How Jay Monahan’s PGA Tour is adapting to changing times - part one

Jay Monahan is five months into his new role as commissioner of the PGA Tour. In the first instalment of a two-part interview with SportsPro, Monahan outlines the tour’s global growth strategy and explains how he plans to continue Tim Finchem’s legacy.

How Jay Monahan’s PGA Tour is adapting to changing times - part one

It is fair to say Jay Monahan inherited a PGA Tour in rude financial health. With assets in excess of US$2 billion, the organisation he has led as commissioner since January is a commercial juggernaut, not to mention the richest and most influential circuit in world golf. Its household-name exponents compete virtually every week on immaculate courses, showcasing their talents before wholesome crowds and for hundreds of millions of dollars. 

In many ways, the PGA Tour is the archetypal premium sports product, and much of the credit for that must go to Monahan’s predecessor, Tim Finchem, who retired at the end of 2016 having guided the tour into an era of unprecedented prosperity during his 22 years at the helm. But a good deal of the credit must go to Monahan as well. Having held the role of deputy commissioner since early 2014, he has been a key driving force in positioning the PGA Tour as one of sport’s foremost brands. 

At 47, Monahan is 23 years younger than Finchem, but his rise through the PGA Tour ranks has taken a similar course. A former commercial salesman at IMG Worldwide and EMC Corporation, Monahan joined the tour in June 2008 from Fenway Sports Group (FSG), where he led the sales and business development team. He initially served as executive director of The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s most lucrative event, before taking the role of senior vice president for business development in 2010. In March of 2013, he was promoted to executive vice president and chief marketing officer before becoming Finchem’s handpicked right-hand man and adding the role of chief operating officer to his remit a year later.

Prior to moving on, Finchem described Monahan as “absolutely the right guy” to replace him; a golf man through and through and a trusted PGA Tour insider with the expertise and connections to ensure his legacy would live on. For Monahan, who became only the fourth commissioner in the tour’s history, it was an honour to accept the baton.

“Last September, at Tim’s final Tour Championship as commissioner, he was asked what he was most proud of as he stepped away,” he recalls now. “He said it was ‘the team’ that was in place at the PGA Tour, and I can appreciate why he felt that way.

“I have benefited greatly by that team’s outstanding organisation and commitment to our product, so the transition for me has been seamless. During my time as deputy commissioner, Tim mentored me in ways that improved me professionally and as a person, offering both ‘tough love’ and the value of listening – to our players and to my team members.”

Five months in, Monahan says his approach to running the tour is not dissimilar to the approach he employed in his previous sales and marketing roles. “Stripped to its core,” he says during an exclusive email interview with SportsPro, “sales and marketing is about getting in front of people and working with people. It’s being on a team, and I love being on a team.

“As far back as I can remember, I loved being around people, and when you and your teammates are galvanised, there’s great joy in that. My management style is to let my team run; I’m there to support them because they’re great at what they do and they share my passion for golf.”

Monahan talks to PGA Tour player Patrick Reed at January's Tournament of Champions, his first event as commissioner.

Asked to evaluate the commercial health of the tour he inherited, Monahan says “numbers offer a pretty good starting point”. He notes how the PGA Tour offered some US$322 million in prize money across its 47 events last year and raised US$166 million for charity, supported by lucrative domestic and international broadcast deals and a robust roster of corporate partners. Headlining that roster is FedEx, the tour’s largest commercial benefactor which last month agreed to a ten-year extension of its title sponsorship of the FedExCup, the richest competition in golf that offers a US$35 million bonus pool and a hearty US$10 million payout to the winner.

Monahan has described FedEx’s commitment, which began in 2007 and will now run until 2027, as “critical” to the financial viability of the tour, but he believes it is sponsorship stability throughout the annual calendar that best illustrates its commercial outlook. As Monahan notes, the tour currently has 11 tournament title sponsors tied into agreements of seven or more years, including seven companies with decade-long commitments. All things considered, he says, it’s in pretty good shape.

“Are there headwinds? Of course,” says Monahan. “But with challenges come opportunities, and we’re in a position of strength to seize upon those.”

Besides substantial prize money and a solid foundation of sponsors, a good measure of the tour’s continued prosperity is its ever-expanding international footprint. Next season, official PGA Tour events will be held for the first time in South Korea and the Dominican Republic to go along with existing overseas tournaments in Mexico, China, Malaysia and Canada. Moreover, the PGA Tour continues to expand its network of offices around the world having set up shop in key commercial centres such as London, Beijing and Tokyo.

