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LET: Losing Every Tournament?

I Used to Like the LET

I used to admire the LET (Ladies European Tour). In many ways, it reminded me of a much-liked childhood fairytale: ‘The Little Engine that Could’.

For evidence of that admiration, look no further than the Mikes Awards it earned for: 2015 & 2016’s Best Tour Site (men or women) and its runner-up gong for 2016’s Best Tour Tweeter!

That admiration endured until perhaps two years ago when LET entered a spiraling decline, seemingly on all fronts: online quality, tournament schedule, relationships with other golf governing bodies, sponsorships and, especially, leadership.

To me, the LET today looks to be on the brink of either bankruptcy or irrelevance, like the OneAsia Tour did last year; it’s an eerily similar decline. Today, the LET offers less than half of an acceptable schedule for its playing members!

Its failed CEO, Ivan Khodabakhsh, was kicked out in August 2017 and to date no replacement has been appointed. That’s a gap of 15 months, which to me is beyond belief. Is the problem affording one? Well, you can’t afford to not have one!

Womens Sports

Life is never easy where sponsorship is difficult to secure yet key to survival; even more so for womens’ sports, such as golf. Across all of sports the men have garnered the lion’s share of available sponsorship dollars.

Nonetheless, global womens’ sports such as tennis have made giant strides in the area of sponsorship / prize money. In golf, so has the LPGA which itself was in struggling decline not so many years back. It solved its problem via the appointment of a quality CEO, Mike Whan, and is today a healthier tour than it’s ever been. Leadership matters! Are you listening, LET?

It’s no surprise that Whan’s from both a golf and marketing background with a steely focus on building sponsor partnerships. It is against this background of LPGA success that the LET, as historically the planet’s second-ranked womens’ golf tour, must be measured and it doesn’t measure-up! Today, it may not even be the world’s #3 ladies tour; even the lowly Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s feeder, presented 21 tournaments from March to October in 2018 at $100-225k per week.

Lost Tournaments

I had a flick through my database to see what’s disappeared from the LET tournament schedule since 2014: Turkish Airlines Ladies Open – Turkey, Deloitte Ladies Open – Netherlands, European Masters – UK, Ladies Italian Open – Italy, Tipsport Golf Masters – Czech Republic, Helsingborg Open – Sweden, Omega Dubai Ladies Masters – UAE and Ladies German Open – Germany. It’s a long list!

There were also ‘disappeared’ joint-sanction tournaments: RACV Ladies Masters – Australia, Vic Open – Australia, Sanya Ladies Open – China, World Ladies Championship – China, Xiamen Ladies International Open – China, Buick Championship / Invitational – China …

In toto, that’s a lot of ‘disappeared’s’ in just four years. A lot more than any other golf tour on earth, in fact.

Most concerning must be the loss of continental european events and sponsors; this is LET’s home turf. Countries with a proven appetite for sponsoring, attending and watching womens’ golf tournaments. There are no longer LET tournaments played in any of these big Euro-markets: Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Netherlands, Czech Republic ….

That’s a damning indictment on the LET and especially its Chairman, and for the past 15 months, acting CEO – Mark Lichtenhein. Is he playing Nero, fiddling while Rome burns? We all hope not.

Current (2018) LET Schedule

If we ignore Majors and a group of early-year Australian events, where I assume the ALPG threw the LET a co-sanction bone, this years schedule was: South Africa, Morocco, Thailand, Scotland, France, Spain, India & Spain. That’s just 8 LET tournaments, including Scotland boosted by LPGA support.

Note: in compiling this sad and skinny listing I’m ignoring the European Tour’s silly Golf Sixes where a bit of opportunity exists for a limited number of LET girls.

If we skip back a few years to 2014, the equivalent LET tournament schedule consisted of 16 tournaments. How many of those were played in mainland Europe, that LET home turf? There were eleven. Yes there were 11 in Europe compared to 4 in 2018!

An epic failure in its own backyard? Yes.

Insanity

When I say that’s a lot of lost events, I mean LET lost half its own tournaments in 4 yrs! Can you envisage LPGA Tour slipping from 32 to 16 tournaments over a 4 year period?

