News & Opinion

Whan predicts 'big move' for women's golf

Pebble Beach 7th Hole
Pebble Beach’s 7th hole has mystified generations of golfers, who hit anything from a wedge to a driver based on the wind at the iconic seaside par 3.

After the fallout regarding instructor Hank Haney and his recent remarks about women’s golf (“If Haney feels remorse, next step is key,” May 30), I realized that many of us who cover the sport have little understanding about what is happening with the LPGA and how the tour is handling the issues brought about by Haney’s comments.

I had a chance to sit down with LPGA commissioner Mike Whan at the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach, Calif., and asked him about the women’s tour. The LPGA’s 10-year contract with Golf Channel expires this year, and the PGA Tour is negotiating a two-year extension that would sync both tours’ TV contracts. In 2010, Whan took over leadership of an LPGA in decline: 24 tournaments and a $41.4 million purse. This year, the women will compete in 33 events worth $70.55 million. Whan makes a compelling case for the future of the LPGA. Here is the edited version of that interview:

Alex Miceli: A lot of discussion came from the Haney incident. Was the controversy in itself a positive or negative for the LPGA, because people started talking about women’s golf?
 

6cb7bedc-db9a-4702-90e8-3693a4afd6bb_102x158.png
Mike Whan

Mike Whan: I guess you could go into the logic that any PR is good PR, but I'm not necessarily sure I buy into that. Unfortunately, it wasn't about a Lee or a last name. It was about dismissing the women's sport as not important, not interesting, and that's just a shame, especially at a time when things really couldn't be better for the LPGA.

AM: Can you talk about that idea of being better?

MW: We're playing for 50 percent more events; we're playing almost 80 percent more in purses. We went from having 120 hours of taped-delay television in 2011 to almost 500 hours – 93 percent live – in 2019. We went from selling our TV rights to 14 countries; now we sell our TV rights to 172 countries. Even if you wanted to be an LPGA fan back in 2010, the commitment level you would have had to make to be a fan would have been pretty difficult. We didn't play that much; we weren't on TV that much. When we were on TV, we were tape-delayed, and most parts of the country didn't have the LPGA. Today, you couldn't say that about any of those things. In the last three years, more companies, more revenue through sponsors have joined the LPGA than any three-year time in our 70-year history. A lot of good things are coming out of it. One is that they really love our diversity and uniqueness and the fact we come from all over the world. Back in 2010, when I told somebody we were going global, people thought that was a huge negative. Today, other sports are asking us about how to become more global. We're a model to follow. Because we're based in a country, we're not nomadic. We're based in America. For every event we added overseas, we added at least twice as many in North America. So even though we have gone global, our players come from all over. We're more committed to North America than ever before, and we're just televised all over the world. None of those things are negative. Do we have a few players that are learning English? Of course we do. But when I joined in 2010, if you walked on a driving range, you would see as many translators as you saw swing coaches. I haven't seen a translator on tour in five years. When I sit down on a plane and somebody looks at me and says, “God, nobody on your tour speaks English; I don't know any of those kids, and they're all the same,” I think that, Hey, that's a really great description of the LPGA in 2007, but you're just not where we are today. The people that write checks to sports TV, sponsors, fans, we're fine there.

AM: That's the question: That there's that perception about your players, to some extent, so how do you fix that?

MW: It's just a matter of exposure. We’ve just got to have more and more people see what we are. I can't solve the fact that there's three or four Americans in the top 15 in the world rankings. I don't control what happens. If there were 11 of the top 15 that were American, would playing in America and our American media be better? Yes. Would playing globally be better? No, it really wouldn't. The fact that there's eight or nine different countries in the top 15 or 20, that's really healthy for me because I'm selling the Olympics every week. You're going to see great young girls from all over the world that have incredible stories to get here. That's what I always think makes the Olympics great: prime of their career, from all over the world. Their stories to get here are unbelievable, and now let's see who is the best. And let the rest of the world watch.

AM: As journalists, we talk amongst ourselves about the lack of star power on the LPGA. Do you think a lack of star power hurts you?

