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News & Views from LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan
It's the final round of the 2012 CME Titleholders LPGA Tournament at the Twin Eagles Golf Club in Naples, Fla. I am having lunch with Mike Whan, the Commissioner of the LPGA, for our annual interview. The Titleholders is the last tournament of the season so it's a good time for him to reflect and to offer some hints about next season.
Commissioner Mike Whan with 2012 Rolex Player
of the Year, Stacy Lewis,
It's also at this tournament that the season's awards are presented, and it's Mike's favorite night of the year. This year, Stacy Lewis, an American who wore a back brace for scoliosis for most of her teenage years, received the prestigious Rolex Player of the Year award. Mike anticipated that the evening would be powerful and convinced the Golf Channel to tape it. Stacey's acceptance speech is not to be missed. Tune in or tape it when it is aired as a special event this coming Thursday, November 29th, on the Golf Channel at 7:30 P.M. EST.
Each year that I interview Mike there is more to talk about. (See previous interviews at www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf.) Now in his third year as commissioner, he's no longer a rookie. He told me that he doesn't want to be known as the "Mr. Fix-It-Commissioner" who picked up the pieces of a troubled LPGA and breathed some life back into it. He's thinking long-term. Here's our conversation.
Nancy Berkley: I listen to the LPGA tagline - "Why It's Different Out Here" - help me understand what that means.
Commissioner Mike Whan: First and what really sets us apart and makes us different is that our players are much more approachable than players in other sports. It's not just that we sign more autographs, which we do. Our players are really engaged with our sponsors and with our fans. [Mike pulls out his cell phone.] Let me show you something. I'm copied on texts that our players send to Terry Duffy, the CEO of CME (Chicago Mercantile Exchange), thanking him for his sponsorship of the Titleholders tournament. I know for a fact that one hundred percent of our players have thanked Terry for CME's support. And they do that for all of our sponsors.
NB: I was expecting a different answer - I thought you would begin by explaining that the LPGA is different because of its global strategy.
MW: I'm getting to that. It is a completely different sports experience when you come to an LPGA event because we are a global sport. In fact, I believe that the LPGA is the future of sport. Other sports are trying to be more global but with the LPGA it's not just hanging a banner on a billboard or having one or two foreign players. Our players are really integrated with our sponsors and our fans. The global strategy is at our core and we were there first. That's still news. Unfortunately, when you are first, you make mistakes first also.
NB: I'm going to press you on this: Are you a global golf tour or a U.S. golf tour?
MW: We are really like any global business. We have a business and a home. For example, our sponsor, CME, touches everyplace in the world, but CME is grounded in Chicago at their corporate headquarters. We want to be sure that the LPGA has a "home base" and we do. The U.S. is where we live. Our headquarters are in Daytona Beach, Florida, our TV production is in the U.S., and it's where we play the majority of our events. And most of our LPGA players live where we play the majority of our events. And that's why many of our foreign players from Korea and China, for example, have homes in Florida. Bottom line: The LPGA's home is in the U.S.
NB: Changing topics: It's just about a year ago that Symetra, an insurance and benefits company based in the state of Washington, signed on to sponsor the LPGA's developmental tour. Now that the LPGA has the Symetra Tour, will you do away with Q-School?
MW: Lots of people are asking me about this because there is talk of the PGA Tour doing away with their Q-school. That wouldn't make sense for us. Right now the top10 players on the Symetra Tour get automatic membership into the LPGA. That's why the Symetra Tour is called "the road to the LPGA." But, going forward, my plan is that we have a mix: Two-thirds of our new players will come from the Symetra Tour and one-third from Q-school.
When the LPGA bought the women's developmental tour four or five years ago and before my time with the LPGA, I think that people thought there was a natural synergy between the LPGA Tour and the developmental tour. But, the synergy wasn't there and wasn't natural. About 18 months ago - mid-2011, I thought it was time to refocus on our developmental tour and that's when we were fortunate to have Symetra become its sponsor. We also were observing that players from our Symetra Tour were performing better on the LPGA Tour than those coming up from our Q-school. That set us thinking. There's a lot of professional development that goes on in the Sympetra Tour. That's where our players learn to build relationships with other players as well as fans and learn other key skills such as hiring and firing caddies. If you are looking for news: Next season you will see an expanded Symetra Tour that will be more integrated with the LPGA Tour.
