Whan signs contract extension as LPGA commissioner

Laurence Applebaum, Mike Whan
Laurence Applebaum, Mike Whan (Golf Canada)

NAPLES, Fla. – Mike Whan pulled the LPGA Tour out of a deep hole when he took over as a commissioner nine years ago, and he’s not finished yet.

Whan has signed what the LPGA described only as a long-term contract extension that keeps him in charge as women’s golf tries to expand its exposure through a new television deal being negotiated.

Peter Carfagna, the outgoing chairman of the LPGA board of directors, said Wednesday in announcing the extension that Whan has taken the LPGA Tour “from a struggling sports brand to what it is today – a true powerhouse in women’s sports, equality and opportunity.”

“As my tenure on the LPGA board comes to an end, I could not be leaving this organization in better hands,” he said.

Whan took over in September 2010 for Carolyn Bivens following what amounted to a player mutiny over a heavy-handed style that alienated sponsors right about the time the economy went into a recession.

The LPGA had 24 tournaments that year with total official prize money of $41.4 million, and it had 23 events on the 2011 schedule in Whan’s first year. Only one tournament – the U.S. Women’s Open, run by the USGA – had a purse of $3 million or more.

Now, the LPGA is finishing up a season with 32 official events and $70.2 million in prize money. Five tournaments had a total purse of $3 million or more, and the CME Group Tour Championship has $5 million in prize money, with $1.5 million going to the winner, the richest payoff ever in women’s golf.

The LPGA expanded to five majors with the Evian Championship. It joined forces with the PGA of America to reshape another major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, held this year at Hazeltine, with future sites at Aronimink and Congressional.

Whan also introduced the International Crown, a biennial competition among eight qualifying countries with four-player teams.

“Ten years ago, I’m not sure many of us would have been bold enough to predict where we are today,” Whan said in a letter to his members, in which he pointed out that 19 of the 33 events on next year’s schedule didn’t exist in 2010. “We have built incredible alliances with many industry stakeholders, who have also helped us to create a stronger LPGA and fuel the growth of young women in the game.”

What said that when he gets asked where he wants to go next in his career, “Three words run through my head: I’m not done.”

The LPGA Tour now has a Tournament of Champions in Florida to start its season, and it has added another Florida event in the spring. It also has three international swings – Asia and Australia in the late winter, Europe in the summer and Asia in the fall.

Even as prize money increases, however, Whan is hopeful of broadening the exposure through television. The Tour Championship, the most significant individual event this side of the majors, is being broadcast on tape delay by Golf Channel until NBC airs the final round live.

The LPGA Tour is using the PGA Tour as its negotiator for the next TV contract, which expires after 2021. The LPGA typically uses an outside agency to help with negotiations, and Whan said this summer no one has been more successful than the PGA Tour.

He also is bullish on trying to persuade more companies to pour sponsorship dollars in the women’s game as they do for the men, either through tournaments or individual players.

“There is no doubt we’re at a tipping point and more executives, shareholders and investors are questioning whether their corporate values are reflected in every aspect of their company, including marketing and sponsorship decisions,” he said in his letter. “Increased corporate support translates into more opportunities for women in golf and more opportunities for female athletes to be seen as role models of confidence, ability and accomplishment.”