New LPGA commissioner has optimistic view of future
Not long after he was named commissioner of the LPGA in January, Mike Whan opened an e-mail from a disgruntled fan that would have made a less optimistic man cringe.
"The e-mail said the LPGA is never going to be great until you get another American who is No. 1 - like you had with Annika Sorenstam," Whan said in a recent interview with Newsday. "Now, Annika was from Sweden, but she became very American-ized. To me that's a great example of how America will embrace winners as their own."
It's also a great example of the glass-is-half-full attitude that Whan brings to his job, which is exactly what the tour needs as it struggles back from four turbulent years under divisive commissioner Carolyn Bivens.
The LPGA turns 60 this year and it's been hit hard by the global economic downturn. The LPGA had 34 tournaments scheduled in 2008; this year, it has 26, and only 14 of those are in the United States. No. 1 golfer Lorena Ochoa recently announced her retirement and there is some thought out there that American fans are having a problem warming to the LPGA's increasingly international field.
"It's sort of been a perfect storm for the LPGA," said Bob Basche, the chairman of Millsport, a sports marketing and sponsorship agency, who 35 years ago served as the tour's first public relations specialist. "Because of the economy, all sports marketing initiatives have been reduced by clients, and it goes down the pecking order of sports.''
The 26 tournaments this season are the fewest in nearly 40 years - partly because of the economy but also because of damaged relations with sponsors and tour stops during the Bivens era. Things got so bad that at this time last year, players weren't sure there would even be 20 tournaments in 2010. Bivens was ousted in a coup last July when players called for her resignation.
Talking to players at the Sybase Match Play championship in New Jersey last month, one could almost hear the sense of relief in their voices. The Sybase tournament was one that was added by Whan shortly after he became commissioner.
"I think our new commissioner has a good game plan, and that the game is in good hands," said Juli Inkster, who joined the Tour in 1983. "Mike is just an up-front type of guy and he's got everyone's respect."
Brittany Lincicome said of the change in leadership: "It's like night and day. [Bivens] ruffled some feathers, so we're trying to mend those, trying to put a few Band-Aids on a few sponsors."
Attempts to contact Bivens for this story were unsuccessful.
Whan, a former marketing executive in the golf and hockey industries, has made sponsor relations one of his top priorities. He has traveled around the country reaching out to former sponsors, and looking for potential new relationships. Last month, he traveled to Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, which will host the Women's U.S. Open in 2013. Whan said he would love to build off of that Open and make Long Island a regular tour stop.
"We have to learn to think like a sponsor and less like a golfer," Whan said. "I don't consider us Major League Baseball or the NFL. We're not selling you a space or a part of a wall or a fender on a car. We are going to build a tournament that works for your business."
Whan gave an example of how at the Sybase tournament. All of the 32 women who lost in the first round stayed an extra day to play an additional pro-am with Sybase clients.
While adding events and pleasing sponsors is No. 1 on Whan's list, many believe his biggest challenge is the globalization of his product. The top 10 money earners include only two Americans - Angela Stanford and Cristie Kerr - and there are five Koreans and one player each from Taiwan, Japan and Norway.
"There's so many Asian stars, especially so many Koreans, that it's hard for some of the audience to identify with the players and even pronounce their names," Basche said.
That situation might have been rendered moot had Michelle Wie achieved the full measure of star power that was expected of her as a teenage sensation. Many thought she had the potential to be the LPGA's next Nancy Lopez, but injuries and questionable career choices have so far limited her to one victory, though she remains a drawing card at every tournament.
Whan believes that having top athletes from all over the world is a big selling point.
"We're going global just like every other company, and we're not looking back because the benefits are tremendous," Whan said. "I don't know a Fortune 500 company that doesn't want to go global. And I don't know a Fortune 500 company that won't tell you that it takes some challenges to get there."
Whan believes that the LPGA can help companies expand business globally by offering them chances to reach overseas.
"If a sponsor today wants to have a tournament in Virginia, we can do that for him," he said. "But we can also give the same sponsor hospitality opportunities in Hong Kong and Singapore and Korea and Thailand, where they can entertain people and have them speak to players."
As for turning off American fans, Whan believes they will warm to the next wave of great golfers, no matter where they come from.
Said Whan: "When Lorena Ochoa first came on the scene, she was quiet and from Mexico and some people thought she wasn't so marketable. Now, everyone wants to know what we're going to do without her . . . I think what fans want most is to watch and be around great golfers. And we can give them that experience."