Michael Whan: Ladies' Man

2014 06 Whan1

Cast your mind back to the start of 2009.

Those of you who take an interest in women’s golf will recall the LPGA was in not the best state. The official prize money was $47.6m, the lowest total since 2005, with just 28 official tournaments on the calendar, the fewest since 2004.

Right then, it was hard to imagine things getting worse. By July 2009, however, they had. With only 14 tournaments committed for the 2010 schedule, as a result of a failure to secure sponsorship for some of its key events, the LPGA found itself at a crossroads. A change of direction was required.

The embattled and often-controversial commissioner Carolyn Bivens stood down under increasing pressure from the tour’s players and, in October 2009, was replaced by marketing executive Michael Whan, who assumed the hot-seat in January 2010.

Fast-forward to the present day. There are, at the time of writing, 32 tournaments on the LPGA schedule, visiting 14 countries and carrying a total prize fund of $57.9m. Clearly, things are improving. And, for that, Whan must take a lof of credit. Under his forthright, pro-active, and enthusiastic stewardship, the LPGA has got its mojo back. The storm clouds have passed and the outlook is sunny once again.

“Looking back, it was probably the perfect time for me to join,” he acknowledges in an exclusive chat with bunkered. “You had tournaments who had a lot to say. When you’re brand new into something, in that first year, you’re probably a better listener than you will ever be in the job and that’s what I tried to do. I was brand new, clueless and what I really needed was input from the players and media. As it happened, it was a great time to be asking for that input, because a lot of people had it to give. It actually made my job much easier.

“I read a lot of obituaries in 2010 when I first started. Women’s golf was in trouble and people were asking, ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’ I think that’s probably one of the reasons why people are so pro-LPGA today, because their expectations were so much lower. The reality of it, though, is that none of that has anything to do with the business. It’s all to do with what’s going on inside the ropes. I’m proud of me and my staff but I know that what’s going on inside the ropes is the reason that we’re in this unbelievable position right now.”

Whan may be being a touch humble. Whilst the performances of the likes of Inbee Park, Stacy Lewis and Suzann Pettersen have turned more people on to the women’s game, Whan having his priorities in check has given those players a platform to perform. And right at the top of that list of priorities is, like most good ideas, something so simple: putting the customer first.

“We had to go back to basics and ask ourselves, ‘What are we really good at?’” reveals Whan. “In our case, I have a strong idea on what that is: to be the most customer-centric sport in the world, and that shouldn’t be that hard, because most sports aren’t like that. They’re pretty focused on the fans, and on the players, and on generating revenue, but they don’t tend to spend a lot of time listening to the people that are writing the cheques. I think the LPGA’s greatest advantage is that we’re about the customer. A lot of other sports accept your money, give you ad space and hang your banner, but they won’t really build their product around your brand. We, though, are prepared to do that.

“We started a thing called ‘role reversal’. We used to spend a lot of time talking about pin placements, tee boxes, and where to position cameras. Now, we spend a lot more time trying to figure out what’s most important for HSBC, what can we do for Honda Thailand. When you figure those things out, you can always fit a golf tournament around it.”

Whan’s approach comes from having been the same customer that he now serves. Spells working at Procter & Gamble, Wilson Sporting Goods, and TaylorMade helped mould his management vision.

“I know what it’s like to write a big cheque to a sporting entity, and I also know what it’s like to have written that cheque and get to your event and feel as though nobody remembers when they got you to sign on the dotted line,” he adds. “I get what it’s like to be a sponsor. I’ve stood in front of a board and tried to justify how much we spend and what that money makes for the business. So, knowing that I put our sponsors in those same situations, I make sure that we deliver so that their presentations back to their boards are pretty easy.”
"We make sure our players all know our events rely on us delivering the business objectives of the guys on the title" - Michael Whan

Of course, Whan can’t do that without the help of the players. They need to be willing and able to do all the things that might tick boxes for sponsors. Whan and his team have a strategy to help them do just that.

