Michael Whan became Commisioner of the LPGA on January 4, 2010, and was immediately confronted with the effects of trying to renew and generate new tournament title sponsorships during a recession. At that time, the tour seemed to lack leadership and direction. Total official prize money for that year was $41.4 million, a decrease of more than $6 million from 2009. In 2010, there were 24 official tournaments, down from 28 in 2009 and 34 in 2008.
Whan, now 50, who, as an executive, had made a career in marketing for Proctor & Gamble, Britesmile, Inc., Mission-Itech Hockey equipment, Wilson Sporting Goods, and TaylorMade, turned the LPGA’s fortunes around with sweeping changes in policy and vision.
For 2015, the LPGA has 32 tournaments—17 in the U.S., eight in Asia, two in Canada, and five in other far-flung destinations—with $60.5 million in official prize money.
Total viewership on the Golf Channel was 17.2 million in 2014, up 47% from 2009, and 90% of this year’s events will be broadcast live, twice the 45% in 2010. The LPGA’s Board of Directors has recently extended Whan’s contract through 2020.
As the eighth commissioner of one of the most successful women’s sports organizations in the world, Whan has based his tenure, according to the LPGA website, on “enhancing business relationships, increasing exposure for the players, and maximizing the LPGA experience for fans.”
I interviewed Mike Whan in his office at LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach.
The Commish is a straight shooter and savvy. Most importantly, he has never lost sight of his two main targets: to grow both the LPGA and the game of golf.
NEGM: What induced you to become the Commissioner of the LPGA?
MW: The answer is probably “who” induced me, rather than “what.” When I first got the job offer, I turned it down. I wrote a letter to the LPGA Board and said, “As much as I would like to take this job, because it would be a dream for me, I don’t think I could do the job and still be the father and family man I need to be.” The Board’s chairperson, Dawn Hudson, former CEO of Pepsi Cola, understood my position but asked me to speak with one person before we parted company.
Charlie Meacham, Commissioner of the LPGA in the 1990s, called me. He said, “I read an article where you said the most important thing you want to do as a dad is to teach your kids to follow their dreams.” I said, “Yes, that’s true.” Charlie then said, “You told me this job would be a dream for you. You told me you want your kids to pursue their dreams. If you turn this job down, your kids are hearing every word you’re saying. And if you want your kids to follow their dreams, then you’d better lead by example.”
I discussed accepting the job with my wife Meg, who gave me her support, and then I told Charlie that I would call him once a week, and he’s been my mentor now for six years.
NEGM: What was your mandate for change from the LPGA Board of Directors when you took the position?
MW: I think if you asked several Board members, they would say, “Mike had a mandate for change.” I’m a change fanatic, and change usually comes with mistakes. I make more mistakes than the average leader by far, but I’m cool with that. What intrigued me about the job is that the Board wanted change. They knew that the old formula needed to be revamped; thus, the inertia against “new” was very low.
The LPGA was at a crossroads. It was half global, going international but not sure it should keep going. It was trying to sell international TV but not sure how far to go. It was not sure if the tour should play more overseas or less. We had language problems with people speaking six different languages but not one common language.
The Board was grappling with the current state of business and wanted somebody to say, “All right, let’s carve this path.” So knowing that I’m a change junkie, I thought I would be a good fit.
NEGM: What were your first actions in restructuring the LPGA?
MW: I joined an organization that had gone through a pretty bad patch before 2010: 10-11 tournaments had been lost, TV viewership was down, and articles were being written every day about the troubles of the LPGA. I had to change the culture, the environment in which the LPGA operated. So, I initiated a little CPR—Culture, People, and Rope.
The first thing I did was address the “culture,” isolating the negatives and emphasizing the positives of the LPGA administrative team. Then, I wanted to surround myself with “people” who, fundamentally, not only wanted to win but expected to win. Losing was not an option. Some people just could not accept the new culture, the intensity, the changes—they had to go. And I brought in people who are, quite frankly, team players used to winning. Finally, “rope” means, when I had the right team and a clear direction, I got out of their way—to give these talented people plenty of rope—and let them run on their own. Therefore, the culture changed quickly through our mindset and our decisions. Our initial success led to more success. I like to let my team think the future is limitless and let the team members bring me more good ideas than I could have thought of in the first place.
