NAPLES, FLORIDA | You could forgive LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan if she wanted to take a victory lap last week at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Samaan began the week at the Ritz-Carlton’s Tiburón Golf Club with an announcement that the LPGA had extended its sponsorship agreement with CME for two more years, with a dramatically increased purse. The prize fund for the CME Group Tour Championship will rise almost 60 percent, to $11 million, and the $4 million prize for winning the tournament will double the 2023 winner’s check. It will be the largest first-place prize in global women’s sport. Additionally, the runner-up will take home a cool million dollars, and every player in the 60-player field will earn at least $55,000.
That was followed in short order with the release of the 2024 schedule. The LPGA will play 33 official events next year, with a total prize fund topping $116 million, an all-time high. That’s up by some 65 percent from the $70 million purse in the 2021 season.
And to top that off, the LPGA and ESPN announced a two-year agreement to stream featured groups each tournament day at ESPN+. Network coverage is expected to grow from this year’s 10 events.
Samaan had an extremely large pair of golf spikes to fill when she accepted the post two years ago.
Predecessor Mike Whan, now the CEO of the U.S. Golf Association, had saved the LPGA from the threat of extinction when he took the job in 2010 and then took the organization to heights unseen over the next decade. After successfully steering the LPGA through the COVID-19 period, he stepped down, and Samaan was named his successor in May 2021.
Samaan had been the athletics director at Princeton University, her alma mater, where she played ice hockey and soccer, before taking the helm at the LPGA. She is a golfer, but unlike Whan, who had previously worked in the golf business, Samaan was new to the industry. A steep learning curve was expected, but two-plus years in, she clearly is finding her sea legs.
Critics will point out that $30 million of the total purse comes from three events which the LPGA does not control: the U.S. Women’s Open, KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the AIG Women’s Open. Fair enough. But Chevron, Evian, and CME are solid LPGA partners, with a capital “P.” Samaan’s team landed several new sponsors for 2024, and non-major purses will grow nicely next year. Annika Sörenstam finally has her long-coveted named tournament, and another LPGA legend, Se Ri Pak, will debut a named tournament for her in suburban Los Angeles in March.
The CME situation provides an insight into Samaan’s grit and determination. A year ago at this event, there was a dust-up between CME Group CEO Terry Duffy and the LPGA related to appearances, or lack thereof, by certain LPGA players at a CME function. Duffy all but threatened to abandon the event, stating: “They better get their act together because they are going to lose people like me over stuff like this.”
Samaan and her team went to work. Many meetings ensued, and Samaan accepted responsibility for the situation, even though it was on the players who did not show up. Common ground was found. One year later, CME is solidly in the fold with a purse that matches that of the U.S. Women’s Open as the largest in women’s professional golf. This is a remarkable turnaround.
Last week, all of the invited players showed up Tuesday night at Duffy’s soirée.
Alas, there was no victory lap by Samaan here. She’s willing to claim short-term wins by her team, but she has a big agenda in the years to come. The most pressing is the proposed merger with the Ladies European Tour, which likely will be approved this week. Should 60 percent of the LET players vote in favor of the deal, which has been recommended by the board, the LET will fall into Samaan’s portfolio. A difficult job will become more complex.
On the home front, Samaan’s to-do list is lengthy. There still are seven tournaments with sub-$2 million purses which need to be addressed. The LPGA covets more American network television exposure, but progress continues. Samaan hopes to increase the number of tournaments that provide travel stipends or missed-cut payments; 19 of 33 official events provide this benefit currently, and she’d like it to be available across the entire schedule. She wants to continue to upgrade the player-services area, providing more physical- and mental-health assistance.
Like Whan, Samaan has her detractors in the LPGA ecosystem. Whan would be the first to tell you that beyond the perceived glamour, golf administration is not for the faint of heart. Samaan’s motto is “to get better every day.” The LPGA, on her watch, is doing just that.
Top: In two years as LPGA commissioner, Mollie Marcoux Samaan has helped to increase tournament purses significantly and negotiated improved broadcast and streaming deals.
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