Mike Whan, the former P&G executive who recently renewed his contract to lead the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) as Commissioner for another six years, reveals his career path and why he was initially reluctant to join the organisation.
I have always been around a golf course. I grew up caddying, and I cut greens and fairways every summer until I graduated from college. I had an opportunity to leave mainstream corporate America and get into the golf space when leaving Wilson Sporting Goods for TaylorMade, which was later bought by adidas.
The risk of failing excites me. When I left TaylorMade in 1999, I realised that I’m not a flat learning curve guy – I want to be challenged with what I don’t know. I left golf thinking that there’s not a whole lot more I can learn and thinking I’d never return to the game.
I wasn’t interested in becoming LPGA commissioner. When I got the call in the summer of 2009, I said I wasn’t going to move my family, I certainly didn’t want a job where I had to travel every week and I felt like I’d been there and done it in golf. But the more I learnt about the job, the more I realised that the job was 180-degrees different from what I had been doing in the past.
I recommended two people for the job I eventually got. I gave the LPGA recruiter the names of two friends I thought would make great commissioners. The two I recommended had much more experience than I did, both in the golf space and certainly around the LPGA. One of the people I recommended was the first person I hired when I took the job, which was Jon Podany [LPGA chief commercial officer] who had been at the PGA Tour for 15 years.
I wasn’t interested in becoming LPGA commissioner
On the brand side, I’ve written a cheque to virtually every sport in the world. I remember telling the LPGA board that I haven’t led a sports league, I haven’t spent my time working on rules and regulations of a tour and I haven’t sold TV rights – the only time I’m going to be really comfortable is when I’m sitting across the table from a major cheque writer. The board said that’s exactly why they wanted me to be commissioner.
My father used to say listen, learn and lead – in that order. My first agreement with the board was to have 100 days where I could just listen and learn. Everybody wants you to share the gospel of what you’re going to bring to them, but the first 100 days you’re kind of dangerous because half of your ideas are right and the rest are wrong, and you’re just not sure which half.
There’s no PowerPoint that can work you around the recession. The biggest challenge I faced when taking the LPGA job was the fact that north America was in recession and all [potential] corporate partners had frozen their spending. The PGA Tour depends most on its viewership, but the LPGA is a much more of a relationship experience event, so what I was selling was exactly what corporate sponsors were reducing.
My proudest commercial deal is launching the Founders Cup [in 2011]. It showed respect to the 13 women that formed the LPGA 65 years ago, and the proceeds from the tournament go to a programme called Girls Golf that the LPGA and USGA (United States Golf Association) run together. Girls Golf now has 50,000 girls a year going through the programme, up from 4,000 in 2011.
The LPGA has a two-word philosophy: ‘role reversal’. This means stop spending so much time thinking about your own organisation and spend all of your time thinking about the cheque writers. I don’t pick markets, golf courses or countries, I pursue businesses the LPGA can help. Once we understand their business, we work on what tournament would be most beneficial for them.
You’re never going to guilt somebody into spending money. If you talk to any new LPGA corporate sponsor, none will say a deal was secured because they thought they should have a greater percentage of their money against women’s sport. The reason we’re growing purses by double digits every year is because we’re delivering more than we were five years ago.
I don’t see the LPGA calendar growing. I only want 32 to 34 events a year because we need to deliver quality fields every week for our sponsors. I’m not going to have 45 events and spend half the year flying around to CEOs to apologise about the best golfers not playing.
Purses will significantly grow in the next five years. This is mostly because there won’t be any more room to add on the schedule, so if you are a sponsor that wants to come in, you’re probably going to have to come in at a more aggressive level. We’re also likely to see a much larger TV audience – we’re now in about 170 countries, but I think we’ll add another 30, as well as increase viewership in existing regions.