MW: It makes it more difficult, especially if a bunch of media guys were having that discussion. They're definitely right. There's nothing easier than following a sport where there's one star, because if your star is Serena Williams, you get to know her; you get to know everything about her. You know all the back story. All you really have to focus on is her. When she doesn't play, you probably don't come to the event. It's like Tiger in his heyday. I always tell people, don't get too caught up in who is No. 1 in the world and how long she’s going to be there, because we don't get to control that anyway. If I get one breakaway star and she goes and becomes No. 1 in the world for the next 10 years, yeah, I'm going to rally behind her. It's going to be easier for me. Is the sport going to be better? I don't know. You're going to have a lot of tournaments that don't have her; I'm not sure how those sponsors are going to feel. You're going to have a lot of media that probably only cover her and nobody else; not sure if that's good for the sport. So, I can probably argue either way, but I would say I would rather follow the model of the NFL where everybody's got a regional superstar. If you grew up in Thailand, you follow the Jutanugarns [sisters, Ariya and Moriya]. If you grew up in Japan, you followed Nasa [Hataoka]. That's not bad for me. That may not be easy for every American media person to understand, but nothing wrong with me from a global sport.

AM: How big is this TV deal for you to grow the LPGA?

MW: It's as big as anything I've got on the plate. At the end of the day, we need the exposure and we need the revenue to grow our sport. I don't think there's any secret. You can look over at Jay [Monahan, the PGA Tour’s commissioner] and go, Hmm, with 90 or 100 million dollars coming in, you can solve a lot of problems. We for 70 years never really had that kind of opportunity. We're not tied to some other sport. We're not the women's affiliate of something else. We're not asking the NBA or NFL or the PGA Tour to write us a check to cover some difference. In terms of our sustainability and our potential to think bigger, I always told people, in my first 10 years, our dream was to build something that was rock solid. Our next 10 years is to build something as big as we could dream.

AM: Where do you foresee yourself with the gambling realm in the future?

MW: The world's going to bet on your sport, so you’ve got to get your head out of the sand. There's no option B. A huge percentage of sports gambling is in Asia. We have a huge following in Asia, so obviously we'll have some opportunities and some betting going on. Longer term – a couple of years, not 10 – we have got to figure out can we give some more in-game betting. In other words, could you follow three groups? Could you have multiple cameras and multiple scoring on three holes? Could 16, 17, 18 always be bet-able holes on the LPGA? I think all of those things are doable, but I'm not in a hurry. I want to make sure our sport's ready and our players are ready to handle sports betting. It is just like sponsorship; it is my responsibility to monetize that.

AM: A lot of discussions have come around the fact that the women don't get the same corporate support as the men. They're not playing for the same amount of money as the men. Is that fair? Yet, basic economics don’t seem to support that question.

MW: On the business side, I get it that we deliver one-fourth, one-fifth the eyeballs, and we're getting one-fourth to one-fifth the amount of sponsor dollars. I'm not sure about the chicken or the egg. I'm not sure if you gave me 42 weeks a year on network TV if I wouldn't give you a whole viable delivery, but no one's given us that head start, so we'll deal with that. I was a sponsor way before I was a commissioner. You pay for what you get, and we’ve got to deliver more if we want to play for more. Real changes in the male/female equality game didn't come because there's rate of return. Title IX was a decision, and as a result female athletics have changed. It didn't change because there was some great business dynamic that showed they had now reached a level. When I started working back in the early ’80s, telling somebody that you weren't going to pay her as much because she might get pregnant and leave made sense. It was a business decision. You would say that out loud in a business meeting. At some point, that became not only illogical but almost illegal, and I would just tell you the same things are going to happen in golf. We're going to continue to grow that gap and be delivering more than we have been. Separate from that, there's going to be a player or two or three who are just going to change the game because they want to. CME [the sponsor of the LPGA’s season-ending tour championship] took a first big step and said, Screw that. There's going to be a $1.5 million winner's check. In the next three to four years, somebody or two is going to say, You know what, Mike? I don't need to wait for the data. This is just the right thing to do, and I'm going to do it. Somebody is going to Title IX the LPGA, and when they do, the pace of change will be at a staggering rate. I don't know who that is – I don't have anybody I'm currently concocting in the back room with – but I can just tell you that history proves that I'm right here. I thought that might be what Augusta National would do. That's not the path they went, but I thought Augusta could say, starting tomorrow, there's a ladies Masters and they're playing for 10 million just like the guys, and from now on inequality in golf is over. It didn't happen that way. That's fine, but that's going to happen in golf, and when it does, we're going to have a shift-change moment; we're going to have a Title IX moment. I don't think you have to get to perfect economics to have those kinds of changes, because I've seen them happen. I see them happen all around the world, in all different countries as it relates to women in business, women empowerment. It's just every once in a while that somebody makes a big move, and it moves the yardstick for everybody. That's coming in women's golf.

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