In November 2017, Jon Iwata, former chief brand officer at IBM Corporation, was among those elected to the LPGA Board of Directors. At one of his first board meetings, he asked LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan a simple question: What is the tour selling?
“That’s a softball down the middle,” Whan remembers thinking. He broke down the LPGA’s commitment to being customer-focused, its integrations between players and sponsors and its mission for all involved to leave the women’s game better off than they found it. Whan then remembers looking into Iwata’s face and realizing there was a disconnect within the LPGA.
“How do we make sure that we communicate outwardly what we’ve long since both communicated and lived, inwardly?” he says he asked himself.
The result is the LPGA’s “Drive On” campaign, which debuted in March. Featuring both LPGA golfers and outside women of multiple ages, the commercial addresses such topic as bullying, body image and inclusion. Originally intended to be a TV commercial, the first clip, “This is For Every Girl,” went viral on social media before even making its TV debut.
“We listen to our athletes as opposed to our athletes to listening to us,” Whan says. “Our athletes will tell you that you may see me at the top of my game playing all around the world, but the effort to get here, no matter which one you’re talking to, you’ve had your share of setbacks and naysayers and challenges and walls and ceilings that you had to break along the way. From the top athlete on Tour to the one just breaking in, it resonates with them. They realize what they’re doing is about more than golf.”
To that end, in order for the Tour to grow – and to connect with sponsors – players must go the extra mile in their off-the-course responsibilities. Rather than just slap sponsor names on tournaments, Whan and his team take the time to educate the players on their partners.
“Nobody is sticking a note in LeBron James’ locker tonight talking about the new bank that just joined,” Whan says, talking to FOS before the ANA (All Nippon Airways) Inspiration earlier in April. “But for our 140 players on tour this week, we’ll have a note in their locker talking about ANA and pictures of the most important people that’ll be here this week and where to send your handwritten thank-you card.”
That’s right. For each tournament, the LPGA asks its players to write at least one handwritten thank-you card to a sponsor — and some volunteer to write more than one. This added touch is only seen by those on the business side.
“A lot of CEOs have said to me, ‘I have an entire drawer dedicated to your Tour because I don’t know what to do with those cards,’” Whan laughs. “I think having a drawer at every CEO’s office is a pretty valuable piece of real estate.”
Those CEOs extend well beyond U.S. borders. ANA, for instance, is a Japanese brand. While the PGA Tour goes international for one Asia swing plus the Open Championship, the LPGA has two Asia-Australia swings and a longer European swing. Moreover, the LPGA is also being broadcaste in roughly 170 countries.
“It creates revenue that didn’t exist 30 years ago for the LPGA,” Whan says. “It creates global superstars. Jessica and Nelly Korda stepping on a tee in Malaysia is no different than stepping on a tee in Toledo, in terms of size of gallery, people that know them, have done the research on them and where the shirts that say, ‘Go Korda!’ I see them all over the world.”
And golfers are starting to see that in their bottom lines. When Whan got to the LPGA in 2010, the Tour had two millionaires. He takes pride in that number growing to around 20 in 2018. He credits the increased global appeal with helping provide the necessary company revenue.
“If you can get to this level, I want to make sure if you’re at this level and can stay at this level, that this is a great financial opportunity for you,” he says.
One area Whan will have to address for revenue is fantasy and gambling. Whan says he would be wrong to ignore the rising tide of legalized sports betting becoming more prominent in the United States.
“I don’t want to be the guy that the parade went by, and I forgot to get in,” he says.
Still, Whan is protective of his players and caddies. He says his No. 1 goal in this situation is to maintain the integrity of those two parties. Fantasy and betting is already existent in sportsbooks and apps in the U.S. without any LPGA partnerships. Last month, the PGA Tour announced it will permit players to attain sponsorships “by casinos and other legal gambling companies” so long as those brands’ primary focus is not sports gambling.
PGA Tour events will also have the option to bring on such entities as title sponsors.
“I’ve seen this happen in football and others with things like fantasy football,” Whan says. “I do realize that there’s a significant opportunity to bring a fan base to the game that may not be at the game otherwise. My wife can tell you the backup tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs and probably didn’t even know the Kansas City team was named the Chiefs before fantasy football. It makes you kind of engage in a sport at a higher level.”
All of which circles back to “Drive On.” Whan, the LPGA staff and its players operate under the internal tagline, “Act Like a Founder.” “Drive On” is the external equivalent and the pitch to sponsors about an organization hoping to leave its sport in a better place than they found it. Whan only hopes they get the message.