Whan’s LPGA milestone worthy of a shoutout
Not even a 17-hour flight from Asia can subdue the perpetually caffeinated LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, who is in a typically chatty mood as he drives from his home near Orlando to a meeting in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
As he outlines his plans on this early November day, you’d never guess that Whan, 54, is battling major jet lag 48 hours after returning from Taiwan, where he wrapped up a two-week visit in support of the LPGA’s Asian schedule.
“I had a great breakfast about 3:45 this morning,” Whan said of his still-wayward internal clock. “I’m sure my team loves the emails they get at 4 a.m.”
The high-octane Whan was in full sprint mode leading up to the CME Group Tour Championship on Nov. 24 that marked the completion of his 10th year as commissioner. Now, after steadily growing the tour for a decade, he can adopt a normal work routine for a few months, get off the road and spend time at his country club honing his five-handicap golf game.
Under Whan’s leadership, the LPGA enjoyed another successful season, building on the trend since he became commissioner in 2010 (see table, Page 25): prize money is on the rise; total revenue is climbing; a rebranding effort has taken root as the LPGA embraces a global strategy; and TV exposure has grown, mainly on Golf Channel where coverage is up 145% to 435 hours since 2010. Sponsors increasingly are buying into the player-friendly property and using the LPGA to drive women’s empowerment and diversity efforts.
However, the LPGA is still challenged to raise its profile. There are only a handful of LPGA events on network television and prize money pales in comparison to the PGA Tour.
Despite the disparity, it has been a productive decade for Whan, who took over as commissioner after Carolyn Bivens’ turbulent four-year tenure. He also walked into the job during the Great Recession that battered not only the LPGA, but the entire golf industry.
“They had just gone through a pretty dramatic reduction in tournaments, and in TV revenue, and certainly any kind of marketing partnerships,” Whan said of the LPGA in 2010. “The U.S. was sliding into, if not already into, a pretty significant recession. The LPGA at the time primarily sold hospitality.
“It might be hard for people in 2019 to remember 2011, but in 2011, you didn’t tell your boss, ‘If you need me, I’ll be in San Diego playing in the pro-am.’ You probably just laid off a third of your staff. So, you didn’t have hospitality invites, and events, and you didn’t go to hospitality events. Not back then. It just wasn’t received. So, knowing that’s what the LPGA was selling, a lot of that was going away.”
Today, Whan is no longer focused solely on chasing the next title sponsorship or marketing partnership. The tour’s growth has added stability and given way to a more strategic business approach.
“It is not purely a commercial exercise anymore,” said Mike McCarley, president of golf for NBC Sports Group. “When he started, the role was purely about finding sponsors and playing opportunities. He has reached a level now where they can think a little more long term.”
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Ask anyone in the industry about Whan and undoubtedly you will hear about his revved-up, dealmaking mentality and open-book management style. It’s an approach that has worked for him whether as a corporate suit climbing the ladder at Procter & Gamble or as a leader in the golf industry.
“I find that organizations get in trouble when there are secrets, so we don’t have any,” he said.
Whan grew up in suburban Chicago and in high school he moved to Cincinnati, where his dad, Dennis, worked for Procter & Gamble. His mom, Karen, worked as a legal secretary. Whan attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where as a walk-on quarterback, he quickly saw that his future was not on the football field.
“Clearly the coaches and I disagreed on my long-term potential,” Whan said of his short-lived college football days. “I played for about three weeks until they put the first depth chart up. When you have to turn the page of the depth chart to find your name, that’s usually not a good sign.”
After earning his business degree in 1987, Whan worked in brand management for Procter & Gamble from 1987 to ’94. Neither a job change, nor a career in sports, were on his radar until a corporate recruiter called and asked a critical question that changed the course of his life.
“I like Cincinnati, my parents live in the outskirts of town, my wife’s from Columbus,” Whan said. “I love the company and probably could stay the rest of my life. And to the recruiter’s credit, he said, ‘What has been the place in your life where you’ve found the most peace?’”
The answer was golf.
“I started caddying when I was a really young kid, but then I moved over to the grounds crew,” Whan said. “And I cut greens and fairways, and changed pins, and mowed under trees. And every summer until I was out of college, I was changing cups in cowboy boots and jeans from the night before at 4 in the morning. My dad gave me the birds-and-bees speech on a picnic table behind the ninth green at Springbrook Country Club in Naperville, Ill. So there was deep golf in me.”
When a job with Wilson Sporting Goods to help run its golf division opened up in 1994, Whan took it. A year later he went to work for TaylorMade. He left that job after four years when the company was bought by Adidas and briefly exited the sports industry to become president of dental hygiene company BriteSmile Inc. He returned to sports as CEO of Mission Itech Hockey and helped finalize the sale of the company to Bauer in 2008.
That’s when the LPGA came calling. With his typically blunt style, Whan sold himself to the LPGA board members after they pressed him on why he’d be a good commissioner.
“Honestly, I don’t have the experience for you guys to be comfortable that I’d be a good commissioner,” he told the board. “What I can tell you is every time I’m sitting across the table from somebody who’s thinking about signing up for a million plus dollars a year over multiple years, I’ve been that guy on the other side of the table my whole life. I’ve sponsored every sport under the sun between my time at P&G, Adidas, TaylorMade, Mission Hockey. I mean, I’ve written big checks for multiple years. I know what it feels like to sit across from a board. Everything else will be learning as I go.”
