What is Michael Whan waiting for? The new LPGA commissioner has one, and only one, thing that he must do to save his tour: go global. I’m not talking about playing some events outside of the U.S. or simply recruiting international sponsors, both of which the LPGA already does.
The LPGA is floundering. It’s declined from 35 events with $54.8 million in prize money in 2007 to 25 events for $41.2 million in 2010. The 100th-ranked player on this year’s money list, Hye Jung Choi, has earned $17,380. That’s not only sad, but it also doesn’t come close to covering Choi’s expenses. I’m talking about travel expenses, never mind expenses like rent and electricity at home. When the 100th player loses money by playing, something radical needs to happen. What’s more, the tour’s players are not predominantly American, and almost all of the best players don’t have U.S. passports. (Just two of the top 10 money winners are American.) Trying to keep the LPGA an American-centric enterprise is just myopic and pointless.
The only way for the LPGA to thrive is to morph from being an American-based tour with American staff and an American headquarters into a truly global enterprise like Formula 1 racing. The Formula 1 Grand Prix series, which started out as a European circuit, is a colossal financial success and worldwide enterprise with 19 events in 18 countries on five continents.
The way I see it, the LPGA should be based in Asia, maybe in Seoul. It’s no secret that the bulk of the best players come from Asia, mainly South Korea. Last week, seven of the top nine finishers at the Jamie Farr Classic were Korean, and another in the top nine, Christina Kim, is an American with Korean parents. Just as important are the LPGA’s finances: the tour’s single biggest revenue source reportedly comes from Korean TV broadcast rights.
If the tour had 30 events, maybe 10 of them would be held in the U.S. The LPGA already has about a dozen international events. To increase that number, the tour would need new international sponsors and partnerships with European, Japanese and Korean tours. The men’s European Tour has had great success with its co-sanctioned events.
One big obstacle to this plan is history. The LPGA was founded in America by Americans, and it’s always been based here. The tour has always seen itself as red, white and blue despite its huge contingent of international players and sponsors. Convincing the rank-and-file, the majority (barely) of whom are American, to ditch the USA and go global would be a hard sell.
Ultimately, the financial issues will trump history and force the LPGA to reorganize and rejuvenate itself in the mold of Formula 1 racing. It might not be an easy job, but it can be done, and going global will ensure that players like Hye Jung Choi can earn a living playing golf.