Mike Whan: Resuming LPGA competition is a responsibility, not a race

 

This first-person essay from LPGA commissioner Mike Whan originally appeared on LPGA.com


The most common question sports commissioners hear these days is, “When will sports be back?” 

I can assure you, it’s the most important question every commissioner is working hard to answer. As part of the President’s Bipartisan Council to revive the economy, we are collaborating across sports to share proposed protocols and best practices. And as heads of our leagues, we’re addressing the many challenges and needs of our individual organizations in order to safely return to play. Golf, for example, differs from arena-based sports; contact sports differ from non-contact sports. 

My job as LPGA commissioner is to provide playing opportunities for our tour professionals. Unlike many other sports, our athletes don’t have guaranteed multi-year contracts with no-trade clauses. They are independent contractors who only get paid when they play, and only then when they make the cut at a given tournament. They run their own small businesses – they pay for their own travel, their own meals, and they hire their own caddie, swing coach, nutritionist, etc. In other words, they have plenty of expenses, so when revenue opportunities stop, they feel the same crunch that companies all around the world are feeling.

I also appreciate keenly the important role that sports play in our society and as a marker of returning to “normal.” The world is hungry for the passion, the community and the relief that only sports can provide. Yet we are all in unchartered territory in managing through this global pandemic and the layers of change that it has brought. Economic disruption. Loss of life. Changes in lifestyle. Social distancing. 

These duel imperatives are any commissioner’s dilemma. Be fast and be safe. Trust me, being competitive and wanting to make my members proud is built into my DNA. I’m driven to show my athletes just how fast I can give them back the financial and competitive opportunities they have earned. That said, I realize that literally millions of people around the globe have sacrificed their “normal” to help stem the spread of this virus, and I have no interest (nor right) to create a situation that would compromise all those efforts by so many people/places. 

It’s clear to me is there won’t be a master “starting bell.” Rather, each sport, each league and each city/country will resume in a way that works for their unique challenges. 

In late April, we shared our current view of the LPGA Tour schedule for 2020. With the incredible support of our LPGA sponsors, we’ve created a full schedule beginning the week of July 13 and extending through December 20. If we can execute that plan, we’ll deliver a back-half of 2020 that still $56 million and an average purse of nearly $2.7 million per event.

Truth be told, I’ve had over 10 different versions of our 2020 schedule based on different assumptions on “when” we’ll start and how “regular” our schedule can be when we begin. And, there may still more updates ahead. 

Other leagues/tours may start earlier. Others may start later. Certainly, we’ve heard the voices making the argument that the LPGA should be among the first to start:

  • Golf lends itself to social distancing. Played outdoors, in small groups, on courses covering a couple hundred acres. We were first out so we should be the first back.
  • As golf’s global tour, we were among the first professional sports leagues to be affected by the pandemic. Beginning in late January, when most of the world was hearing about the virus as a distant threat, we worked with our sponsors in Thailand, Singapore and China to cancel our events based on health advisories in those countries. Our tour has been idled since then, as the virus spread to North America, Europe and most countries around the world. 
  • Women’s sports would benefit from an early return. Here’s a statistic that needs to change: Women’s sports receive only 4% of media coverage. Some believe that if women start back first, sport-hungry fans and media would discover what makes women’s sports so special. 

So why a mid-July return when other sports – and golf tours – anticipate starting sooner? Here are two reasons, one practical and one personal.

From a practical standpoint, as a global tour, over 35% of our athletes and caddies are currently outside of the USA. They returned to their homes (and I encouraged them to do so), when it became clear that people globally would be ordered to “stay at home.” They will have to navigate travel ban/restrictions and return to the US at least two weeks prior to our restart in order to self-quarantine in advance of play. Certainly, traveling to the US is no easy task right now; moreover, our remaining 2020 schedule still has us playing in eight different countries and nine US states, each of which may have their own restrictions and requirements. 

The second and more compelling reason was the voices of our players. Since the crisis began, I’ve stayed in regular contact with our members through emails, videos and individual phone calls. Our LPGA Tour athletes, who certainly have the strongest motivation to start playing again, have helped me get comfortable with the idea that “winning” in this circumstance does NOT necessarily mean being first. Resuming sports safely isn’t a race. It’s a responsibility. A responsibility not just to our athletes, sponsors, volunteers and fans but also to the millions who have sacrificed their personal safety to battle this pandemic or put their lives on hold to stem the spread.

Our sponsors have been extraordinary. Believe me, they want our season to resume as much as we do. In the midst of their own business crisis, they have been patient, thoughtful, flexible and understanding. They appreciate the dilemma. And they support our decisions. 

So, will the LPGA resume our season in mid-July? It’s too soon to say. If I’ve learned anything about COVID-19, I’ve learned that no matter how well I plan, the virus will set the ultimate timeline. Today, there are still many unknowns and variables, including progress in screening, tracing and the spread of the virus itself. 

Today, my planning horizon is 30-45 days out. Beyond that, all bets are off. But here’s something you can count on: We are working diligently with our sponsors, other sports leagues and experts in the field in order to play as soon as we can responsibly. And when we resume play, we will do so with the excitement and joy you’ve come to expect of the LPGA. 



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