Commissioner sees improvement in LPGA, with more to come

Posted: May 30, 2012

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is a realist who tempers confidence with caution as he tries to navigate the organization through a slowly improving economy while guiding its rebound from the low points of recent years.

In his third year as commissioner, Whan oversees a schedule that increased by five tournaments to a total of 27 worth an estimated $48 million in prize money. The number of U.S. events has risen to 15, including this week's ShopRite Classic in Galloway Township, N.J., after a period of U.S. sponsors' being lost because of the economy and questionable LPGA management.

Calling himself "a fairly optimistic guy," Whan hopes the schedule will continue to improve in 2013, although he admits that "a large number of tournaments" are in the final year of their contracts, meaning the tour must remain diligent in retaining them.

"I'm not sure I'd ever get to say things are going well," Whan said earlier this month at the Sybase Match Play Championship in Gladstone, N.J. "But we're definitely on the upswing. We're coming off a strong year. Viewership is way up, 40 percent over last year. We've added $7 million in purses and five new events, four of which were in North America. Those are all key tenets we set out to achieve.

"But 27 tournaments is not the right place for the LPGA to be, and I get that. We're not where we need to be yet. I'm not sure how we get to where we need to be, but we're definitely better than we've been."

Idle weeks continue to pockmark the LPGA schedule; there are five such weeks between now and Labor Day. But the players don't have to go more than two weeks without a tournament as they did last year, when they had two breaks that lasted three weeks each.

At least the LPGA has developed a good record of organizing new tournaments and retaining older ones. Eight of the nine tournaments whose contracts ran out in 2011 were renewed.

"This has nothing to do with me; it's just the reality," Whan said. "There's a different feeling around the brand of the LPGA, in the corporate world and in North America, than there was two years ago. It's just a better entity right now. Our TV situation is better. I think companies are starting to do customer hospitality again and starting to invest in their brand again."

The players are feeling the energy of the LPGA's recovery and credit Whan, 47, who used to sit at the other side of the negotiating table during his days as a marketing executive, for his passion and insight.

"He's just really fostered and kept those great relationships going for us," said Cristie Kerr, who is the top-ranked American and No. 5 in the world. "People genuinely like him. He's a business guy. He gets it. He understands how to elevate the LPGA Tour and build it. It's on the upward trend now, and I think he has a lot to do with that."

Five Americans - Kerr, Stacy Lewis, Brittany Lincicome, Paula Creamer, and Angela Stanford - are ranked in the top 15 in the world. Two big-name Americans, 17-year-old Lexi Thompson and recent Stanford graduate Michelle Wie, are ranked 25th and 31st, respectively.

Whan, however, has no problem with the fact that an American has been unable to challenge Taiwan's Yani Tseng, a three-time 2012 champion who will spend her 68th consecutive week atop the world rankings at Seaview. After all, the LPGA is a global organization, with tournaments seen in 130 countries, he said.

"The good news is we've got Americans in that chase pack," Whan said. "Having five of the top 15, I think that's a good mix. The great part for me is if you think about the best 30 players, other than a couple of them, they're all under 30. In terms of the Americans, I don't know how good they'll be, but they're about to find out over the next five years."

Because of his experience representing potential sponsors, Whan knows what executives like. So before every tournament, each contestant receives a two-page fact sheet that includes a profile of the event's sponsor and other pertinent information.

"At the start, it doesn't say, 'Who's the title sponsor?' It says, 'Who's writing the check this week?' " Whan said. "We have pictures of the guys you need to thank during the week. Here are the guys. Here are their backgrounds. If players want to tweet, here are suggested tweets.

"They get a different one every Tuesday. So when we show up for ShopRite, they're going to get one about ShopRite, why ShopRite writes the check, and who are the most important people in the room for ShopRite. If you want to have more tournaments, you've got to be better with the corporate sponsor."

Unlike a few years ago, when then-commissioner Carolyn Bivens created a public relations nightmare by proposing a requirement that players speak English, Whan calls the language matter "a nonissue." He said the LPGA has an agreement with Language Training Centers, an Indianapolis-based company that travels with the tour and tutors the players.

The tour is trying something new at the Wegman's LPGA Championship, which takes place the week after ShopRite. Caddie bibs will include the name of the player and her Twitter handle so that fans may follow them. Whan said it's important for the LPGA to be at the forefront of social media.

For now, the primary focus is on events. Whan's ideal number for tournaments would range from 30 to 32, with a schedule that would have four straight weeks of competition followed by a week off. He knows he has to keep the old tournaments as well as welcome new ones, but he concedes it's a tricky process.

"There's always a possibility you could see subtraction," he said. "At the end of the day, these aren't cheap. You can't control what's happening with some of the companies in terms of their success and desire. So you're always struggling with that.

"But the good news is that I think the momentum has been pretty good for us, and the interest is better than it's been in the last couple of years. It feels better. I'm not sure I can say it feels great, but it's definitely better."


ShopRite LPGA Classic

When: Friday through Sunday

Where: Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club,

Galloway Township, N.J.

TV (Golf Channel): Friday, 12:30-2:30 p.m.;

Saturday, 2:30-6 p.m.; Sunday, 2-6 p.m.

Defending champion: Brittany Lincicome

Purse: $1.5 million ($225,000 to winner)

 Fans: Admission for all practice rounds and the pro-am is free. Tickets for the days of tournament competition range from $15 to $60, but all service personnel (police, fire, military) and children ages 17 and under when accompanied by a paying adult will receive free admission.

Tickets: Ticket and parking information can be obtained at http://www.shopritelpgaclassic.com/tickets.

- Joe Juliano


Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow @joejulesinq on Twitter.

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