Presenting calm in crises is the first lesson of leadership. In our game, at this time, there is no calmer and clearer voice than that of LPGA commissioner Mike Whan.
On Wednesday, the LPGA Tour announced a schedule update that moved the tentative 2020 restart to July 15. The projected first event is now the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Midland, Mich., followed immediately by the Marathon Classic in Sylvania, Ohio; the ShopRite LPGA Classic outside Atlantic City, N.J.; and then the Evian Championship in Évian-les-Bains, France. From there the forecast marches on, week after week, until the CME Group Tour Championship before Christmas. The only breaks come for Masters week (Nov. 12-15) and Thanksgiving.
But Whan is also cautious, letting everyone know that this is one of three or four plans he has sketched out depending on what health officials say.
“One thing that has become clear is that there will be no ‘opening bell’ regarding a return to safe play in this new normal,” he said. “To be honest, being ‘first’ has never been the goal when it comes to returning to play. We have built a schedule that we think is as safe as possible given what we know about travel bans, testing availability and delivering events that our sponsors and athletes will be excited to attend.
“While July seems like a long way away, we are certainly aware that restarting our season in Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey will require a continued improvement in the situation in each of those states.”
In a video call with select members of the media, Whan projected the kind of calm optimism people who follow the LPGA have come to expect.
“As long as we can pull off the schedule now in front of us, the season can be really busy,” he said. “And I think from an opportunity perspective for our athletes and our caddies, there’s still over $56 million up for grabs – we’re going to play for almost $2.7 million every time we tee it up – so that would be the highest-ever average (purse per) event in the LPGA’s history.
“So, I’m excited about the fact that, despite an awful lot of cat-herding in the last eight weeks, we’re at a place now where we can still provide opportunities. We can still provide worldwide television coverage, and I’m really excited about not only being able to fill all these weeks but to be able to put together a pretty strong finish when we go from Dallas (for the Volunteers of America Classic, Dec. 3-6) to Houston (for the U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club, Dec. 10-13) to Naples (for the CME Group Tour Championship, Dec. 17-20) in a 1-2-3 finish with $13 or so million on the line over three weeks. I think it’s going to be a pretty exciting way for us to wrap up 2020.
“But I’m not naïve enough to think that we don’t still need to see progress, not only as it relates to the virus and the curve, but also as it relates to testing and our ability to make sure we can create a safe environment everywhere we play,” Whan added. “But I think we’ve now bought ourselves enough time to deliver what we believe is a realistic schedule and a realistic operation plan that our athletes and sponsors will be excited about being a part of.”
“Yeah, it’s going to be a tough financial year. There’s no way around it.” – Mike Whan
Whan was able to up the average purse because some of the sponsors whose events were not played pitched in. Nowhere else does that happen. And it only happens for the LPGA because of the relationships Whan has cultivated since arriving in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 2009.
“In some of the cases (sponsors) are realizing that, ‘Hey, we want to play; we know you want to play; we feel bad for the situation that you’re facing but we just can’t take that date, so could we provide you guys some help,’ ” Whan said. “ ‘We’re going to save a lot of money that we would normally put into a tournament, but we can provide some money back to you that you can provide to women who are going to get a lot less in 2020 (than normal).’ ”
When the COVID-19 crisis subsides and the world has time to take a breath, what Whan accomplishes has a chance to go down as one of the most remarkable administrative achievements in sports.
He isn’t a pie-in-the-sky dreamer, though. Far from it. Whan told a small group on Wednesday that “(losing nine events) has a staggering financial impact. It doesn’t take us to our knees. It doesn’t put us on a death watch. I’ve said in many interviews, we’ve saved more money in the last 10 years (of the LPGA’s history) than we did in the 60 years before, but it’s possible in 2020 we could eat up most of what we saved in the last 10 years in 10 months. When we’re not playing and not producing TV, and as a result not delivering for our international partners, it hurts players, it hurts caddies, and I can promise you it hurts the LPGA.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a tough financial year. There’s no way around it. And it’s certainly not going to be any better on the Ladies European Tour or the Symetra Tour, two tours that we obviously, I think, without giving away any secrets, that we help subsidize and will certainly subsidize more in 2020 than we thought when we walked into the year.
“But we didn’t get involved with the Symetra Tour or the LET for a year or two or for their best years. We’re in it for the long haul.
“We can afford what 2020 is going to throw at us but we’ll definitely come out of this a much leaner LPGA,” Whan said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to make 2020 as great a season as we can make it, but the most important thing we have to do is make sure that we’re as strong in 2022 as we were in 2019, because if you make all these decisions just to figure out (how to survive) ’20 and you treat sponsors and fans and media and our athletes in a way that (makes them not want) to come back in ’21 and ’22, you’ve won nothing.
“I’ve said this to my board, we’re going to make some decisions that are financially negative in ’20 that you could say, ‘You don’t have to do that, legally.’ But (those decisions) are made to make sure that we’re super strong again come ’21, ’22, ’23.
“The only way COVID really damages the LPGA long-term is if we only focus on 2020.”
Calm, clear, concise, convicted. That is a leader. That is Mike Whan.
Mike Whan is shown during the 2018 LPGA Rolex Players Awards. Photo: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images
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