NEGM: What have you accomplished so far in your tenure?
MW: The Founders of the LPGA, 13 visionary women in 1950, knew they weren’t going to get rich, they knew they weren’t going to change how people felt about women’s golf, but they just might, if they were together for a long enough time, make golf opportunities better for the next generation. As you walk around this building, you’ll see signs on the walls that say, “Act like a Founder.” That means that we should do something, anything, to leave the game better for the next generation of young women.
And I’m proud that we’re leaving the game better than we found it. We’ve gone from having 4,000 girls a year enter this game through our Girls Golf program with the USGA to 50,000 this year. And that matters! The NGF [National Golf Foundation] data stated that 190,000 girls under the age of 16 joined the game for the first time, last year alone. So, along with other initiatives like Get Golf Ready, The First Tee, and Drive, Chip, and Putt, we are getting more girls into the game. I’m proud of that accomplishment.
The first question I received at my first press conference was about what most people considered our greatest negative, “What are you going to do about all the international influences on this tour?” I said, “Embrace them with open arms.” Most people thought the internationalness of the LPGA Tour was going to kill it. What everyone has learned six years later is that this global scope of the LPGA Tour is its greatest asset—not only why we’re alive but also why we are thriving. Learning how to become a global company and reaping the benefits are also two things we can be proud of. We sell our TV rights to 165 countries, whereas 15 years ago, we sold these rights to 12 countries.
The LPGA is not in the business anymore of trying to make money by running golf tournaments. We lose money, but we don’t care because each tournament is an opportunity for our members, and every time they play we sell those TV rights to 165 countries. And that’s the business of the LPGA.
I said at this first press conference that the LPGA would follow the Olympic model—to create an environment where the best players in the world in the primes of their careers want to come and play against each other. We create the stage, and the women put on an incredible home-town event every time they tee it up. And the world will watch. When the LPGA plays at its venues around the world, it becomes a country—not a local—event. It becomes a spectacle. And when we go to these countries, we leave a lasting impression upon the people. In America, we take it for granted when we play a sport that the world watches. It happens every week with up to five different sports.
NEGM: Specifically, what steps are you and the LPGA taking to “grow the game” for girls and women?
MW: “Growing the game” has to start at an early age, really before 15, and not with the Symetra or LPGA tours. We’ve got to make sure that girls, say at age 12, feel as comfortable on a driving range as I did when I was 12. What’s unique about Girls Golf that makes it the only program of its kind is that the girls learn the game in an all-girls atmosphere. We are making a difference in terms of getting girls interested in the game.
Tied into this is that the collaboration—that didn’t exist until recently—among the biggest leaders in the game has never been better among the USGA, PGA, R&A, European Tour, Augusta National, and LPGA. We get together quarterly to talk about growing the game, and that’s new news! Also, we are invested in and market each other’s programs. It’s really kind of neat.
Growing the LPGA Tour is a different animal. We bought the Symetra Tour [“Road to the LPGA” similar to the Web.com Tour] for two reasons: (1) If the player hadn’t yet made it to the LPGA Tour, we wanted to make sure the opportunity to play on a professional level didn’t go away. (2) Long term we want the Symetra Tour to become the LPGA’s “Q” School. It is run like the LPGA Tour, and the top-10 money winners now get cards to the LPGA, and the next 10 go directly to the final round of the “Q” School. We’ve moved almost all of our training and development programs to the Symetra Tour, with many of these programs taught by current and former LPGA players. This tour has really become the training ground for the LPGA.
With The Legends Tour, in April at the Chico’s Patty Berg Memorial event, we combined The Legends and the Symetra tours as a test market. We thought, “What if we played these tours together? Could it be better for both tours?” The Legends would have more opportunities to play in a bigger forum with more media coverage, and the Symetra players would interact with some incredible mentors. It was a great experience for everyone involved. We’ll do a few more of these down the road.
NEGM: Explain the events surrounding this year’s impressive first KPMG-sponsored Women’s PGA Championship at Westchester CC?
MW: The Women’s PGA Championship is 60 years old, the second oldest major in women’s golf [U.S. Open began in 1946]. I wanted to find a partner who could think long term for this LPGA Championship. So I made a phone call to Pete Bevaqua, CEO of the PGA of America, and said, “Let’s put on an event that celebrates women in this game. Let’s put our face of the brand on TV. I need your help because I think together we can bring in NBC and get the network exposure to get casual fans to see it, not just the general hardcore fans.”
