NAPLES, FLORIDA | As is his custom, Mike Whan came in costume. Two years ago at the CME Group Tour Championship, the commissioner donned a cheesehead to announce a new event in Wisconsin. Last year he put on a kilt to confirm the addition of the Women’s Scottish Open to the schedule. This time it was a Miami Dolphins jersey, No. 23.
“I’m not a Dolphins fan,” Whan said on Friday at Tiburón Golf Club. “But we’re going to be at the CME Tour Championship in Naples until 2023. Any time I can go to an event where I can drive (from home), it’s a great thing.”
The Naples item was just a small part of a sweeping state-of-the-LPGA news conference Whan gave to a packed house.
“Last year at this time we talked about five players finishing with a scoring average under 70,” Whan said. “And as we tee up here (on Friday) we have 12 players that are averaging under 70. We have players that have won the Rolex Player of the Year (in past years) and have an average score (today) that is lower than (they had) when they won. And they’re not going to win the award this year. So, the depth of the tour is like nothing we’ve seen before. I looked at the stats flying back from Asia and I was floored. If you hit 70 percent of your greens in regulation on this tour, you rank 50th. If you hit 80 percent of your fairways, you wouldn’t be in our top 15.
“I think our fans have responded with our viewership being up 17 percent versus a year ago,” Whan said. “I don’t know of a lot of other sports or a lot of other leagues that are talking about viewership increases for four or five years in a row.”
One notable league – the NFL – has seen a 20 percent decline in viewership in two years, and, according to numerous reports, and its television partners are on track to lose upward of $500 million as a result.
“I’m proud to tell you that the revenues of the LPGA in the last six years are up almost 90 percent,” Whan said. “We have added 20 title sponsors and over 20 official marketing partners, 14 new marketing partners in the last three years alone. I don’t know too many sports that could claim that.”
And still, CME Group is having to buy time this weekend to get their season-ending Tour Championship on network television.
“I say I want one TV executive to wake up and take a chance on us,” Whan said. “Because if you gave me 23 weeks on network TV, I feel pretty comfortable I could surprise some people. But I haven’t been given that opportunity. We’re still buying our network opportunities, short of a couple of incredible partners like PGA of America, KPMG and the USGA, where those come to us – or Evian in that matter – where those are purchased for us. So, I’m really excited about the opportunities we have, but if I was about being perfectly honest with you, I’m frustrated that I’m not farther eight years in than I was in 2010.”
Whan also announced that there will be three new events in 2018, although he was not ready to name names. Two domestic events are believed to be in San Francisco (at Lake Merced Golf Club with a yet-to-be-named sponsor) and a second event in Hawaii on Maui.
And the commissioner announced the details of the long-rumored changes coming to LPGA Qualifying School.
“You will see, in 2018, an official change from Q-School to something called the Q Series,” Whan said.
The series will work like this: Stage 1 and Stage 2 of Q-School will remain unchanged. If you advance through Stage 2, you have Symetra Tour status. But Stage 3, the eight rounds in Daytona Beach, will be eliminated and replaced with two tournaments, four rounds each, but with the scores being cumulative. If you finish the first week 6 under, that’s where you’ll start for the second week.
Getting into that series is where the biggest change will occur. According to Whan, “We’re anticipating a field size of about 108. In that field will be players who finished from 101 to 150 on the LPGA (money list) the previous season.
“Also, there will be players who finished 11 through 30 on the Symetra Tour. The top 10 (on Symetra) will still get their cards, but 11 through 30 will get an invite to this Q Series. We’ll also offer five spots to the top-five ranked collegiate players. And we’ll offer a limited number of spots, I’m not exactly sure what the number is, to the remaining top 75 of the world rankings who aren’t currently playing on the LPGA.
“The rest of that field will be filled from Stage 2. But where (today) you’ll probably have 80 to 85 players in the field that came from Stage 2, in 2018, I’ll bet that number will be somewhere around 20 to 30 from Stage 2.”
This will steer players onto the Symetra Tour while still offering the best amateurs and college players a chance to earn their way directly onto the LPGA.
It’s hard to find fault in any of the things Whan is doing. It would just be nice if a television exec or two stood up and took notice.