“I don’t think there are a lot of sports where the athletes are educated about the people writing the cheques that week, but they are on the LPGA,” he notes. “If you show up at any event, you’ll see players signing-in on the Tuesday. When they enter, they are handed a two-page form called the ‘Customer Profile Sheet’. The first heading is ‘Who’s writing the cheque this week?’ and we talk about the company. So, let’s say that’s Kia. The next section will say, ‘What do Kia hope you’ll say when there’s a microphone in your hand?’ It shows pictures of the top Kia executives and the top Kia customers who’ll be there that week. It has mailing addresses for you to send your handwritten ‘thank you’ note. It talks a little about their business and the most important section is ‘Why does Kia do this? If they were to stop, what would we miss?’

“We make sure our players all know our events rely on us delivering the business objectives of the guys on the title. I think that’s pretty unique. I’m pretty sure Derek Jeter has never been told who’s in the box and reminded they’re an important contributor to the Yankees.”

Fortunately, the players are, in the main, happy to comply, with around 80% to 90% doing all that is asked of them each week. Whan adds: “In my first year, I really couldn’t tell you how many players came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Commish. How can I help?’ I could tell that they were serious, that they wanted to contribute, but what they didn’t have was information. Now, they do. I always tell players you don’t have to participate in doing what needs done but, if you want to, here’s everything you need to know. Read the customer profile, thank the people it mentions, and say, tweet and Facebook the stuff we suggest. It’s little stuff but it’s important stuff.”

Speaking of Twitter, Whan is a frequent user of the site and says it’s crucial to the LPGA’s business.

“Twitter works for us on a couple of fronts,” he continues. “The ‘Ah-ha!’ moment for me was at the end of 2010 or early 2011. We were getting ready to send a press release and I walked into our communications department. I said, ‘Hey, are we about ready to send that out?’ and one of managers said, ‘It’s already done.’ I said, ‘What? I didn’t see it?’ and she said, ‘No, Paula Creamer already tweeted it.’ I said, ‘I don’t really know what that means.’ She said, ‘Well, trust me when I tell you all of our media and probably another couple hundred-thousand of her fans are already aware, so the articles are already getting written.’ I said, ‘But surely we need to send a release?’ She said, ‘No, we don’t.’ At that point, I said, ‘Okay, talk me through this Twitter thing, then.’ When I got to know it and got to see all the benefits of it, I saw that it was just a great way to engage the fan-base.

“Ultimately, that’s something we all want to do. We were the first to put Twitter handles on the back of our caddie bibs. When we started doing that, we had about 75% of our players tweeting. The ones that didn’t we took through a little Twitter education and told them, ‘You might want to think about this.’ We want fans to get to know our players and Twitter’s just a ‘home run’ for doing that.”

RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup - Final Round

THE LPGA didn’t have its problems to seek when Whan was appointed. However, above all else, it was most crucial that it address its image of being a tour divided. The success of non-English speaking Asian players - largely at the expense of American players - in the latter part of Carolyn Bivens’ tenure caused tension and controversy. The tour was seen as fractured, and Whan knew it.

“I think that, with most sports, the stereotype is based in truth. It’s usually just dated by three or four years,” he reveals. “You say ‘LPGA’ to some people and they’ll come back at you with old stereotypes. You know, ‘There’s a huge international influence, people don’t really speak English, do the players really get along with one another?’ There was probably some truth to that in 2008. But, in 2014, it is a big integrated family. If you asked some of the players who their best friends are on tour, I think you would be floored by some of the answers.”

The issue of re-integrating the LPGA was apparent to Whan from the moment he was announced as the new commissioner in New York in October 2009.

“The first question I was asked was what I was going to do about the international influence on the tour and how I’d control that,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Control it? It’s like a fire and I’m going to throw gasoline on it.’ Next thing I know, everybody starts scribbling in their notepads. I was like, ‘Geez, what did I say?’ Later the same day, in a one-on-one, I was asked why I was so comfortable inviting in players from all around the world. I said, ‘Because I’m following the greatest sports example in the world - the Olympics.’ People watch the Olympics because it’s got the best athletes in the world, all in the prime of their careers, and all fighting and striving to be No.1. We have that at the LPGA.

“Fans want to see the absolute best. Athletes want to compete against the absolute best for the right to be called the best. And that creates global interest.”

Today, the LPGA is broadcast in 170 countries. No mean feat, but Whan insists that more has to be done. He says: “There is zero chance women’s golf gets the level of coverage it deserves. There is a long way to go. People criticised me for adding a fifth major. Well, a lot of outlets around the world only covered us four times a year, and that was for the majors. If I can get a fifth time, I’ve got to do that. My founders would kick me otherwise. My job is to leave things better than I found them. A fifth major was a great opportunity for us. I get that a lot of people might not like it. As a fan, I probably wouldn’t either. But, as a commissioner, I have to recognise it as a great opportunity.”

Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic - Round One

MICHAEL WHAN is a hugely impressive guy. He speaks with genuine enthusiasm and affection not just for his job but for women’s golf in general. What’s more, his impressive results with the LPGA in such a short space of time haven’t gone unnoticed, with some speculating that he could be a potential replacement for his PGA Tour counterpart Tim Finchem when he finally calls it a day, presumably in 2016.

The two have a great relationship, with Finchem offering Whan invaluable support in his early days in the job.

He reveals: “Tim was one of the first people who called to congratulate me back in 2009 when I got the job and he said, ‘If I can ever help you, we’re not that far apart, so why don’t you come up the road and we’ll have a talk.’ So, on my second day in the job, I spent the morning with him because I’m smart enough to realise I’ll never know as much about how to do this job as he does. And once you actually do the job, you realise that there’s only really a handful of people out there that you can call up and say, ‘I’m struggling with this issue’.”

Likewise, Whan has an excellent relationship with his Ladies European Tour counterpart, Ivan Khodabakhsh.

“We speak probably once a month or so and then, when the season gets started, a little more,” adds Whan, “It’s the same with the K-LPGA and the Japanese LPGA. It’s a pretty small industry and, at the end of the day, we’re all dealing with the same issues and have the same goals.”
"It’s difficult to try to talk somebody into spending millions of dollars per year for the next few years on your products and not be there when they’re spending it." - Michael Whan

Speculation has been rife over the past year or so that the PGA Tour might attempt to buy out the European Tour in the not-too-distant future. As such, it’s reasonable to wonder if Whan might have similar plans for the LPGA and LET. “I get asked this all the time and my reaction might be wrong but I already see the LPGA as a world tour,” he says. “I don’t think of it as the ‘US LPGA’. If it was, we’d never leave the USA but we obviously do. I believe there are some great regional tours in women’s golf and our job is to make sure those get even stronger but I see the LPGA as a global tour. If you said to me, ‘Mike, tell me what a world tour looks like’, I’d say players from all over the world play on it, fans from all over the world watch it, and it travels all over the world. I don’t really know how much better we’d do that, than now.”

Whan’s hands-on approach sees him attend most events on the LPGA schedule, if only for part of the week. “It’s difficult to try to talk somebody into spending millions of dollars per year for the next few years on your products and not be there when they’re spending it,” he reasons.

However, that means a lot of time spent on the road, which, as a husband and father of three, can be tricky. “It’s the hardest part of the job,” he says. “I could live with the world not liking me as a commissioner, but I can’t live with not succeeding as a father.”

Interestingly, Whan also has some Scottish lineage. He laughs: “If you believe my grandfather, who was into researching the family history, he was convinced our name was ‘McWhan’ originally. I’d never really paid much attention to that but, 15 years ago, I was in Scotland and I grabbed a copy of the phone book, looked it up and there was like 50 McWhans. It was pretty neat to see that. My father and my father’s father believe that we were definitely McWhans and became Whans in the early 19th century when we came to the States. All farmers, by the way.”

Whan might not have followed directly in the footsteps of his ancestors but there’s no question he, and the crop of players he represents, are harvesting a bright future for the LPGA.

• Michael Whan in bunkered

This interview with Michael Whan first appeared in issue 131 of bunkered (Published: April 2014)


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