Mike Whan saw what the LPGA ought to embrace before anyone else did in this new, shrinking world.
Give him credit; his vision was transformative.
It’s really how the LPGA’s eighth commissioner turned what was perceived as the tour’s biggest weakness - too many emerging Asian players with unfamiliar names - into an asset.
With the LPGA preparing to go to Australia next week and then on to its first Asian swing through Thailand and Singapore, the tour’s international appeal will be on full display.
Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko will make her 2017 debut as the headliner at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, just north of her New Zealand home.
Rolex world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn will be the featured attraction the following week, in her native Thailand.
Getting Whan to take credit for this sea change in thinking isn’t easy, given his habit of deflecting to his team, but if you push him . . .
“I started talking about being global the minute I got here, because I think I saw the future when a lot of other people were focused on the past,” said Whan, who is beginning his eighth year as the LPGA commissioner. “I still get people who remember the LPGA in 1985 and are wondering when it’s coming back. I see the front of the tunnel, and I’m not focusing on the back of the tunnel. The front side’s pretty lucrative.”
The LPGA's Korean TV contract is still the LPGA’s top revenue source, according to tour officials.
After Whan was hired late in 2009, he announced he wasn’t going to take over for 100 days. He spent that time studying the tour.
He calls it the “Listen, learn and lead” method.
What did Whan learn before officially taking charge on Jan. 4, 2010? That the tour had an archaic sense of itself.
Whan saw a business model based on the LPGA “trying to make a buck or two,” putting on mostly U.S.-based tournaments and collecting dues from tour and teaching members. That model, Whan believed, was actually “one of the barriers to really going faster.”
So Whan imagined remaking the way the tour thought of itself: “I remember saying to my board and my players, 'I don’t know if anyone realizes it, but we’ve moved past that model. We are a global television and media property. We are no longer a tournament and dues collecting company. We are a global media property and we have to figure out the key things we need to do to take that to the next level.
“'It doesn’t matter if we make or lose money on tournaments and memberships. That’s not really our business. Our business is to put on tournaments so we can create TV the world wants to watch, and create opportunities that are worldwide opportunities.’”
This reimagined business model helped rebuild the tour from a withering entity with 23 events and $40 million in prize money in 2011 to a more robust operation with 34 events with a record $67 million today. There were seven Asian-based title sponsors in 2011, and 14 today.
Charlie Mechem, the LPGA’s commissioner from 1990-95, said Whan focused quickly on the international challenges the tour presented after becoming commissioner.
“We talked quite soon after he accepted the job about this very issue,” said Mechem, whose reign ended three years before Se Ri Pak sparked the explosion of Asian interest in women’s golf. “I was impressed that Mike understood right away the enormous potential and untapped opportunity in Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Rather than turn his back on it, he embraced it, and I think he’s largely driven away the criticism that was being leveled at the time.”
Rob Neal, president of the LPGA Tournament Owners Association, remembers the concerns international growth brought to some segments of the North American tour and how Whan stepped so decisively into that issue.
“It took almost no time for Mike to come to the conclusion that the LPGA was, in fact, irreversibly international,” Neal said. “After he did all his research and talked to all the key constituents and considered all the different angles, he stood up like a good leader and just said, 'We are international. Get over it.' That really did kind of reset everyone’s thinking, so it was like, 'Quit fighting it. It’s happening, it will continue to happen, so let’s embrace it.'”
And Whan reached out to international businessmen, bringing them in to sponsor new American and international events. He also struck up more partnerships with international tours, creating more co-sanctioned events with the Ladies European Tour and Asian tours.
“We had five different major winners from five different countries last year,” Whan said. “We finished the year with the top five players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings from five different countries. We had 45 different countries teeing it up at Q-School last year. We have rookies from India, Iceland, Ecuador and Belgium joining the tour this year. In the men’s and women’s Olympics, the six medalists were from six different countries. If there was ever a time to talk about how borderless the game is, this is it.”
This year’s LPGA season opener, the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, was watched by 524,000 viewers, making it the most viewed regular-season LPGA telecast in Golf Channel history (this despite being tape-delayed).
While the leaderboard was American-dominated in the Bahamas, Whan says it almost doesn’t matter anymore. In fact, he says the “borderless” nature of the game is showing up more and more in LPGA viewership.
“In 2016, unique viewers of LPGA events were up nearly 40 percent on NBC and Golf Channel,” Whan said. “If you take out the Olympics, we’re still up nearly 30 percent. And that’s in a year when only two Americans won.”
Whan says despite those TV numbers, he still hears criticism that the reduced number of American victories is a stumbling block.
“I love it when the flags are shown on Golf Channel, and I hate it at the same time, because too often fans see a player as a flag, and she isn’t a flag,” Whan said. “She might be a twenty-something superstar. I love the fact that our players come from all over the world, but when you only see a flag, I think you miss something. It’s a matter of getting to know them, getting to know their personalities. These kids are hard to dislike.”
Whan sees there’s still work to do implementing his vision, but it’s only going to continue to expand opportunities to grow the women’s game.
“Our transformation into a global media property is still clearly in process,” Whan said. “It just takes time.”