In this ‘madness’ context, I can’t resist mentioning the LET’s introduction of a QSchool pre-qualifier in Cambodia, late in 2016. Yes, Cambodia, that epicentre of asian golf! To my simple mind that looked about as insane as the OneAsia Tour holding dual QSchool qualifiers in USA for a few years before it disappeared.

Incidentally, that 2016 Cambodian qualifier drew 11 players and a few of the scores could have been bettered by blind golfers using broomsticks! Anyway, 2017 went ahead and 7 players competed. 2018 in Siem Reap drew 9 players. Draw your own conclusions.

Help?

Help appeared on the horizon during 2017 in the form of LET discussions with the LPGA & European Tour senior execs. The latter subsequently launched its incorrectly and grandiosely-named European Golf Team Championships and sixteen 2-person LET teams were invited.

The LPGA engineered something tangible; an LPGA/LET co-sanction of the Ladies Scottish Open and a consequent trebling of prizemoney.

However, nothing else seems to have occurred subsequent to those discussions and LET members must be more worried than ever about their future livelihoods. They must also wonder if the LET is on the brink of bankruptcy, given that it seemingly has no assets other than its brand name.

Some millions of assistance money apparently was on the table from those other Tours but the LET would not accept the associated conditions. Maybe that was smart; maybe it was stupid; I don’t know.

It Starts at the Top

Having been a Board Member & CEO myself, of both larger and smaller organisations than LET, I fully understand the pressures and frustrations inherent in the role. I also know that as CEO I will take credit for successes because I know I will inevitably take the blame for failures – whether my fault or not.

I also understand that if those failures are public or threatening to the viability of the organisation then I will lose my job. And rightly so; the rewards for success are large and, rightly, the consequences of failure must be severe.

I know the LET, technically, is not a business in the conventional sense, being a company limited by guarantee, but it exists primarily to provide prizemoney for its members instead of profit for shareholders – so the commercial imperatives are the same: form alliances and partnerships, get sponsors on board, etc. Host tournaments; produce prize money.

Money

Referring to the 2018 LET Money List and with the aspiring, non-superstar, girls very much in mind:

  •  #50 Astrid Vayson De Pradenne earned EUR25,885;
  • #100 Stephanie Na earned EUR10.546.

The equivalent-rank earnings on the LPGA Tour for 2018 were:

  • #50 IK Kim EUR404,517;
  • #100 Brianna Do earned EUR99,424.

In percentage terms, therefore, #50 on the LET earned 6.4% of her LPGA equivalent while #100 earned 10.6% versus her opposite. It’s a large pay discrepancy.

For a direct Euro/USA comparison, lets look at the Mens’ European Tour versus the PGA Tour for the 2018 season just completed:

  • #50 PGA Tour  Brendan Steele EUR2,102,423;
  • #100 PGA Tour Harold Varner III EUR1,074,125.
  • #50 European Tour Wu Ashun EUR956,937
  • #100 European Tour Jacques Kruyswijk EUR391,933.

The percentages for the Euro’s versus their US counterparts were thus 45.5% for #50 and 36.5% for #100.

The yawning ‘failure gap’ between the two primary european tours is thus obvious. The big failure here is LET.

Just in case there’s some solace for the LET in only referencing Ladies’ tours, let’s look at Asia for 2018:

  • #50 on the KLPGA earned EUR111,014 (one event still to play);
  • #100 on the KLPGA earned EUR25,121;
  • #50 on the JLPGA earned EUR172,357;
  • #100 on the JLPGA earned EUR32,473.

No solace there for those unhappy LET girls.

It’s no wonder some Europeans are looking at the Symetra Tour as a potential escape from the litany of LET failures, a means of assisting them play 20+ tournaments a year and perhaps a more practical pathway to the LPGA.

But, what did the mid-tier girls earn on the Symetra Tour in 2018, where the tournament purses are on average half what a regular LET tournament offers?

  • #50 Symetra Tour EUR19,061
  • #100 Symetra Tour EUR6,521

No good, this is 30% less than their LET counterparts plus players need to relocate to North America and travel for 20+ weeks.

