it. Okay, moving on. Why don’t you have a major in Asia?
I don’t have an opportunity to put one there. Not yet. Plus, that would mean we’d have six. And people have made enough fun of the fact we have five. So I’m not going there.
Besides, people who follow the Tour would argue that we have majors in Asia. They don’t get called majors, but standing on the 18th tee in Korea or Kuala Lumpur or China the events have a major feel. But I can’t just start sprinkling major dust everywhere.
Having said that, if I had three majors drop o the schedule, at least one of the replacements would be in Asia. Do you worry about the Korean LPGA or Japanese LPGA cornering the Asian market before you?
Not really. A few years ago we went to Thailand and no one there was playing golf. Now we have nearly a dozen Thai women on Tour. And when we go there now there are 30,000 girls watching.
We are the best Tour currently, so our responsibility is to spread the word. We can’t be global from our desks. If we leave those countries better than we found them, we’ve done a good job. Okay, last question. Why has Korea produced so many good women players and are only now coming up with a few men? Any theories? I’m not sure I know any more than anyone else. All I do know is that, if you are a young Korean girl with athletic ability you will be steered to golf quickly … or ice skating [laughs]. So they get the best of the best early. No other country can say that. I’m just glad they are making our Tour such an attractive product for sponsors.
Whan chats with one of the LPGA Tour’s major drawcards, Lydia Ko.
Whan says the strong Korean presence on the LPGA Tour is attractive to sponsors.
The launch of the HSBC Women’s Champions was the first steps into Asia for the LPGA.