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Volume 22 No. 39
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LPGA aims for more visibility, tourney quality

When Michael Whan looked out over the LPGA landscape five years ago, he saw a property that needed more events, higher purses, stability among its sponsors and increased viewership.

What he sees today, getting ready for his seventh year as commissioner, is a property that has hit many of those marks: A tour that in 2016 will have two new tournaments, 11 renewed tournament title sponsors and a $4 million increase in total purse money, driving that sum to a record $63 million.

Mike Whan has been LPGA commissioner since early 2010.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“We have had a good run,” Whan said last week, adding that the LPGA has reached its optimal plan to have between 32 and 34 annual tournaments on its schedule. As recently as 2010, the tour had only 23 official events and a total purse of $42 million.

“That [number] is our sweet spot,” Whan said. “We want 34 sellable weeks. There are no major [tournament sponsor] swings, and there are solid increases in the purse, and that is a good thing for our brands.”

There will be 34 events on the LPGA’s calendar for 2016, including the biennial UL International Crown event. In addition, no tournament title sponsors have left the tour for 2016, allowing Whan to address other issues.
The 2016 season begins the week of Jan. 25.

Whan declined to disclose financial terms of the 11 renewed title sponsors but did say the deals run between three and five years.

Whan also has already added to the LPGA’s 2017 schedule. He was expected to announce last Friday a new tournament in Green Bay to be sponsored by the Oneida Indian Nation.

With a full schedule in place, Whan said his focus is on continuing to increase the tour’s visibility while also improving the quality of the existing tournaments by attracting the LPGA’s best players.

“The biggest challenge going forward is consistent network exposure,” he said. “We need more casual fans to stumble into us on network television.”

Looking specifically at the sport’s majors, final-round coverage of the Evian Championship in September drew 696,000 viewers on NBC, up 7 percent from last year and up 9 percent from 2013. That telecast also was the second-most watched women’s golf telecast of the year, edging final-round coverage of the Women’s PGA Championship in June (695,000) and behind only the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open in July (970,000).

However, this year’s U.S. Women’s Open in total averaged 485,000 viewers on Fox and Fox Sports 1, down 53 percent from last year and down 3 percent from 2013, with coverage both of those years on NBC and ESPN2. This year’s tournament also ranks as the least-watched U.S. Women’s Open on record (dating to 1995), trailing the previous low set in 2013. The tournament now has averaged fewer than 600,000 viewers in five of the past six years after never having dipped below 800,000 in the previous 15 years.

The LPGA expects to have seven events broadcast on network television next year compared with five this year. The number of hours of U.S. television coverage also is expected to increase, to 412 hours from 390 hours this year.

New tournaments will be played next year in Ann Arbor, Mich., in May (the Volvik Championship) and in China at the beginning of the LPGA’s fall Asia swing, at a location that has not yet been finalized. In addition, the LPGA in July will feature the UL International Crown event, to be played near Chicago. That match-play event features teams of four players from eight countries — with the competitors and countries selected based on player rankings.

But the LPGA next summer also will have to overcome a three-week gap in play, as golf returns to the Olympics for the first time in a century. With so many international players on the LPGA Tour expected to compete in the Rio Games, the LPGA will go dark during the Olympics. Making matters worse is that accommodating the Olympics within the LPGA schedule means having a long run of consecutive tournaments leading up to Rio — which could cause some players to skip some events.

Unlike the LPGA, the PGA Tour will still hold events during the Olympics, including the The Travelers Championship, John Deere Classic and the Wyndham Championship.

It’s not the ideal formula for Whan, who prefers to have an LPGA schedule that plays on four consecutive weekends followed by a week off to attract the best field of players in each event.

“We have 11 tournaments in a row leading up to the Olympics,” he said. “The Olympics have made it impossible to build a schedule the way we want to, but we will get back to sanity in 2017.”