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‘We have to evaluate every opportunity’: LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan on prize money growth, the LIV-PGA merger, and her vision for women’s golf

Since being appointed as the LPGA’s ninth commissioner in 2021, Mollie Marcoux Samaan has overseen a period of steady growth across the board. But with significant change impacting the wider business of golf, her sternest challenges may yet lie ahead.

31 August 2023 Sam Carp

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Back in her college days, Mollie Marcoux Samaan was a prominent figure on the varsity ice hockey and soccer teams at Princeton University. But today, she’s more likely to be found prowling some of the most prestigious golf courses in the world.

It is a little more than two years since Marcoux Samaan took over as commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) from Mike Whan, whose 11 years in the role saw the world’s preeminent tour for female golfers become exactly that, transformed from a US-centric organisation into a genuinely global media property.

If Whan’s tenure was about laying the groundwork for women’s golf to grow, then Marcoux Samaan’s term to date has been focused on building on those foundations. While visibly passionate about the game, the mother of three had never previously worked in the sport prior to being appointed by the LPGA, which she joined after serving as athletics director at Princeton. Before that, she spent 19 years at Chelsea Piers Management, a company that owns and operates amateur sports complexes in New York and Connecticut.

Marcoux Samaan is a keen golfer herself. But there hasn’t been much time to practice her swing.

“It is fast paced,” she says, speaking exclusively to SportsPro in August. “It’s global. It’s super exciting. I think the first word that probably comes to mind is opportunity. The LPGA is a really special organisation. It has this rich, unique history. We have a team of people and sponsors and partners who really care about the mission and care about building on the legacy.

“The other part of it is we have this great product. We have an important mission with a solid and stable base, but there’s this huge opportunity for growth ahead of us. It’s a complicated business, but our goal is to continue to create more value to grow.”

Growth has been a feature of Marcoux Samaan’s time at the helm so far – even though she became the LPGA’s ninth commissioner during the pandemic. Indeed, the tour she inherited is very different to the one her predecessor took on in 2011, when the remit was to breathe life into a circuit in need of more tournaments and more prize money.

In 2023, the LPGA is awarding a record-breaking US$108 million across 36 official and unofficial events, which marks a 54 per cent increase on 2021 and a 120 per cent uplift compared to ten years ago, when purses amounted to approximately US$49 million.

This year’s calendar includes tournaments across 12 countries and regions and 11 US states. The tour has already visited several countries in Asia, including Thailand, Singapore and China, and will do so again before the end of the season. When Marcoux Samaan sits down for this interview, the LPGA is approaching the end of its European swing, which featured stops in France, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as Walton Heath in England for the AIG Women’s Open.

What’s clear is that the LPGA is golf’s global tour, also boasting an international playing field and broadcast deals covering 175 different territories. But in Marcoux Samaan’s own words, “we don’t think we’re even close to done”.

“The world’s a really big place, and if you’re a global organisation, you have much more demand out there, and you have many more markets to hit,” she continues. “So we are doubling down on our international platform, and we think that it gives us even more opportunity to grow. I think there’s a lot of professional sports organisations that are trying to be more global. We already are. And we do see that as a significant competitive advantage.

“There is really strong revenue coming from outside the US; the balance is really appropriate and it’s good, but we think it can all grow. We think we can grow it in the US, and we also think there’s an opportunity to continue to grow internationally.”

LIV Golf, the PGA Tour, and what it means for the LPGA

Growth might be the watchword in women’s golf, but whatever plans Marcoux Samaan has for the LPGA could yet be influenced by developments outside of her control.

In June, the PGA and DP World Tours announced that they would be merging their commercial operations with those of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has been bankrolling the breakaway LIV Golf series. Launched in 2022, the rebel circuit divided the golfing world by luring some of the most recognisable faces in the men’s game with offers of guaranteed paychecks – in some cases worth hundreds of millions of dollars – in return for playing fewer tournaments.

While LIV struggled to gain much traction with commercial partners and fans, its very existence led to an ugly public feud between the PGA Tour and its defectors who, among many things, were accused of choosing money over morals by siding with an organisation funded by a country notorious for its human rights abuses.