NB: Now let's talk about your players. If I were to survey all the LPGA Tour players and ask them what has been best about this last season, what do you think I would hear?
MW: You should really survey the players because I can only guess and hope what they would say. But I'll try. First, I think they would say that they are playing more and playing for bigger purses. Secondly, I think they would say that they like the pacing of our schedule: Three weeks on and then a week off; or, four weeks on and then a week off. Historically, that was the type of pattern that the LPGA had. I myself like to take a week off every three or four weeks to refresh myself. I think our players also recognize the increase in TV coverage of LPGA events. In 2010, people were thinking the LPGA was in a lot of trouble. Don't get me wrong, we still have work to do. But in the U.S. our TV viewership is up 74 percent.
NB: Why do you think that TV viewership of the LPGA has increased here?
MW: In 2010, we got started with the Golf Channel. That was the good news. The bad news was that 60 percent of the coverage was tape-delayed - which means watching an event that already happened. The Golf Channel was trying to figure out where the LPGA fit into their schedule. This year, 92 percent of the coverage of LPGA events during the week is live and only 8 percent tape-delayed. And on the weekends, 100 percent of LPGA coverage is live.
But another big factor was NBC's purchase of the Golf Channel. After the merger, there was a two-day seminar between NBC and the Golf Channel all about how you tell the "story" of athletes. NBC has lots of experience covering sports. They are masters at storytelling based on years of covering the Olympics. The result was that we learned that our global players are just as interesting as our U.S. players. But I don't want our LPGA Tour to just live on the Golf Channel. Now we need to spread the stories of our players and our message and figure out how to get five or six network exposures for the LPGA. That's my problem and I'm working on it.
NB: The Olympics in Rio in 2016 should be terrific network exposure for the LPGA. Don't you agree and doesn't it bother you that the players won't be wearing a LPGA logo?
MB: I don't need the logo. If a viewer falls in love with Anna Nordqvist in the Olympics playing for Sweden, the only place that our U.S. viewer can watch Anna is on the LPGA Tour. Anna will carry our LPGA banner even if she doesn't wear our logo. Golf is different than many other Olympic sports, such as gymnastics or swimming. Viewers and fans don't get to see those Olympic star athletes at other venues. Not so for the golfers. Guys already have some big media stages like the Masters and the Ryder Cup. But for the LPGA Tour, the Olympics will be the grandest media stage the LPGA has ever been on. That I promise you will be news.
NB: What about the format for the Olympic golf competition? There is already discussion about team play versus individual stroke play. Do you have a preference?
MW: There is merit to both and glad I won't be making that final decision. I think there is incredible opportunity for women's golf to showcase players playing for countries in a team format. But I recognize that team play may not always showcase the very best player - the gold-medal winner. I think you will see fairly soon from the LPGA that every so often we will showcase the global nature of our sport. We will have players playing for countries. The LPGA is on the doorstep of bringing to golf a country-by-country format yet to be determined. But that's all I am going to say about that now.
NB: If I magically could get you all 32 or 33 tournaments and sponsors that your LPGA Tour needed, would you care about the growth of women's golf at the recreational level. Would you care about growing the game for recreational golfers like myself?
MW: Yes, no doubt about it. But the "growing the game" questions are so overwhelming that you have to be careful that it doesn't put you into paralysis. I would rather focus on specific projects. Let's begin with what we are doing at the girls-golf level. In 2010, we had 5,000 girls go through the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program. In 2012, we will have 20,000 participating and, by 2015, it will be at 50,000 - that's our goal. I feel good about that glide path. And I like that we are working more closely with the the First Tee. I don't know if our 50,000 LPGA-USGA girls will change the world; but they will make a difference. I don't know if we are creating golfers that will play 25 rounds a year. But what I do know is that we are creating girls that will be able to go into a clubhouse, make their tee times and be able to say, "This golf course is as much for me as my brother." That's a lot different than my mother's experience, who didn't feel she was invited to play golf until she was 59.
NB: What about the LPGA teaching program? Any plans for more LPGA teaching professionals in the T&CP (Teachers and Club Professionals) program?
