With the return of the PGA Tour to competition this week, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan took a few minutes to answer questions about the LPGA schedule and what fans may expect for the rest of 2020 and beyond.
Q: The PGA Tour is back. Why isn’t the LPGA?
Whan: First off, I celebrate that the PGA Tour is playing. I think sports coming back is good for everyone, including me and my sponsors and our fans who are craving golf. But we’re a slightly different Tour than the PGA Tour. I don’t think anybody doubts that. We are truly a global entity where we have players from all over the world. And not a small percentage. We have a large number of players and caddies who are not based in America.
Flying to America or anywhere right now when you’re coming from that many locations is a bit more challenging. We can’t really figure out the travel restrictions in one market or one state or even one country. We have to figure that out, literally, throughout the world. We have players who can’t leave their home country. That could change at any time, but right now they can’t.
Also, we want to make sure that when we do bring the world together, not only are we safe and healthy, but we share that responsibility with the market we’re entering.
We’ll be back. But as I’ve said many times, getting back is a responsibility, not a race.
Q: The news out of France and The Evian Championship is disappointing. What happened there?
Whan: The news out of France is not good news for the LPGA and LPGA players but it’s not shocking news for any of us, either. Anybody who follows the news of the virus knows that border crossing has been our biggest challenge.
I give the country of France a lot of credit for being able to shut down completely and do all they could to keep the virus at bay. They’re just starting to re-open now. And while I do think there might be some European crossing over the summer, we knew that by the beginning of June, we would have to make a decision based on the data we had at the time. And at the beginning of June, it became clear that we could not travel into France and play a competitive event without a 14-day quarantine.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a later date. We had already moved Evian back once and the rest of our calendar is pretty well spoken for.
I give (the Evian group) a lot of credit. They battled until the end. We had a lot of different formats being discussed – small footprints, no fans, minimal impact. But when you talk about players, families and caddies coming from 50 or 60 different countries, we just weren’t sure we would be able to get them in to put on a major that wasn’t hampered by the border crossing issues.
We thought the best thing was to play The Evian as The Evian. We will be back in 2021 and like most majors, we expect to be playing this event for generations to come.
We do, however, feel pretty good about being able to go to the U.K. So, while we can’t go to France and play Evian, it doesn’t mean that our entire European swing is canceled.
Q: How fluid is the situation with data concerning COVID-19 changing on an almost daily basis? And when do have to make calls on when and how to host events?
Whan: That’s a good question because if you’re a fan, you base your opinion on whether or not the LPGA should be playing on what you know today. You look at a date and a market and say, ‘I know you could play there then.’ But the question is: could you have made that call 45 days ago?
You can’t put on an LPGA Tour event with international and domestic television and players coming in from all over the world – some of whom would have to be quarantined – on a moment’s notice. I have to set up testing protocols and get connected with testing labs. Essentially, we have to make decisions on LPGA Tour events 45 days 0ut.
So when you say, ‘I think you could play an LPGA event here today,’ would you have said that 45 days ago and would you have felt comfortable that you could get players and caddies into that event from all over the world? Would you have known that hotels and restaurants would be open? Would you have known that they could rent cars and get ground transportation?
In most cases, when somebody says to me, ‘Hey, Mike, I don’t know why you’re not playing in fill-in-the-blank,’ I say, ‘Would you have said that to me in March?’ The answer is: No chance. But that person is thinking about the middle of June, not the time when we had to make that call.
What I can’t say to any group is, ‘We’re going to play here,’ and then not do it. Because that’s when you start spending real time, effort and money, not just of sponsors but of medical-support staff and others who can’t afford to be pulled away from important jobs only to have the event not happen.
It’s the same reason the Olympics decided to postpone for a year but told us five months before and not five weeks before.
Q: How handcuffed are you by differing rules in various cities, states and countries? And how are you managing that?
Whan: A lot of people ask me how things are between countries – France, England, Scotland, Korea, America, Japan – and there are significant differences in where they are in the pandemic cycle and where they are in hosting large events.
The problem – and Americans will know this – is that we also have 50 different states that are at different stages and different comfort levels in terms of large gatherings. It isn’t one-size-fits-all. I can’t tell you that the government restriction is X and the health advisory is Y because that information in California is different than it is in Georgia, which is different than it is in New Jersey, which is different than it is in Ohio, which is different than Michigan. And we’re trying to figure out all those markets in order to play either Epson Tour or LPGA Tour events. And, all of those restrictions and protocols change every two weeks.
I can answer a question about where an existing market is today, but I can’t tell you where they will be in two months. And I can’t tell you that Oregon and California are in the same place just because they’re both on the west coast of America. That’s simply not the case.