So, the only financial answer in terms of providing opportunity, incomes and career development for the Euro girls has to be for the LET to get its act together and at least restore the status quo that applied just a few short years ago.

I believe LET needs to:

  • Restore its Chinese partnerships and a consequent 4-5 tournaments late year;
  • Grow its Aussie / Asian / UAE / Sth African connections to supply at least 6 early-year tournaments and, most importantly;
  • Get its European house in order and host at least 14 tournaments in mainland Europe; especially in its 2 biggest failed markets: Great Britain and Scandinavia.

That’d be 24 tournaments, plus up to 5 Majors, in which the LET girls could compete.

Finally, on the topic of money, the European Seniors Tour recently signed a 10-year sponsorship deal with Staysure. That optic is round-bellied, older men compared with the LET’s: fit, taut, often physically attractive, young, sportswomen.

The primary viewing audience is middle-aged men. Do the math! Duh! There’ll be money out there, LET; go get it!

Back to Leadership

I’d like to make my point about leadership / stewardship via the words of Mark Lichtenhein, whose LET power and influence seem to have ascended at approximately the same rate at which the LET has declined.

By way of background, and the dates are significant in my humble opinion, Mark:

  • Was appointed an LET non-exec director in 2015;
  • Became Chairman of the LET Board in Dec 2016 and;
  • Had the role of acting CEO added from August 2017.

Jan 2018: Question. “Would you want to do it?” (Become CEO). Answer.”I’d love to do it if the board wanted me to do it.”

Mike’s comment: it’s been more than 15 months, Mark, so you are now actually the Chairman & CEO and have been for over a year! What have you achieved?

Jan 2018: “We want to get back to around 30 tournaments in the next five years.”

Mike’s comment: Reaching for the stars or star-gazing? Or just dreaming?

Jan 2018: “The whole digital revolution is really helping us.”

Mike’s comment: how has it helped?

Jan 2018: Question. “What is the mood like on tour?” Answer. “One of cautious optimism.”

Mike’s comment: who are these (blind?) optimists? You and a few Board members over a boozy lunch?

Jan 2018: “There is a lot to do particularly in Scandinavia which is where we seem to be struggling and I’ve not yet got to the bottom of this.”

Mike’s comment: The LET Player President, Helen Alfredsson, is Scandinavian! LET Director Sophie Gustafson, is Scandinavian! You’ve been Chairman for almost two years. How come you haven’t yet ‘got to the bottom of this’? Ffs!

Apr 2018: “There’s a fantastic tailwind behind women’s sport right now, more so than ever before.”

Mike’s comment: I think you may have missed that wind.

Apr 2018: “The back end of this year, from July to the end of the year is actually not too bad.”

Mike’s comment: really? It looks disastrous to me.

Apr 2018: “Obviously the board is encouraged by the steps we’ve been able to make.”

Mike’s comment: ‘the board’ would be you, right?

Thx for Jan 2018 quotes to National Club Golfer: https://www.nationalclubgolfer.com/news/ladies-european-tour-mark-lichtenhein/

Thx for April 2018 quotes to Golf365: https://www.golf365.com/features/golf365-exclusive-future-of-womens-professional-golf-europe/

In closing, let me just say this.

Most of this piece has been negative and we’re still awaiting a 2019 tournament schedule from the LET.

We ladies’ golf fans hope and pray that, despite losing the Vic Open to LPGA, the LET girls soon receive a 2019 schedule that features:

  • 1+ UAE tournament in January;
  • 4+ Aussie co-sanctioned tournaments in Feb;
  • 1+ South African tournaments in March;
  • 1+ Middle East tournaments in April;
  • A solid run of 14+ tournaments in Europe during May-October before;
  • 3+ Chinese tournaments to close out the year.

If only!

Cheers and good luck with all your golf involvement and especial good wishes for the future to all those fine European female golfers who are working part-time to supplement their incomes, not because of their own lack of golfing ability but because of the failure at the top-level of their tour organisation!

 

Copyright MJ Miller (Mike) 29 November 2018.