MW: Not too long ago I sat down with Dana Radar, the president of the T&CP Division, and Nancy Henderson, the executive director. I said, "I don't know what we are waiting for." The number of Korean women golfers who want to be LPGA professionals is astounding. But we can't ask them to come to the U.S. and go through our program - all in English. So in 2012, and as part of a test market, we started the Korean LPGA T&CP Program. We have partnered with local companies who can translate our materials and methodology. We will also have LPGA-T&CP Thailand, Korea and China programs. The T&CP division is going to look a lot like the LPGA Tour. Our LPGA brand will be recognized as a leader in women's golf around the world. That's my vision.
NB: There's a new CEO at the PGA of America, Peter Bevacqua. He spent a decade with the USGA as General Counsel and the last few years with a sports management company. Were you surprised at the selection? Do you see more jointly-sponsored events or programs between the LPGA and PGA?
MW: Actually, I thought they would select someone who has been with the PGA. But a fresh perspective has value also. As to more women and men's tournaments, I love the idea of the men playing with the women. I think it's good for them and good for us. I've spoken with Tim Finchem about doing something with the PGA Tour. But, their Tour is very busy - so it's something we have to sort through our schedule. I think we could come up with a format that would be good for TV. For people who don't watch us all the time, I think they will be surprised at how well our LPGA players play. Basically, I am all for trying new things. As I say to my board and my players: "If you are not trying and failing, you are in deeper trouble than the trying and failing." We've added the Founder's Cup tournament, which supports our LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, and the CME Titleholders, which honors our best players. We have a few new and exciting programs on the drawing board.
NB: There's one question I keep asking you every year: Is there some way for more of the 6 million women and girls who play recreational golf to feel more connected with the LPGA and its mission?
MW: That's a great question and we think about it also. There have been some hurdles. Speaking frankly, in the U.S. the global strategy of the LPGA was seen as a drawback. U.S. golfers want to see Americans winning LPGA events; that's what the LPGA delivered for years. The "Born in the USA" is a challenge we recognize. But, in the last six months our "global-ness" is starting to become a plus. As more of our foreign players make the U.S. their home, we are going through a period of transition. It may take some time. For awhile, the newness is a negative, and now it's a positive and we think that women are feeling more connected with our Tour players. We are learning as we get more exposure and storytelling out there that you "Gotta' love these kids!" I also think that there is a place for some made-for-TV promotions that focus on the personality of our Tour players.
NB: I think golf's "personality" is a key to growing the game. For example, Bubba Watson is one of those personalities that became a tipping point for increasing interest in the game. What's your view on "personality" and can you grow it on the LPGA Tour?
MW: I agree with you, but one thing I can't do as commissioner is say who wins. But we - the LPGA - can really tell the story in the made-for-TV events that will be aired more in the coming year. For example, Stacy Lewis is no longer just a golfer, she's a story. We are encouraging our players to be active in what we call "walk and talk." Most sports don't want the players talking with the spectators, but we do. Of course, not all players like it. Brittany Lincicome, for example, loves it. She talks and tweets as she plays. And we are asking our players do more on-course interviews for instance at the turn. We want our fans to see their personality - not just their swings.
NB: I was reading the press release of Stacy Lewis' comments after she clinched her Rolex Player of the Year Award. I was impressed with her comment that she wants to leave the LPGA Tour in a better place than where she found it. So, I'm turning that question to you: As commissioner, what does that "better place" mean to you?
MW: For my first two and half years as commissioner, my marching orders were clear. We had to get us back to health. I was sort of like the "turnaround" guy. But that's not my goal. I want to concentrate on the future. I ask my players to "Think like a [LPGA] Founder" and I have to also. So, we are starting to build a forward-looking, four-year plan. We are asking ourselves, "Where do we want to be in four years?" I want to make our 200 Tour players the biggest and best role models in the world. We have the ability to do that. I say to my players, "If you don't think you are a role model, you just aren't paying attention."
NB: If we only had more time, we could talk more about role models and why they are so important. Mike, thanks so much for sharing your news and views. I look forward to our next conversation and an update on the LPGA's four-year strategic plan, role models and my special interest in why golf helps women stay healthy and age better. Sounds like lots more news to come!
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.