“Fluid” is the word for 2020. Every day you wake up and realize all the things you didn’t know. I do believe we will get started in Ohio in July and then be off and running. But what I believe and what the virus will be in control of in the next 30 days are two different things.
Q: The PGA Tour is playing without fans for the first month. Explain why the LPGA Tour doesn’t do that.
Whan: There are a lot of reasons people partner with the LPGA. They partner with the LPGA because of women’s empowerment and the message we’re sending around the world. They partner with us because we create a global footprint. But at the core, our checkwriters bring a community together. Whether it’s their hometown or the hometowns of their employees, customers or vendors, it’s the coming together that they enjoy.
The LPGA isn’t just a good show: You’re part of the show. You get to meet these athletes; you get to play in pro-ams; you get to have dinner with our players. It’s what makes our events special. We’re not just good seats and parking. We integrate into our checkwriters’ business.
So, when it comes to making that call 45 days out, I have to ask that checkwriter: are we delivering the value you’re paying for? In most cases, when it comes to an LPGA Tour event, if they can’t bring their customers together; if they can’t bring their employees and their families together and do it in front of the hometown we’re supporting, the value quotient doesn’t make sense.
What I’ve said to all of our sponsors is: I’d rather make sure we deliver value to you in a future year than force you to play in 2020 if I can’t deliver the value you expect this year. I’m saying, give me another year on the contract if you’re not comfortable playing this year.
We probably have the legal right to play more events in 2020 than we are playing. But forcing a partner to host an event because you have the legal right is a great way to lose that partner.
Q: Ohio fans seem awfully excited about being the first back. Tell us about that.
Whan: Ohio was really a joint effort between us, the PGA Tour with The Memorial and the Champions Tour with their Bridgestone event, all played within a few weeks of each other scheduled in July. All three of those events rely on fans to make the business model work and generate significant proceeds for charity.
All three of our teams went to Ohio governor (Mike) Dewine and petitioned him together. We all explained our safety protocols, our testing protocols and how we believed we could put on an event that was not only safe for our athletes and caddies but put on an event that was safe for the fans as well.
We were really excited last week that Governor Dewine had said yes to those events. That will be a great opportunity for us in late July to restart our season.
Q: Going back to something you said earlier about the long term, what are you hearing about 2021?
Whan: No matter what sport or business you’re in, 2020 is the year of the asterisk. No matter how many events we deliver, it’s not going to be the season that the athletes, caddies, fans or staff expected. Nobody is going to walk away thinking 2020 was a great year for the LPGA.
Knowing that, I’ve sent a very clear message to everyone I work with: Don’t win 2020 and lose long term. Because of that, I can tell you without question that our 2021 schedule will be the biggest you have ever seen on the LPGA Tour. We will play in front of more fans, for more money, with more television than anything we’ve ever done before.
The reason I know 2021 is going to be so good is because everybody who was with me in 2020 is still with me in 2021, plus we’ve added some new sponsors that we haven’t announced yet.
Business and sports alike, when they’re filling out their report cards, the measurement will be how you look in 2021, not how you did in 2020. I feel comfortable saying to my athletes, my caddies, my staff and most importantly my fans, if you can put up with 2020, you’ll like what you see in 2021 and 2022.
Q: There have been a number of high-profile made-for-TV matches involving PGA Tour players. Why hasn’t the LPGA done anything like that?
Whan: There have been some of those events in America that might have looked more male than female. I think if you look around the rest of the world, there’s been a pretty good mix. But, look, all we can do is continue to raise the profile of women who play the game.
And I’m excited about all the emails I’ve gotten about potential made-for-TV ideas. I’ve built a team that is working on all of those as it relates to the LPGA. But the 35 checkwriters who keep the LPGA in business deserve my undivided attention. And my athletes deserve to know that they’re commissioner is focused on the long-term health of the LPGA and the schedules that LPGA, LET, Epson and Access Tour players deserve. So, my focus has been 100% on the schedules, not just this year but in future years, and on the sponsors that give us those opportunities.
Now, that being said, one of the best things that has happened to me in 2020 is that when I’ve watched these all-male matches, I haven’t had to be the one to post something like, ‘Where are the women?’ And when I look back to 2010, I might have been the only one asking that question. The fact that, today, I’m not having to say anything shows me that we’re making progress. It might not be the progress that every LPGA fan or athlete wants. But it’s an exciting time when someone else is taking up the banner and saying, ‘Golf is more than male golf, isn’t it?’
To be able to sit back and enjoy the fact that others have picked up that missing element is pretty special. I’m not sure that eight or nine years ago, people would have even recognized that something was missing. Today, everybody recognized it without me saying a word.
Personally, as commissioner of the LPGA, that is progress.