LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan is taking a three-year gamble with LPGA money that could turn into a win-win situation for the LPGA and Ladies European Tour. If his investment pays off, then the LPGA will have spread its influence into Europe. If it doesn’t, the LET faces a depressing slide into further obscurity.
There were plenty of smiles and mutual appreciation at the LET headquarters at the Buckinghamshire Golf Club as the LPGA and LET held a press conference to announce the 2020 LET schedule after a merger between the two tours.
There was much to be happy about. The 2020 LET schedule is an eye opener. It features a 24-tournament schedule worth a record €18 million. That’s much better than many expected. Particularly since it was announced just 90 days after the tours agreed to merge.
Be in no doubt who the senior partner in this merger is. Whan sat front and centre and led the press conference. European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley sat on his right while LET CEO Alexandra Armas was on Whan’s left. Pelley sits on the board with Armas. R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers also has a place on the board, but couldn’t make the press conference.
That the LPGA is underpinning this merger is obvious for one simple reason: the LET doesn’t have the cash to do so. If it did, money would have been ploughed into tournaments and there would be no need for the LPGA’s help. Whan is hoping he can take the LPGA model, apply it to the LET and get the same results.
“When I got to the LPGA in 2010, the LPGA had a little bit of savings not much after 60 years,” he said. “They didn’t really invest it into the tournament schedule and growth. So I spent about a year saying we have to be an investment bank. We’re going to have to spend some money to create some interest and now they’ve got three times the amount of money in savings, and we spend a ton of money investing into our schedule, our sponsors, TV. I think the LET just didn’t have the resources to do that. So somebody had to be the one who rolls the rock down the hill, but once you start it rolling it gets momentum.”
“We’re putting in money because we really believe that if we get started here we can be successful. We’ve proven it. We’re just replicating the LPGA model but on a smaller scale. It works. I know it works.”
Pelley was amazed that the LET not only wasn’t investing in its tour, but didn’t have the facility to do so.
“One of the surprises for me is that there isn’t a commercial department at the LET,” Pelley said. “There’s nobody actually telling the story, nobody actually selling partnerships, creating partnerships, creating sponsorships. Even if you have a great story and there’s a lot of interest in women’s golf, if you have nobody actually selling or creating partnerships, it’s impossible. There’s absolutely nobody, which was staggering and mind boggling for me. So we only have one way to go.”
Armas is back in the CEO role after an eight-year absence. She served as CEO between 2008-12, and watched from afar as the LET slid downhill, which made it impossible for European golf federations to support the Tour.
“Tournaments were shrinking, prize money was shrinking,” Armas said. “The focus is in Europe again. We were heading further and further away, and the tournaments were getting smaller. The Federations were very motivated to get involved again once they heard about the LPGA. They were struggling to understand how they could support LET events because it wasn’t going anywhere. They have to deliver to their players, they want their players to be the best in the world, they want their players to be Olympic winners and the LET was not really in a position to do that.”
It should be now thanks to the LPGA. But the next three years are critical to European women’s golf.
“At the end of three years, if this isn’t better and the LET or LPGA doesn’t think we’ve made a difference, we can separate. We’re going to commit to three years of living together. If we don’t like each other after three years, we can move back out.”
That would spell bad news for the LET’s future.