SBJ/Jan. 17-23, 2011/In-Depth

Whan learns patience as he guides LPGA

Just listening to LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan talk, it would be easy to imagine the fast-talking Midwesterner as the guy who reads the fine print at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. The Naperville, Ill., native admits to coming across as “heavily caffeinated,” but it took his full reserve of energy to hit every tournament and reach out to every LPGA stakeholder during his first year on the job in 2010. But there’s another side to the job that requires extreme patience, something Whan discussed recently with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Michael Smith.

Whan reflected on his first year as commissioner and what the LPGA has in store.
• After a full year in office, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

WHAN: My gut answer is patience. I was blessed with a few skills, but patience wasn’t one of them. This job requires patience. I used to think patience was a bad word, but this is a job where you have to really listen because every decision you make affects a lot of constituents. I’ve got this handwritten note under my computer that says “Patience” just to remind me. It’s on the back of a business card.

• How are you measuring success at the LPGA?
: The best way to measure success is through the business partners that sign up with us. If we’re not succeeding for them, we’re not succeeding. We always talk to the players that if it weren’t for the people paying the bill, we wouldn’t be playing this weekend. We’ve got to make sure we’re delivering return on objective for the business partners. And they’re all different. Don’t assume you know what they want to achieve in their event.

• How did the LPGA perform financially in 2010?
: Anybody close to the business will tell you we significantly surpassed expectations. But when I first got here, I asked for a lot of the normal things like an income statement. I wanted to see margin, I wanted to see EBITDA. But I was reminded that the LPGA is not for profit, it’s a membership organization. When you look at the income statement, you’d be surprised to know that the best performing years financially are not necessarily the best years related to the brand of the LPGA. … It’s taken a while to change gears because my original mind-set was “How much money can you make.” But I’m shifting. Now what’s most important is that we’re a great value and that we don’t need to saturate the income statement. When we make money, we put it right back into the business. We’ve helped seven or eight tournaments, we’ve made price concessions to create better values. At the end of the day, we don’t need to make millions. My job is to empower and inspire women from around the world to play golf by showcasing the best players in the world. It might sound crazy and reckless, but it’s not. You’ve got to focus on the impact of your brand. If you focus on the money made, you miss the big picture.

• You list 16 marketing partners. What’s the goal for that program?
: We talk a lot about role reversal. You don’t talk about the tournament until you talk about who’s paying for the tournament. What’s keeping the CEO of that company up at night? If they just cut us a check, that’s going to be a short-term relationship. … I came in as the guy who used to write the check and justify the return. I know what it feels like, so I spend time with the staff and players so that everyone knows we want to make it easy to be a partner of the LPGA.

• Instead of having one or two dominant performers, the LPGA now has many very good golfers. Does that dynamic impact how you market the sport?
: We’re golf’s global tour. What struck me in my first year is that the best women don’t play together every seven or eight tournaments, they play together every week. The best players aspire to one tour: the LPGA. We’re delivering in golf what most are not. We’re putting the best in the world, representing 30 countries, in the same event. It’s like an Olympic event; it’s truly creating a global entity. If you jump forward 10 years, this is going to be the model. … It’s hard to sit in front of a CEO today and ask about five most important things and global isn’t one of them. We do cross-cultural training with our rookies so that they understand the difference in signing autographs in Thailand and Malaysia. Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in the same meeting at Procter & Gamble. It’s a 2010 business thing now and we’re learning how to be better worldwide.

Na Yeon Choi
Whan said the LPGA delivers the best players in the world tournament after tournament. Here, Na Yeon Choi of Korea plays a shot at last year’s LPGA Tour Championship.
• You’ve positioned the LPGA as this really unique international property with lots of focus on Asia, but you’ve also got eight players from Mexico. What is the LPGA’s plan south of the border?
: If your goal is to inspire and empower, golf is borderless. Teeing it up in India is not a lot different than teeing it up in Indiana. You show up and be the role model, you do the local interviews.

• Will the LPGA break away from its current tournament model of finishing on Sundays?
: Not in 2011. Will we ever? Probably. It won’t be the norm, but if a title partner said, “We’ve got a West Coast tournament and we want to finish in prime time on Monday night.” Could we make that work? You bet. There’s nothing like that on the 2011 schedule, but there has been some dialogue on “What if.” I’m not standing in anybody’s way.

• Golf Channel has a short-term extension with DirecTV to keep the channel on there, but do you have long-term concerns about your product on Golf Channel?
: At the LPGA, we want partners that have skin in the game and want to grow the LPGA. Golf Channel has skin in the game — a 10-year contract — and they’ve got to grow it. “What can we do together to make it more exciting, to create more role models?” We want that a lot more than we want to buy air time with somebody else.

• What else would you like to see from Golf Channel in terms of LPGA coverage?
: Oh yeah, we meet monthly, brainstorming. We tell them that we’re a great test model. We enjoy tournament coverage that’s just as interesting outside the ropes as it is inside the ropes. We love it when camera crews follow a player on a Tuesday night and go to clinics. I’m not sure all of the players love how accessible I want it to be, but what separates us is our incredible personalities. And showcasing that is as important as what yardage somebody had for a 7-iron.

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