Whan’s LPGA Leadership Puts Him In Rare Air Among Sports Bosses
In the history of sports, few commissioners were consequential, let alone transformational.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, hired by baseball owners in 1920 to save the sport in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal, was one. Pete Rozelle, who from 1960-89 made the NFL into America’s top team sport, was another. Perhaps David Stern, who oversaw the revitalization of the NBA during a 30-year tenure than ended in 2014. That’s about it.
You can add Mike Whan to that short list. Whan, 53, enters his 10th season at the LPGA as its longest-serving commissioner, its most consequential and one of the most transformational leaders in the history of sports.
Landis stabilized an established product when its future was in question. Rozelle shepherded a promising product to maturity. Stern took a league that had fallen to the back of the sports pages and moved it back out front.
Whan has done all of that. Not only did his team – and he always emphasizes that it’s been a team effort – stabilize the LPGA, the schedule expanded in a visionary way that made the LPGA more global while adding unique events that made the tour more attractive to fans and TV executives. He’s also given his players access to much greater wealth.
In 2019 alone, the LPGA will unveil the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Orlando, with winners from the past two years; the ISPS Handa Vic Open, a concurrent women’s and men’s event in Australia with winners receiving equal pay; the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, with 64 two-woman teams playing better ball; a $5 million purse and record $1.5 million first prize at the CME Group Tour Championship; and the Aon Risk Reward Challenge, a season-long competition in which an LPGA and PGA Tour player each receive a $1 million bonus.
To put this into historical context, when Whan took over in 2010 the tour had 23 tournaments, its fewest since 1971, and $40 million in prize money. This year there will be 33 events, plus the Solheim Cup, and in excess of $70 million in prize money, not counting that $1 million Aon bonus.
And Whan was not dealt a hand nearly as strong as Landis – who had Babe Ruth – or Rozelle, who came in after the “Greatest Game Ever Played” championship in 1958 where the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime, a game televised to America. Or Stern, who leveraged Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan to prominence.
Whan found himself in a hole dug by twin shovels, one wielded by the previous commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, who alienated some longtime sponsors, and the second by the Great Recession, the timing of which could not have been worse for the LPGA. He escaped that hole with vision and courage. Whan understood the LPGA is not a billion-dollar-a-year business that can be operated from on high, but more like a mom-and-pop grocery store where Job 1 is customer service.
When asked how he wielded his Magic Whan, the commissioner, who speaks with a fervent passion about his product, said emphatically: “Listening, first to our customers (our sponsors) and then to our athletes. With the customers, we needed to build events that grew their brand, not ours. We needed to understand their business, their objectives, and ensure we were a better sports partner than any other.”
As for the athletes, he told his players to “act like a founder” and encouraged them to leave the game better for their daughters than they found it. Almost without exception, they bought into his message. LPGA players remain among the most cooperative in all of sports in terms of their interactions with the sponsors, public and media.
“People believe him, like him and want to partner with him.” – Rob Neal on Mike Whan
Landis, Rozelle and Stern didn’t so much get a buy-in from their players to the marketing plan as they had personalities who were larger than the product. Even managers and coaches like Casey Stengel, Vince Lombardi, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson gave their teams faces – and added antics – that captured the fancy of fans. Whan performed his miracle by leveraging the overall quality of his sport and the unshakeable likeability of his athletes.
The decisions Whan made were difficult and decisive. In 2011, he created what is now the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and ruffled feathers when he asked players to participate initially without prize money. There was pushback; there was a compromise involving charitable contributions and now the $1.5 million tournament is one of the jewels in the LPGA crown, a celebration of a proud history that has overcome many obstacles since 1950.
When Whan renamed the Evian Masters and elevated it to major championship status in 2013, traditionalists argued the proper number of majors is four, not five. But Whan saw the need to keep one of the most-lucrative paydays for the players on the LPGA schedule. He now has the Evian Championship moved back to its pre-major July date and away from the weather-ravaged September slot it assumed in 2013.
The UL International Crown was launched in 2014, an innovative event featuring four-woman teams from eight nations in a round-robin format that celebrates the global nature of the tour and emphasizes natural and long-standing national rivalries. In 2018, he successfully took the event abroad to large crowds in South Korea.
When the LPGA Championship became the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2015 some old-timers bemoaned the loss of the name “LPGA Championship.” But no one can deny how the LPGA’s partnership with KPMG, the PGA of America and NBC-Golf Channel has elevated the profile of the event, taken it to quality venues and greatly hiked the prize money.
Whan’s boldness and intuitive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the tour bowled over those with whom he did business. And he convinced them – as well as the players and public – that perceived weaknesses are actually strengths.
“Mike has been able to get people excited about ideas that had previously been almost taboo,” said Rob Neal, president of the LPGA Tournaments Owners Association from 2014-18 and a TOA board member since Whan’s first year as commissioner. Previously, Neal was an LPGA executive under commissioner Ty Votaw.
