News & Opinion

Europe faces crossroads after Solheim rout

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – The future of the Ladies European Tour seems to be in the hands of Keith Pelley and Mike Whan.

Over the years, the men’s European Tour and the LPGA have approached the struggling LET about some type of collaboration, but never jointly. According to a report by Golfchannel.com, Pelley and Whan, chief executives of the European Tour and the LPGA, respectively, have met with the LET and agreed to work together in developing a relief package to restore the LET’s financial health.  

If the 16½-11½ drubbing that Europe sustained against the U.S. in the Solheim Cup on Sunday is any indication, the LET needs not only to get its financial house in order but produce players who can compete against America’s best in the biennial matches (scores: http://bit.ly/1zkYSEX).

“We lost a lot of tournaments in the financial crisis, and we kind of shifted eastwards to tournaments in Asia,” Mark Lichtenhein, the LET’s interim chief executive, said Sunday at Des Moines Country Club. “The girls obviously want to play in Europe, so [we’re] just trying to rebuild in Europe at the moment. There's a lot going on, a lot of good conversations, particularly the early part of the schedule.” 

A former European Tour executive, Lichtenhein took over on an interim basis earlier this month when Ivan Khodabakhsh was dismissed amid player dissatisfaction and the loss of longtime LET sponsor ISPS Handa.

The LET, which conducted 28 tournaments in 21 countries nine years ago, will play only 15 events this season. According to a recent report in The Times newspaper of London, the LET is on the brink of collapse, with losses of nearly $1.5 million in 2014. The LET dismissed the report as “highly inaccurate,” without elaboration. 

With Europe having emerged from the financial crisis, the LET is in a better position to secure sponsors with ties to the continent.

“We have got a lot of interest all over Europe,” Lichtenhein said of the ongoing discussions with potential sponsors. “We just need to find the right formula. It's not necessarily about live TV on all our events. It's finding the right model that works in each country.”

Pelley understands the sponsorship landscape in Europe. Since taking over as the European Tour’s chief executive in April 2015, he has invigorated the tour with new sponsors and innovative products such as GolfSixes, a six-hole match-play tournament featuring two-man teams from 16 countries.  

Pelley, whose background includes marketing and media at Rogers Media in Canada, wants additional programming to promote and sell.

“The LET is something that we have expressed interest in for some time,” Pelley said last month at the British Open. “We have not undertaken any type of a) due diligence or b) any strategic evaluation of not only the LET but how it would fit with the European Tour. The only reason that it would make sense is if we could somehow commercialize the LET with the European Tour and it made sense for both sides.”

Beyond sponsorship and prize money, the LET will need to find a way to field a stronger team for the Solheim Cup, its biggest revenue generator.

Since entering Sunday singles in Germany two years ago, the Europeans have won only 15 of 40 points. The U.S. has won two consecutive Solheim Cups and five of the past seven in a biennial series that the Americans lead, 10-5.

Europe’s qualifying system did not include Catriona Matthew, who replaced the injured Suzann Pettersen this week. One week shy of her 48th birthday, Matthew won three points in four matches, ranking second only to teammate Anna Nordqvist in points. The LET needs to review how it selects players, but captain Annika Sorenstam didn’t rank qualifying at the top of her list of concerns.

“I think the European Tour has bigger things to worry about than the point system at this time,” Sorenstam said.

Matthew agreed.

“Annika said it perfectly there,” she said. “We need to digest this result first and let things settle, and perhaps in a few months they can look into different things.”

Matthew said the talent pool is deep enough to compete with the Americans. 

“I don’t think the issues the tour is having has anything to do with the standard of play,” Matthew said. “There are a lot of good European players coming out – a few Scandinavians, some French ones. I think the talent is there. They just need to get them tournaments to play in.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli