NAPLES, Fla. — As is custom, LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan addressed the media at the CME Group Tour Championship, the last event on the LPGA calendar. Whan, who is wrapping up his 10th year as commissioner and just signed an extension, talked about the current state of the tour, where it was when he started and where it can be. 2020 will feature the most purse money and TV hours ever for the LPGA Tour. But Whan believes there is much more work to do. Here are the top takeaways from his conversation with the media:
The gender pay gap in golf is a problem, but it will improve
Whan cited the following stat: 95 percent of all corporate sports sponsorship dollars are spent on male sports. Though that doesn't translate directly to female golfers making 5 percent of what male golfers make, the gap in golf is big. But comparing the money on the LPGA Tour to the PGA Tour is complicated, and Whan knows that. On one hand, there's the concept that a lot of women's sports struggles with: that male and female athletes are doing the same job but earning different amounts of money. It gets more complex, however, when you look at the revenue both entities yield.
"The biggest problem in the gap is we deliver a fourth of the eyeballs of the PGA Tour, and we get about a fourth of the revenue of the PGA Tour when we sit across from somebody who's a title sponsor. I've written too many checks in my life to too many sports to know how that goes, and I get it. That's a real reality," Whan said.
But with TV time increasing, purses growing, more young women picking up golf, and the continuation of an equally paid men's and women's award (the AON Risk Reward Challenge), Whan is encouraged.
"The pay gap is going to close in women's golf just like it's going to close in women's sports" Whan said. "It's not going to close because some ad agency comes up with a spreadsheet that shows you the analysis of—that's not how social movements happen. It's going to happen because a couple people step up and say, You know what, this is the right thing to do. I can afford to do it, and by God, I'm going to do it. And I think we're going to see the same thing happen in golf."
The LPGA is pursuing a joint venture with the Ladies European Tour
The Ladies European Tour (LET) has been hurting for sponsors, seeing its schedule shrink in recent years. But in hopes of revitalizing it, the LPGA is pursing the opportunity to join forces.
"Between the LPGA board and the LET board have both unanimously voted that we would like to move forward with a joint venture between the two of us. But at the end of the day, the LET—no different from the LPGA—is run by its players, so the players will get the final vote on that," Whan said.
If the vote does go through, the new board will have six members of the LPGA and six members from the LET.
"I want to make sure the European Tour players know that this is not some American growth strategy," Whan said. "I'm not expecting to make money at the LET, but I do think we can provide—the way I said it to my board is: If you read the mission of the LPGA, it's to provide women the opportunity to pursue their dreams in the game of golf, period. That's the whole statement. As I said to our board, I don't see a boundary or a fence around that statement. It doesn't say in America, doesn't say in North America, doesn't say in countries where you think the opportunity is greatest. So I said to my board, I think we should do this because we can. We really can. And I think it's our responsibility."
International women's golf is stronger than ever, thanks to the Olympics
In a year when three non-members of the LPGA Tour won events, it's become even more evident that international women's golf is strong. And the return of golf to the Olympics is, in part, to thank.
"Outside of the United States they only consider two kinds of sports, Olympic sports and non-Olympic sports, and when we were a non-Olympic sport, we were considered elite and premium and only rich people play and as a result most countries didn't even like the game in places we went. Ten years later, 100 percent different. I mean, 100 percent different," Whan said.
He talked about his wife commenting here in Naples that it's cool to see the LPGA talked about in the sports page of USA Today. Whan's response was, "We are the sports section in Thailand. When the best women in the world show up in Thailand, they literally shut down the rest of sports to talk about the LPGA being in town. I can tell you those examples in a lot of other countries."
"As good as things are feeling for the future of the game for women in America, they're getting dwarfed by our countries that are really opening doors that weren't open before," Whan said. "I think more than anything else, that's the Olympic movement."
He doesn't know how long he's going to be commissioner
While the LPGA announced earlier this week that Whan had signed a "long-term extension", no one has shared a number as to how many years Whan will continue on as commissioner.
"I think you guys know this isn't an act," Whan said. "I love this. I love these athletes. I love my teammates, and if they want me to be here in a head coaching role, I'm going to keep coming in as a head coaching role. When they're done with me, I'm not going to be offended by that. And as I've said to our board many times, you're going to find somebody younger, faster, and more caffeinated than me, and when you do, just give them the baton. I feel comfortable now that whenever it ends, it ends."
Whan is in the position of being happy with where the tour is while still knowing more has to be done. The record number of TV hours scheduled for 2020, and a record total season purse have Whan feeling good about the state of the tour. The higher percentage of girls playing golf is encouraging to him, too. But he's also aware that there is more work to do.
"It would be embarrassing for me if this was as good as it gets. It would be embarrassing for the LPGA. This can't be where women's golf plateaus, and if it plateaus here, shame on all of us."