The LPGA board was smitten, but Whan initially hesitated to take the job. Married with three children, he had concerns about balancing the job and his family.
A call from former LPGA Commissioner Charlie Mechem convinced Whan to take the offer.
“I told him that kids pay attention and if they see you happy and you enjoy what you are doing, they will buy in,” Mechem said. “The next morning he accepted the job. It was the greatest sales job in history but I meant everything I said.”
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Whan’s first order of business as commissioner was to address the culture at the LPGA and to transform it into a stronger sales-focused property.
“Our problem isn’t putting on golf tournaments; our problem is check writers wanting to keep writing checks,” Whan told the LPGA board. “And so, we’d better figure out that side of the business.”
He began work on making the LPGA a more transparent organization, holding regular “Open Mike” staff meetings where anyone can ask questions.
“People used to get to their office, take off their jacket, close their door and everybody’s door was closed,” Whan said. “So, every morning about 8:30 when everybody was there I’d just start roaming around the building, and I would just open everybody’s door and talk to them for a while. Most of my learning in life came from listening to somebody more senior than me do a performance review, handle an upset customer call, work through a bad budget issue.
“If you want our people to get better they’ve got to be able to listen in. If I could have taken all the doors off the hinges and thrown them away, I would have. But it’s pretty rare to see a door closed anymore.”
Whan also firmly supported the global nature of the LPGA, in which so many players are from foreign countries.
“One of the fundamental decisions early on was to embrace it,” said Jon Podany, former LPGA chief commercial officer and a close friend of Whan from their days working together at Procter & Gamble. “There was a very U.S.-centric view but we knew we had to be a tour where the best players play no matter where they are from.”
Whan also pushed to strengthen sponsorships and player relationships.
“Mike cares for all of us as players,” said Brittany Lincicome, whose eight career victories on the LPGA Tour include two major championships. “He takes the time to know us and tries to use his position to better the players’ situation. He has an approach that places an enormous emphasis on the sponsor and that is a win-win for everyone.”
Over the past decade, the tour has continually beefed up its schedule and partnered with blue-chip companies and other golf properties to create new events such as the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. The tour has an alliance with the PGA Tour, which is negotiating the LPGA’s domestic media rights.
“He has a background from the sponsorship world,” said Shawn Quill, executive director of sports marketing at KPMG. “He carries the perspective through the thinking from the stakeholders. That is what makes him successful.”
Over the two past years, the LPGA has announced 24 new corporate and title partners, including Dow, the title sponsor for the new Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational team event, and Aon, which is presenting the Aon Risk Reward Challenge, a new seasonlong competition that offers a prize of $1 million on both the LPGA and PGA tours.
Forging the player and sponsorship relationships means an enormous amount of time on the road. Whan travels to Asia four times a year, sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for two days. “I’ve got to be the only guy in the world who can fly to Korea without checking bags,” he said.
He also makes it a point to meet with title sponsors in person and to play in the pro-ams while traveling to tournaments to forge bonds with the players.
His must-have travel companion: a roll of foam that he takes on every flight to support his surgically repaired back.
“I don’t care if my flight is one hour or 17 hours, I don’t leave home without that thing,” he said. “I’m a big hit with the over-90 age group. When I’m flying to Phoenix, everybody wants to know about my foam.”
His knack for dealing directly with sponsors and title partners has paid dividends.
“He is very candid and you can have a straight conversation with him,” said Mark Ganz, CEO of Cambia Health Solutions in Portland, which is the title sponsor for the Cambia Portland Classic. “We are the LPGA’s longest running non-major event on the tour but that doesn’t mean we haven’t had our challenges. We had never been a title sponsor and I found his counsel to be extremely helpful. If I text him he responds, even if he is in Asia, and I like that he doesn’t act like there are tiers of importance for people.”
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With 10 years of tenure and a track record of success under his belt, Whan remains committed to the LPGA as he heads into his second decade with the property. He points to the increase in women’s leadership conferences that are now a main staple attached to many tour events, and he’s proud of the growth of junior girls golf as the tour helps develop future generations of players. This season, 20 of the tour’s 32 events had a women’s conference tied to them.
Last week, Whan confirmed that he has signed a long-term extension with the LPGA. He last signed a six-year extension in 2015 that was set to expire after the 2020 Tokyo Games.
As the tour’s prize money and exposure grow, the contract extension is good news to veteran LPGA players, who say they don’t want to see a change any time soon.
“The players who have been around long enough know how good of a leader he is,” Lincicome said. “We think he is great and we hope he sticks around for a very long time.”
With the offseason now at hand, Whan is ready to shift into a more administrative role until January, when the 2020 LPGA season begins.
“I disengage on the tour stuff quite a bit,” he said. “We keep this notebook all year of the things we should probably address in the offseason. It is still work, but I feel like a normal neighborhood dad for a couple of months. Drive to the same office every day and come back at dinner time, and for two months it feels pretty good. By the end of those two months, I’m starting to itch again. I hate to admit it, but by the end of those two months it’s time to go.”