Mike Whan took over as the LPGA’s Commissioner in 2010 and immediately turned his eye toward enhancing business relationships, increasing exposure for the players and maximizing the LPGA experience for fans.
The LPGA’s growth during Whan’s tenure has been significant. The 2018 LPGA schedule featured 32 official money events and prize money increased to almost $67 million. The tour had more than 400 hours of domestic broadcast coverage on Golf Channel and network TV, with more than 450 hours available internationally in about 175 countries.
Whan recently took some time to talk with the NGF about the LPGA’s trajectory, inspiration and business advice, his first job in golf and his outlook for the golf industry overall.
Looking at the LPGA’s increases in prize money, sponsorship agreements and television coverage, how encouraging and validating is that kind of positive momentum?
If you told me back in 2010 that we would grow purses by 80% in the first eight or 10 years, I probably wouldn’t believe it. Also, like any other Type A personality, I’m looking at it saying, ‘That’s a good start, but the momentum really ought to build.’ In 2019, we’ll go up over $70 million in purses for the first time ever. I remember when I started, I think we had five events at $2 million or more. Those were considered big events. Now our average purse is larger than $2 million. We’ll have 18 $2 million events in 2019. So that feels right. We had two events that were over $3 million back in my first year. Now we’ll have six. It feels good that we’re moving the needle. There’s a long way to go, but there’s a lot of upside. It’s exciting to see; not only are we playing more events, which was key looking back to when I got started, but we’re playing on average for a lot more money and overwhelmingly to more fans worldwide. Nobody could have envisioned 170-plus countries every week televising the LPGA, but that’s where we are today.
As a commissioner, who do you draw inspiration from?
I’m really excited about our board of directors. It’s really become a bit more of who’s-who of leaders. We have the former CFO of Walmart, the former CMO of IBM, a guy who teaches sports law at Harvard and used to be chief legal officer of IMG back in the Mark McCormack days. I really want to create a board that pushes me, pushes my learning curve and gives my leadership team mentors. When the people that report to me are driving home and stuck on one of their specific department problems, I want to make sure there is somebody smarter than me for them to call.
And I’m really lucky. Almost every day, every hour, I’m talking to a CEO of a different corporation about their business, what they’re trying to achieve and how the LPGA can help them achieve their objectives. In a weird way, it’s a weekly MBA. If you spend your time thinking about the LPGA, you’re going to be out of business, but if I think about KPMG, AMA, CME and Kia, then we’ll be in business long term. So to do the job well you have to think more about the check-writers than yourself. To do that is really an everyday business education.
What is the best piece of business advice that you’ve received?
There’s a term that’s been in my head for probably 25 years – I can’t even remember who coined it, but it happened when I was at Proctor & Gamble. Somebody used the term ‘role-reversal.’ We were arguing about something and somebody said, ‘Everybody’s argument is about what’s right for P&G, nobody is talking about the consumer. And if the consumer doesn’t buy this product, none of us have a paycheck.’ It was a matter of, let’s stop worrying so much about what P&G executives think and worry more about the person who’s going to pull out their hard-earned money and buy Crest toothpaste. Role reversal has been a part of my business acumen for 30 years. I’m quite certain we’re the only sport in the world where the athletes are educated about the check-writer on a weekly basis. They actually get a card telling them who is the title sponsor this week, why is the title sponsor doing this, what are their key business objectives, what are the three to four things that we need you, the athlete, to do to make sure this is financially a good rate of return for the title sponsor. I know of no other sport where the athlete is being asked to be involved in creating value for the person who sponsors them.
What advice do you have for those looking to work in the game?
I always tell people to stop worrying about your first step in the right direction, just take a step in the right direction. I was pretty sure when I left Proctor & Gamble and went to work for Wilson, that I probably wasn’t going to work for Wilson for the next 30 years, but I thought Wilson was a step toward putting both my work talent and my personal passion on the same path. Way too many young kids I see today go to school, get educated on a certain thing and in their mind there’s an exact right job or company that fits their vision of the 30-year career path they’re going to take. I always tell people that I don’t know somebody who’s been in the business for 30 years who didn’t take a few roads less traveled. The sooner you take them, the more you benefit from them. If people want to get in this business, don’t worry about whether it’s at the same income level or job title. It doesn’t matter. Get started and you’ll find your path. I certainly didn’t go to school to become a commissioner. I didn’t take any classes in it. I wasn’t looking for it when it came around, but I had been in the sporting industry, had made a difference, and that’s probably what led them to call me. So a lot of jobs led to this one.
What was your first job in golf?
I caddied for exactly one summer. I didn’t really like it because it was always hard for me to carry their bag and watch them play a sport. But by caddying, I got to meet the golf superintendent, which turned into a job on the grounds crew. The grounds crew worked from 5:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon and as long as it was a weekday, you could play free golf. As a young kid, I thought, ‘free golf after 2:30 every day, that works.’ My first year you were called a bunker boy – you had to spend one summer edging and weeding bunkers. It was a ruthless job, really terrible thinking back, but if you made it through one summer, the next year they’d teach you how to ride equipment, which was the goal of every 13-year-old. So I literally worked on the grounds crew of a golf course until the week before I started at P&G after I got out of college. Many times I was changing pins and cutting greens in Cowboy boots and jeans from the night before, but it put golf in my system and made me respect the turf as much as the actual game.
Looking at the game, what is your outlook for the industry as a whole?
My optimism is high, but I probably redefine “golf” a little bit depending on who you’re talking to. I think a lot of times when you talk to quote industry people and ask about their outlook for golf, they mean 18 holes of playing at a country club or public facility. If you ask me if I play basketball, I’d say yes, but that’s because I shot a game of HORSE with my kids over Thanksgiving. That’s basketball to me and in my life. They’re building a Topgolf in my area and my kids are so giddy about that, you would think it’s free. So, when I see 8 million people introduce themselves to the game – some of those may never show up on a golf course, may never play 18 holes, but those people will quickly become golf TV fans, follow our players on our websites and be part of companies that will utilize the game for their benefit.
When you think about the outlook for golf, it’s going to be more and more global than ever before. When I started 10 years ago, I didn’t see women play golf in Thailand and I played there a lot. I never saw a woman on the golf course. Today, there are 14 or 15 players on my tour from Thailand. Women’s golf is going to grow exponentially and quite frankly if this sport is really going to have a future, it’s going to have to add women. What’s going on here in the States is really the re-definition of golf. We still have to go through some correction on the number of courses, but I think rounds-played is antiquated. It doesn’t capture what’s going on in e-golf and Topgolf and the like. You see more and more people playing 6 holes and 9 holes. That’s real, and meaningful for the sport. It’s not just country clubs and teaching pros; I think you’re going to see a whole different level of fan to the sport because they’re going to come at it in a completely different way. And maybe in a more fun way than you and I did.