So great was the tension that few expected a ceasefire to be agreed as early as this year, including some of those working within the game.

“I think we found out about it similar to how everyone else found out about it,” admits Marcoux Samaan, who reiterates the LPGA’s stance that a fractured environment “is not great for the game”.

“I spoke to [PGA Tour commissioner] Jay [Monahan] a few minutes before the announcement,” she continues. “But I think obviously most people were surprised.”

Saudi Arabia already has a presence in women’s golf through Aramco’s sponsorship of the LET’s five-event Team Series

Among the many questions still to be answered about the unlikely union is what implications the merger could have for the women’s game, which has also been the subject of Saudi interest in recent times.

The kingdom is already one of the biggest backers of the Ladies European Tour (LET) through a five-event team series sponsored by state-run petroleum company Aramco, which is also the title partner of the US$5 million Saudi Ladies International. Those events are not part of the LPGA calendar, but some of the tour’s biggest stars, including Lexi Thompson and Nelly Korda, have played in Saudi-backed tournaments.

Meanwhile, LIV chief executive Greg Norman said before the merger that the circuit was considering creating a female equivalent, although it is not clear what shape that would take – or where the LPGA would fit in.

As the PGA Tour found, it would be a monumental challenge for its female counterpart to stand up to a rival organisation that would be able to dip into significantly deeper pockets. It might also prove difficult to resist some form of partnership with the newly formed entity if it came with the promise of a sizeable financial offer that could accelerate the LPGA’s development.

None of this would come without scrutiny, of course. Any potential alliance would undoubtedly be accompanied by questions over whether a country that has historically restricted the rights of women is an appropriate partner for a female-founded organisation whose stated mission is to empower, inspire and transform the lives of girls and women.

All of that is hypothetical for now. Marcoux Samaan says she hasn’t heard from either party about anything to that effect since the merger.

“We’re not speculating on what that could look like, because we really don’t know what it will look like,” Marcoux Samaan says. “But I think we always come back to our mission, our principles. I think it is our responsibility to evaluate all opportunities that come our way. And the decisions we make will always be about the opportunities for our members in the short run and the long run, the value and the impact for our current partners. And then, really, at the end of the day, our ability to help advance women and girls in society.

“So it’s hard to speculate on any of it. Those are the points that we use to evaluate any opportunities that come our way.”

An advocate for collaboration

Generally speaking, Marcoux Samaan describes herself as a “big believer” in partnership and collaboration, which is the spirit golf appeared to be embracing before the emergence of LIV.

The LPGA already has a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour, which sold the women’s circuit’s domestic media rights for the first time in 2020 as part of a wider package reportedly worth a combined US$680 million. That relationship will deepen further in December when Tiburón Golf Club and The Ritz-Carlton Naples will host the inaugural Grant Thornton Invitational, a mixed-team, co-sanctioned tournament that will see 16 players from each tour compete for equal prize money.

Another relationship that Marcoux Samaan is able to talk about is the LPGA’s 50:50 joint venture partnership with the LET, which was agreed prior to her arrival in 2019. Initially designed with the intention of expanding the LET calendar and providing a pathway to the LPGA for players across Europe, the alliance ultimately proved timely for the European tour, whose chief executive Alexandra Armas told SportsPro in 2020 that the organisation would have “struggled” to get through Covid without the support of its American counterpart.

Speaking now, Marcoux Samaan says the partnership has been “extremely successful” and reveals that the two sides are exploring doubling down on the relationship.

“The goal and the reason for the joint venture was to help create a unified connected women’s golf ecosystem to drive value for everyone,” she says. “It’s in the best interest of everyone to have golf thriving around the globe, and the LET was struggling a bit at that time.

“And that’s really happened. We’ve been able to support them through some extra infrastructure and through the connections that we’ve provided. If you look at the growth of the LET in those three years, it’s been really significant.

Lydia Ko was the top earner on the LPGA Tour in 2022, winning close to US$4.4 million

“So I think it’s been a really positive relationship. We work closely with them and we’ve really helped them grow, and they’ve helped themselves grow. So yes, I think we’re big believers in it, we have talked about continuing to grow that relationship and what that might look like in the future. We’ve talked to LET players, LPGA players, we’re talking about what a more formal merger would look like.

