European Tour tees up for possible deal with women’s tour

Ladies European Tour could open door to new markets as women’s golf goes global

Catriona Matthew of Team Europe and Stacy Lewis of the United States leave the first tee during the final day singles matches of the Solheim Cup  in West Des Moines, Iowa on Sunday. Photograph:  Harry How/Getty Images

Catriona Matthew of Team Europe and Stacy Lewis of the United States leave the first tee during the final day singles matches of the Solheim Cup in West Des Moines, Iowa on Sunday. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

 

The European Tour could launch a takeover bid for its struggling women’s equivalent. The Ladies European Tour (LET), which has been badly hindered by the loss of tournaments, is also a potential business target for the US-based LPGA Tour. If that single, global brand would seem a natural alternative to the status quo, the plans of the European Tour’s chief executive, Keith Pelley, will be subject to deeper intrigue.

Since taking office, Pelley has displayed a willingness to completely alter what could be regarded as archaic arrangements within golf.

Sources have confirmed that no formal discussions have taken place between the European Tour and LET, but that Pelley is giving the matter serious consideration. A spokesman for the European Tour said: “We are always looking at ways to grow and expand our business.”

The European Tour, while facing its own economic challenges against the fiscal power of the US PGA Tour, may regard a professional women’s operation as key to entering untapped markets.

Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, one of the LET’s finest exports, this year admitted her fear that young professionals playing in Europe would need to take on a second job to make ends meet.

Poor financial figures

The LET confirmed this month, in a brief statement, that its chief executive, Ivan Khodabakhsh, was “stepping aside” after four years in the role. As tournaments fell off the LET schedule and poor financial figures were reported, Khodabakhsh, a former boxing executive, was subject to widespread criticism.

The LET refuses to explain the reasons for Khodabakhsh’s departure, with Mark Lichtenhein, its chairman, assuming day-to-day duties for now. Coincidentally, Lichtenhein, formerly the head of television, digital media and technology at the European Tour, was an early victim of regime change as implemented by Pelley. Now the pair are almost certain to talk regarding what would be a significant business deal.

Mike Whan, the head of the LPGA, said this week that his firm is also taking a close interest in European affairs. He has also been in discussion with Pelley. “I don’t really have a timeline for this,” Whan said. “I do hope that before the end of the year we can sit down with them and say: ‘Here is the way we see it. Is this something you think we can do together?’

Quite clearly the priority right now is getting more tournaments

“We are working together, Keith and I, to provide a suggestion as to what we think we could do together. We are trying to create one vision.”

The LET has an existing connection to the LPGA via the Solheim Cup, which at least continues to grow in a commercial sense, plus co-sanctioned tournaments as recently extended from majors to the Scottish Open. The financial gap between the respective tours is vast. As things stand, 20th on the LPGA money list has collected $634,000. In Europe, the same position is worth just under €39,000.

Outdated model

Speaking as the Solheim Cup played out this week, Lichtenhein insisted the LET remains a viable business, if one operating as an outdated model. “I’ve been looking at our governance structure, which I think is in need of updating,” he said. “We have articles of association that haven’t been changed in the last 30 years. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but with everything that is going on just now around governance in sport, and the UK government’s interest in that, we want to show ourselves as a modern company.”

The chief executive position will be discussed at an LET board meeting in a fortnight’s time, with Lichtenhein unwilling to be drawn on whether he would be willing to take on the role full-time. It rather serves as a metaphor for golf as a whole, but this job is surely the domain of a young, dynamic individual who can breathe fresh life into a business beset by bad publicity.

“Quite clearly the priority right now is getting more tournaments,” Lichtenhein said. “I think we have been very unlucky with global events. There were problems in Turkey. We had a Czech Open ready to go, then the sports minister was arrested. There were changes to sponsorship rules in China.

“There have been unexpected issues with sponsorship arrangements and in hindsight we were probably a little optimistic in terms of tournaments we hoped would come to fruition and didn’t. But there is no connectivity between any of these things. None of them have happened because this is women’s golf, other than maybe it is a bit of a soft target.

“The game is obviously becoming more global. Look at the strength of the Asian girls in golf – arguably women’s golf is more global than men’s. But you still have a need for regional opportunities.”

– (Guardian Service)

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