RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) - Since taking over as LPGA Commissioner in 2010, Mike Whan has weathered the end of an economic downturn and put the women’s tour on a strong financial footing by adding new sponsors and events.
However, Whan has never been a big fan of the status quo and has set his sights on establishing a “grander stage” for the LPGA Tour by giving it increased television exposure and making it more on a par with the men’s equivalent for prize money.
“A typical men’s PGA Tour event has the exposure of a major,” Whan told Reuters during this week’s ANA Inspiration, the opening women’s major of the year, at Mission Hills Country Club.
“So how do we get that grander stage on a regular basis with the LPGA? Last week, Cristie Kerr probably made about as much money as somebody who came in 10th place at a similar event on the PGA Tour.”
American Kerr, a former world number one who has claimed two major titles, earned a check for $255,000 with her victory at the Kia Classic in Carlsbad, California.
That same day, little-known American Scott Pinckney came away with $179,800 after tying for eighth at the PGA Tour’s Texas Open.
“If we can expand that viewership footprint for the LPGA, we will create greater purse opportunities, greater financial opportunities,” said Whan.
“Generally speaking, once you’ve made it to the PGA Tour, you’re financially set. On the women’s side, making it to the LPGA Tour is just phase one. Phase two is making it on the LPGA Tour financially.”
Whan felt that financial security was guaranteed on the LPGA Tour only by players who had established themselves in the top 70.
“That’s something I’ve got to change,” he said. “I’ve got to make it that if you’re one of the best 200 female golfers on the planet, then there ought to be an opportunity on this tour to be financially successful.”
Whan, who took over in 2010 and earlier this week agreed to a contract extension to remain as commissioner through the 2020 season, has grown the circuit from 23 to 33 events in the last five years.
Purses have increased by 50 percent to more than $60 million this season and television coverage has doubled.
A fifth major, the Evian Championship, has been added and the tour has expanded into China and Taiwan before culminating in a season finale at the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Florida with a purse of $2 million.
The global nature of the tour, where New Zealand’s teenage prodigy Lydia Ko heads the rankings with players from South Korea, the United States, China and Norway in hot pursuit, is an added bonus for Whan.
“When some of these players come from different countries and they start having real success, it opens up a whole other range for us in terms of television rights and most importantly other title sponsors,” Whan said.
”When (Taiwan‘s) Yani (Tseng) was on the top of the world, we added an event in her country and we added a Taiwanese sponsor in San Francisco.
“I remember Japan’s Ai Miyazato in 2011 just killing it and we added a bunch of Japanese sponsors. More recently, we’ve had a lot of sponsors from South Korea and from North America.”
Whan overcame stiff challenges when he took over as the world grappled with an economic downturn.
”2010 and 2011 were tough years,“ he said. ”I really underestimated how frozen the economy was, especially in North America. It forced me to go back to basics, making sure that we delivered for the sponsor and not for the tour.
”I became kind of a seed money guy to help sponsors get started.
“A lot of events -- the Kia Classic, Founders Cup, CME Tour Championship – when we first started them weren’t really title sponsored or funded. But we got them started, found a title and now they are long-term successful events.”
Editing by Larry Fine