We will continue to lead when asked and to follow when appropriate. I’m a firm believer that you can accomplish more when you don’t mind who gets the credit.

“With our growing number of international sponsors and media partners, it is imperative to build and foster relationships with these groups, and that is virtually impossible from thousands of miles and several time zones away,” Monahan says. “Having day-to-day contacts available greatly increases our opportunity for success in these emerging markets. And with 89 international members who generate tremendous interest in their home countries, we need to make sure we are promoting these players and the PGA Tour properly on these international stages.”

Together, the new tournaments and regional hubs have given the tour an on-the-ground presence across the globe, ensuring the sun never sets on its burgeoning empire. It is all down, once again, to the internationalist vision of Finchem, who is credited with overseeing the formation of the International Federation of PGA Tours, the World Golf Championships and the World Golf Foundation, as well as the assimilation of three feeder circuits – the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada, and PGA Tour China - into the PGA Tour fold and spearheading the successful effort to return golf to the Olympic Games after a 112-year absence.

Stepping into Finchem’s shoes, Monahan explains how he was keen to continue where his predecessor left off by capitalising on golf’s popularity in emerging markets, particularly in Asia. He refers to this autumn’s inaugural event in South Korea as a case in point. The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges on Jeju Island is, he says, “a natural addition” to the tour's schedule given golf's growing profile in the country, not least since the biennial Presidents Cup was held there in 2015 and Si Woo Kim, a 21-year-old from Seoul, won this year’s Players Championship, becoming the youngest ever winner of the event.

Generally speaking, though, Monahan believes international growth is “very prudent business”. Not unlike his counterparts in other sports who have pursued a similar path to increased revenues, he sees foreign expansion as a way to initiate and maintain closer commercial relationships with overseas corporations and broadcasters, introduce new fans to the sport, and extend the PGA Tour’s brand to all corners of the globe. Yet it remains to be seen whether Monahan will continue Finchem’s quest for global consolidation.

The PGA Tour's former commissioner Tim Finchem, who retired at the end of 2016 having spearheaded the tour's international expansion.

Having spearheaded the PGA Tour’s overseas expansion, Finchem left office advocating for the creation of a global, unified governing body for golf, one that could oversee the sport at the professional level and bring all stakeholders together for the greater good of the game. Indeed, he expressed disappointment towards the end of his tenure that he had not been able to make more progress on that front.

In spite of Finchem’s efforts, the task of bringing about a single-tour concept - or some version of it - remains a complex one, especially with each of golf’s disparate tours out to protect and indeed strengthen their respective interests. The European Tour, for instance, has stated its bold ambition of becoming “a viable alternative to the PGA Tour”, with Keith Pelley, the tour’s chief executive, having presided over this year’s introduction of the Rolex Series, an enhanced points race that is a thinly veiled attempt at creating Europe’s answer to the FedExCup.

“I’m not quite sure what people envision when they say ‘single-tour’,” says Monahan, offering his view on a subject that has been mooted within golf for some time. “I know Tim expressed some regrets that more progress wasn’t made on the global effort, but he conceded that the landscape had improved dramatically in the last 15-20 years.

“The World Golf Championships are just 18 years old and there are four of them in three countries. There is a greater cohesiveness among the governing bodies in respect to qualification processes for tournaments that attract players from around the globe and access to elite tours is far better than it was.

“Are we beneath an ‘overarching umbrella?’ No. But like Tim, I have confidence that golf will continue to work together. We’re just focused, right now, on making us better and delivering what’s best for our fans.”

For now, then, it could be that the very idea of a global tour is a wildly unrealistic notion in a sport as international and fragmented as golf. Instead, says Monahan, it is perhaps better for each of the sport's key stakeholders to settle for closer collaboration on specific issues and initiatives rather than all-out convergence.

“We will continue to lead when asked and to follow when appropriate,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that you can accomplish more when you don’t mind who gets the credit, and since I have witnessed how these collaborations have already helped golf – the Olympics in Rio come to mind – there’s no doubt that we will continue to be part of that mission.”

To read part two of this interview - in which Monahan explains how the tour is seeking to engage a younger audience through new media and technology - click here.