“Limited-field events early in the season, growing the international schedule, a tournament without a purse, replacing the LPGA Championship with a PGA of America partnership, a fifth major, LPGA ownership of multiple tournaments, and the International Crown,” Neal called the taboo topics Whan took on.
“Overall, the traits that have made him successful for such a long run are his transparency, passion, and creative deal-making,” Neal added. “People believe him, like him and want to partner with him.”
There are certain words that are heard over and over when you talk with Whan’s business partners. Neal hit on several of them. Jay Burton, a senior vice president at IMG and longtime head of its women’s management team, echoes many.
“I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t admire Mike for the man that he is and respect him for what he’s done for the LPGA,” Burton said. “Secondly, Mike is fully transparent. In my dealings with him I’ve always appreciated his candor, even if it was not what I wanted to hear. Mike is also a man with amazing vision. It’s been great to see so many of his creative ideas – far too many to count – come to fruition under his watch.”
For the media and probably to the chagrin of the LPGA media staff, Whan is the dream interview. He treats reporters with that same honesty. That’s a rarity in today’s world. In a world of tight-lipped sports executives humming bland ballads, Whan is a rap singer telling it like he sees it.
“Mike’s enthusiasm and frankness turned the perceived weakness of international players into a successful marketing message,” Neal said. “He spots an issue, simply explains it, and uses whatever resources are available to address it quickly. While he does look ahead, Mike’s real strength is pulling people together to maximize the current opportunities.”
While it’s difficult to assess exactly how endangered the LPGA was when Whan took over in 2010, experts agree that it was very a challenging time and any significant misstep would have been painful, if not disastrous.
“The recession, sponsor relations, media relations, and the cost/benefit proposition for tournaments, sponsors and players were trending strongly the wrong way,” Neal said. Burton agrees: “It was quite apparent during the years preceding Mike that the LPGA was struggling on many fronts. It’s anyone’s guess as to where the tour would be today had there not been a change in senior leadership.”
Asked if there was ever a point when he thought the LPGA wasn’t going to make it, Whan says: “Not really. I had the support of my board, my athletes, and my teachers. I never doubted the strength of this brand, or the people that truly owned it. There might have been a few times that I worried about my personal stamina to get through the travel, the challenges, but I never doubted that we would restore and rebuild the greatest female sports property in the world.”
Whan did what real leaders do. He assembled a great team and then listened. His longtime friend, Jon Podany, left a much more secure job at the PGA Tour to become the LPGA chief commercial officer. (He recently was named CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises.) Board of directors members like Bill Susetka, Mike Trager, and Roberta Bowman, who is now LPGA chief brand and communications officer, were key sounding boards. Whan made the final call, but always after listening.
Neal said that when Whan was hired there was no shortage of people willing to get in his ear and tell him what they thought needed to be done. Somehow, he was able to take it all in and separate the wheat from the chaff.
“He listened, learned and reacted at a remarkable pace,” Neal said. “Mike was the right person for that moment. He’s not the type to worry about the past so he kept everyone looking forward, focusing on the strengths of the LPGA, and working quickly without making many mistakes. When he made a mistake (like moving the Evian Championship to September), he admits it and addresses it.”
By every metric, the tour has grown drastically under Whan. Not only will more than 400 hours of TV coverage be available in the United States in 2019, more than 450 hours will be broadcast in 175 other countries and international TV money is a significant revenue stream. According to the LPGA, 22 new title sponsors have been added in the last six years while 22 official marketing partners have been acquired in just the last four years.
The LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program has grown to nearly 500 sites with more than 80,000 junior golfers engaged in 2018, up from 4,500 girls in 2010. Since 2012, the Symetra Tour, the feeder tour for the LPGA, has grown from 16 tournaments and $1.7 million in prize money to 21 tournaments and $3 million last year.
In the future, Whan will look to expand events, purses, TV coverage, attendance and player endorsements. He predicts continued growth for girls’ golf and in the number of female teachers and club professionals. And he says the LPGA will help create a legacy within women’s sport for female empowerment that will lead to greater opportunities in all areas.
“I believe the LPGA is in an extremely good place,” Burton said. “Over the last 10 years, Mike has not only righted the ship, he and his team (including the players) have been able to put it on a well-charted course. It’s been an incredible transformation from where the tour was in 2009 to how solid it is today, thanks to Mike’s leadership.”
If Whan could work wonders when the LPGA was struggling, what can he do with a ship now sailing on relatively smooth seas? That’s a question his business partners are eagerly waiting to see answered.
“You can assess the tour in many ways, but the two main indicators of success are number of tournaments and purses,” Neal said. “I would predict that the LPGA is in more of a position to be strategic than it has been for a long time.”
And that puts Whan in a much different position than he found himself in 2010. This time, he is not behind the eight ball, but in front of it. Imagine what he can do with that. Your shot, Mr. Commissioner. Play away, please.
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan. Photo: Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters
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