Pete and I met, and we sketched out the concept of the Women’s PGA Championship. At the end of the meeting, we decided to take the idea to KPMG first, as they were looking for something big in golf to sponsor. KPMG signed up for a five-year deal with five-year renewals, and we were off and running. The purse went from $2.25 million to $3.5 million, and the entire 60-year-old major was elevated to a higher plane.
KPMG also insisted that the championship have impact outside the yellow ropes as well as inside them with the players. KPMG pushed us to create together the Women’s Leadership Summit, a catalyst to empower women on and off the golf course and a season-long platform to grow leadership skills for young women. On Wednesday of tournament week at Westchester CC, 300 women—100 of today’s leading executives and 200 of tomorrow’s leaders—attended the Summit to discuss content, tools, and networking that would encourage women executives to advance to the C-suite [titles that begin with C, like CEO, CFO, COO, CIO].
NEGM: Do you attend the tournaments? What are the major sponsors expecting for their support?
MW: I’m at almost every event for two days, usually Tuesday and Wednesday. Typically, on Tuesday, the title sponsor will bring in all its big customers for the evening “drawing” [pairing the pros with the amateurs] party, and Wednesday is the pro-am. I’ll play in about 25% of the pro-ams, sometimes with a customer we’re trying to sell or sometimes if a title sponsor wants me to play with one of their customers. If I’m not playing, I drive around in a cart and try to meet all the different groups. Sometimes a customer will become a sponsor because she or he realizes how much fun their customers would have playing with the pros, having dinner with them afterwards, and then watching the tournament. The LPGA offers a level of accessibility and interaction with professional athletes that no other sponsorship has.
One of the things I sell to sponsors is that we are very customized, willing to build a tournament around the sponsors’ specific goals. I have to make sure we deliver a tournament that delivers their businesses. When an LPGA player signs in for an event, she gets a Customer Profile Card that says, “What you need to know this week.” The card always has the same format. At the top it says, “3 Things we need from you this week” and tells the athlete what the sponsors are expecting from their sponsorship. The card tells who is writing the check this week, why they are sponsoring the event, and what they need to get from the event. The card includes “Be Social” media information and who the people are the players need to see and thank and where to write the thank-you notes.
Watch an LPGA player after I hand her a cardboard check. First person she’ll thank is the title sponsor. We thank the sponsors who pay us. That’s our deal as players.
NEGM: When did you take up golf? Handicap? Lessons?
MW: I started to play golf at age eight but didn’t take it up seriously until I was in high school and college. I was caddying when I was 11 and 12, and then I became a bunker boy at 13 and 14, pulling weeds out of bunkers. Then I worked summers full time on the grounds after that until I graduated from college. I’d work 5:30-2:30 and then I’d play golf until dark. I played football and baseball and did not play on the golf teams, but I played all summer while working on the course. I loved the game. Golf courses have always been special to me. My current handicap is seven, and I have no shortage of lessons. The women will see me play in the pro-ams and offer on-the-spot advice. I’ll also get texts from players in adjoining fairways offering help.
NEGM: Favorite golf courses?
MW: The Country Club in Brookline, Foxwoods, Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Augusta National, Mission Hills, Kingsmill, and the RTJ Golf Trail at Magnolia Grove in Mobile.
NEGM: Who would be in your Dream Foursome of today? Of any time period?
MW: No question, my three boys, Austin, 21; Wesley, 18; and Connor, 17.
Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Washington, and Nelson Mandela, three men who would give me 18 holes to learn a ton about leadership.
NEGM: What would you like your legacy to be as the LPGA Commissioner?
MW: Three facets. (1) That I left the game better for the next generation of girls. I want the opportunities to be better than they were before because of our team. (2) That I will be remembered for my love of this game and the people who played it. I do love the women on the LPGA and the Teaching and Club Professional Division. That’s important to me. (3) Finally, that I was willing to take chances and to make mistakes as I changed the direction of the LPGA Tour. There is zero chance of having my first legacy come true if I am not willing to take chances. I have had to be willing to lose my job if I wanted to make a mark. If my job as Commissioner lasts another day or another five years, that’s OK because our team has had the guts to try to make the LPGA better.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?