A Conversation with LPGA Commissioner Whan: The Future of the LPGA

By: Nancy Berkley

It's Thursday morning. I'm up early and it's cold and very windy and the first foursomes in the LPGA Tour Championship are off at 7:00 a.m. The driving range at Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando is dark and illuminated with electric lights. The foursome I am following tees off at 8 a.m. and includes Morgan Pressel, one of the top players in the world, Ai Miyazato, who's in the running for the Rolex Player of the Year, and Azahara Munoz, the winner of the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year.

On Wednesday, the pro-am day that also involved some special press conferences, was really the highlight for me because I was able to spend one-on-one time with LPGA Tour commissioner, Michael Whan. I wanted to ask him some of the hard questions about where the LPGA is headed. For background, see my previous article on Cybergolf (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/new_strategy_emerges_for_lpga_finale_will_it_work).

In my time with Mike, I thought he came across as dedicated, energetic, focused and very smart. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

LPGA Tour Commissioner Michael Whan.JPG

NB: In your welcome message printed in the tournament program, your strategy comes across clearly. The LPGA will promote youth, talent and globalization. All the debating and controversy about foreign players is over. And, that's good. The LPGA is a "global" sport organization. The problem for me is that I can't think of another sport that has that strategy or vision.

MW: There are lots of consumer brands that do. [The commissioner spent some time at Proctor and Gamble - he knows consumer brands.] We are in business with companies that have a similar strategy as us - they are global brands. But I think you are right. In the sports world, the LPGA is unique. There are lots of teams that have international players but we are committed to globalization. There is no other sport association that basically has our qualities: an "Olympic" event with players from all over the world competing against each other almost weekly.

NB: But the fact that there are no other sports models like the global LPGA, does that mean that viewers really don't want it? And how can you market and promote this uniquely organized sport?

MW: In my experience, you can't effectively market a bad product, and you can't screw up a good product with bad marketing. What energizes me about the LPGA, is that our product is "good." It performs and is unique. Being global is a commitment. We know we have work ahead of us. We have to showcase our business. We have to get outside our home front - our comfort zone. And we have to be prepared to try new approaches and make some mistakes.

NB: How are you going to establish that "global" brand?

MW: The good news is that Mike Whan doesn't have to do it. That's already done. Next year come with me to Korea, Malasia, Taiwan and Japan. Tell me whether we are a global brand? [I'm going to hold him to that invite.] You were in the press room a little while ago with the top six players from five countries. There were seven cameras and 27 reporters and we will reach 51 countries. That doesn't cost us any marketing dollars. I don't need to have a billion-dollar marketing budget.

NB: But you still need sponsors' dollars. How does being global help you? For example, I don't see any sponsors that produce some of the pharmaceutical products that women all over the world use. Or in cosmetics - anywhere you travel there is a Nivea cream product, but no company like that sponsoring the LPGA.

MW: That's a fair question but you have to understand what our sponsors want. They are not looking for "advertising" to their end customer - although that's good too. Most of our sponsors are looking to us to provide a unique experience for their corporate customers, such as their suppliers and dealers. When Walmart and P&G sponsor a tournament and they get to invite the top executives of the companies they work with and we give them a fantastic experience with our players, that's what they are looking for. And that's the unique experience we deliver - not just with U.S. players but with players from all over the world on courses all over the world.

NB: I can appreciate your sponsor concept - makes sense. But, can you keep it going if you don't also deliver a fan base. I always think of the circle: TV viewers become golf players and more TV viewers - like a circle. Can you be sponsor-focused without being fan-focused. And how can you be fan-focused when a tournament - like this one at Grand Cypress - is televised at 7:30 pm on the Golf Channel. Seems like you have a fan problem in the U.S.

MW: You are exactly right. We are working on that. It's a problem we understand, but finding the solution is more difficult. I think that one of the problems is that the industry got kind of lazy media-wise because Tiger was always the story. They didn't have to work too hard or be too creative to get fan's attention. We have to work harder. As I see it, we are failing women on two major fronts. We are sitting out too many weekends. It's not that we are not on television (that's important), but that we are not in enough local markets with a tournament that may not be on the GC or networks. Our players have to be out front more.