“But I think overall, we feel being connected and being together is going to help advance the game all over the world.”

Narrowing the gap

If there’s one metric that Marcoux Samaan keeps coming back to, it’s the on-course earnings women are making from competing on the LPGA Tour. Last year saw 27 players awarded more than US$1 million in prize money, while the average income for the top 100 golfers on the circuit climbed 37 per cent to reach US$787,000 in 2022.

Yet the commissioner is acutely aware that there remains a “significant delta” to close. New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, who was the top earner on the LPGA last year, took home close to US$4.4 million in 2022, while Ruixin Liu of China, who ranked 100th on the money list, won around US$167,000. The reality is even more stark for players outside the top 100, whose earnings are eaten up by things like travel, accommodation, and other logistical costs, particularly at a time of inflation.

While prize money is on the up, much of that wealth is concentrated in the five majors, whose purses have grown exponentially in recent years thanks to increased investment from organisers and sponsors, including the likes of KPMG, Chevron and Amundi.

Those tournaments awarded a combined US$41.6 million this year, which is up roughly 80 per cent compared to 2021. That increase is undoubtedly positive, but those winnings account for around 40 per cent of this season’s total prize money, meaning the golfers who fail to perform at the biggest events are playing for significantly less at the week-to-week competitions that make up the bulk of the schedule.

“It is a significant challenge [to narrow the gap],” Marcoux Samaan admits. “Obviously, we want the top earners to continue to make more money and continue to grow. At the top, that is where a lot of our traction comes from – from the stars of the game. But we also have to make sure that the 100 best players in the world make a living playing professional golf. That is something we talk about all the time, that is a tangible goal.”

Short-term solutions could include introducing appearance fees or changing the LPGA’s purse distribution model, but Marcoux Samaan is focused on generating longer-term investment in the tour and its players through sponsorship. The LPGA website currently boasts 29 corporate partners but there is room for that number to grow, especially at a time when women’s sports are receiving more attention from brands.

Marcoux Samaan says Nicole Metzger, the LPGA’s recently appointed chief sales and partnerships officer, who has previously held roles across US sport, has “never had so many inbound calls”. Metzger’s ability to respond to those will be helped by a new partnership with Fenway Sports Management, which will now be working alongside the LPGA to develop and sell sponsorships worldwide.

Marcoux Samaan also reveals that the LPGA is in the early stages of rolling out a player sponsorship programme for athletes on the main circuit and the developmental Epson Tour. More than 100 golfers have already signed up to the initiative, which aims to connect participating players with brands the tour is engaging with to spark discussions over potential endorsement deals.

That’s all part of the LPGA’s ongoing efforts to grow exposure for its players and maximise their off-course earning opportunities. This year has seen the circuit release seven episodes of the LPGA All Access docuseries, which comprises episodes each around 20 minutes each offering an insight into life on tour.

Beyond that, Marcoux Samaan says the organisation is “actively trying” to partner with a streaming platform to produce a series that would tell the story of its players through various lenses, including the commitment required to be an LPGA pro and some of the unique challenges female golfers face compared to the men.

What is overwhelmingly apparent is that Marcoux Samaan is focused on increasing two things: investment and opportunity. Her success in delivering those may ultimately be the measure for how her tenure is judged.

“The ambition is to continue to be a real leader in women’s sports and in sports in general,” Marcoux Samaan reiterates. “And to be able to very intentionally use our platform to elevate and advance women both on the golf course and off the golf course.

“That, for me, means really growing the exposure of the tour, continuing to provide more opportunities, getting closer to pay equity, and being able to show the world that women can do hard things and be successful in any area of society.

“The other thing is we really want to provide our players with an opportunity to live their dreams and reach their peak performance with a sense of joy and vigour, so making sure that the schedule is good and their travel is manageable, and they are able to be compensated commensurate with their talent.

“That’s the big picture vision: to really be firing on all cylinders with more investment, more resources, and being able to lead in the world of sports.”

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