NB: And, I'm always surprised that you are not able to find more PR opportunities. I was at the press conference with those top six players up for the Rolex Player of the Year. They were terrific. Why aren't they on David Letterman's show?

MB: Good question. We value our relationship with the Golf Channel. It's wonderful to have a partner like them when we both win together. But some people think that because we have this valuable contract with the Golf Channel that we can't go after appearances on the networks. That's not so. We can - and that's on our radar screen. I don't like to use the term "PR" - I like to think in terms of "awareness." We need more people to be aware of what the LPGA and what it and its players do. I often thought how neat it would be if Barbara Walters interviewed our players. It is something I'm thinking about and working towards.

NB: Now I'm going to change the subject - I can see we are running out of time and we keep saying "only five more minutes." I have this sense that golf is really good for women - keeps them healthy - posture, stability and balance. I know there aren't any formal studies yet except a recent Scandinavian study that did in fact suggest that golfers live longer, but why isn't the LPGA leading that research? You are the voice of women golfers. We need you.

MW: You have something there. It's true in my mom's case. She took up the game in her 50s and she's healthier than ever. I have to think more about that and the LPGA's role in that education.

NB: I have an experience I want to share with you. It was a decade ago but still haunts me. I was leading some panelists at the LPGA's 50th Anniversary celebration at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. Some of the founders of the LPGA were on the panel as well as current players. They were amazing and inspiring. I asked for questions and a woman stood up. She was a guest of an LPGA member and was a recreational woman golfer like myself. She was clearly moved by the inspiring history of the LPGA. She asked, "How can I be a part of this?" And none of the LPGA executives recognized the power of her message.

MW: Absolutely - it's a powerful question. We haven't thought much about "membership," but I'm with you on that. I was giving a speech a few months ago and about two-thirds of the audience were women. I related to them that one of the first things I did when I came to the LPGA was ask to see the original, historic mission of the LPGA. Well . . . there it was: To empower, embrace and educate women through golf. They were going to use golf to do inspire women. We have to get back there. My wife, my mom - most women - would want to be a part of an organization that inspires women. That's a great direction to move into.

NB: One of my issues with the golf industry is that it is made up of what I call "silo" brands. The PGA Tour, the PGA, the Champions Tour, the LPGA - you all act so independently. Why isn't there any cross-marketing. What would be bad about having the announcers at a PGA Tour event offer some highlights of coming LPGA events; or putting one of our LPGA players in the booth; or comparing Suzann Petterson's swing with Ernie Els? Any thoughts on that? Why can't you be the leader on this issue?

MW: I don't know if you can do it all the time. But I think you can create a few events. I have talked to Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, and I was beyond surprise and incredibly excited with his reaction. It was positive, and we are talking about some things we could do along those lines.

NB: What about the teaching division? There's lots of rumors that maybe the T&CP doesn't fit with the new global tournament-focused LPGA.

MW: Not so! We have a game plan - a vision. We use a term "Nice 3" - the 3 is in a circle like on a scorecard. But the 3 represents three legs of a stool - our core strength. One leg is our tournaments, another leg is our Foundation - which will be 100% focused on promoting girls, and the third is our teaching club professional. We need to create something for the T&CP that makes it bigger than their dues. That's on my plate.

NB: Last question - a fun one: If I could give you any celebrity that said he or she would help in whatever way you wanted to market and support the LPGA, who would you want? What would they do? Would you put Angelina Jolie in a Monday evening program or Tina Fey or Justin Timberlake?

MW: It's pretty rare that I get an interview question that just floors me. And, I have to tell you that floors me. My mind just went in a thousand different ways. I think maybe I might want someone that doesn't have a golf connection so people might say "Are you kidding me? That person is talking about golf?"

NB: Thanks for your time. You are energetic, impressive and smart. I look forward to interviewing you again this time next year. I think you and the LPGA will have very good report cards - and hopefully score cards, too.

For more information about the LPGA Tour Championship and live results, see www.lpga.com. The final rounds will be televised on the Golf Channel Saturday, December 4th, and Sunday, December 5th, at 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.