Ty Votaw earned his undergraduate degree from Ohio University and later went on to earn his law degree from University of North Carolina. Votaw joined the LPGA as general counsel in 1991 and later served as Commissioner until 2005. In 2006 Votaw was appointed Executive Vice President, International Affairs of the PGA Tour, where he went on to become Executive Vice President and Global Communications Officer, Chief Marketing Officer and currently Executive Vice President of Global Business Affairs. Additionally, Votaw serves as Vice President of the International Golf Federation and played a significant role in the return of golf to the Olympics.
FCP: Although golf is arguably one of the most international sports, it hadn’t been a part of the Olympics since 1904. You were highly influential in coordinating the return of golf on behalf of the International Golf Federation’s Olympic Golf Committee. It was officially readmitted at the 121st IOC Session in Copenhagen in 2009. We later saw golf back in Rio in 2016. What was that process like? What were your interactions with the IOC?
Votaw: That process started about 18 months prior to Copenhagen. The various golf organizations that sit on the World Golf Foundation Board came together at the Masters in 2008 and it was brought to our attention that the IOC was going to be adding two sports to the Olympic program for the 2016 Games in Rio, there was a bidding process in place, and did golf want to participate. There had been other attempts in the past to get golf in the Olympics that hadn’t been met with success primarily because the PGA Tour hadn’t really been supportive of professionals playing in the Olympics. The PGA Tour would’ve been supportive had amateurs been the athletes versus professionals because the Olympics take place in the July-August timeframe, in the heart of our major championships, and our own tournament schedules with television agreements in place. This one was a little different in that the IGF, made up at the time of over 100 golf federations in various countries, had done a poll asking what would be the biggest engine of growth for golf in your country. Something like 90% of responses came back saying the biggest way to grow golf was it being an Olympic sport. We were faced with the decision to say look, if this is what the rest of the world of golf wants, we didn’t want to stand in the way. But, we also felt the need to influence the process because it was our players that would be participating. It was made clear to us by the IOC that the top players had to play, not amateurs. So we embarked upon the campaign and had six other sports we were competing with. Our first set of meetings with the IOC members was at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and we proceeded over the next 18 months to make various presentations that were part of that process and ultimately were successful in Copenhagen.
Golf is a global sport and one with great values and great integrity. We felt golf would be good for the Olympics and the Olympics would be good for golf, especially if the Federations that I mentioned earlier were correct. The reason they wanted golf to be an Olympic sport is because in most countries around the world, government-funded sports are usually required to be Olympic sports. Those are really the only ones that really get funded, so golf, even though it was a very successful commercial sport at the professional level, was not getting government funding or Olympic Committee funding from their countries and if it was an Olympic sport they would. So that’s what motivated the response to wanting to be an Olympic sport and we were gratified to get in.
I always tell the story that in our presentations to various Olympic Committee members, we always said that one of the great things about golf is if there’s any city in the world that is capable of hosting the Olympic games, that city would also likely have a golf course that would be capable of hosting an Olympic golf competition and you wouldn’t’ have to build a white elephant facility that would be built and then never used again. Well, they went ahead and selected the one city in the world that didn’t have a capable golf course so we had to build one. My first visit to Rio was in January 2010, about two months after we got into the Olympics and we started the process to build a golf course in seven years’ time and we were successful. It’s the only Olympic venue that was constructed for the Olympic games in Rio that is still in existence. The golf course still exists and is open and operating and has a pretty vibrant and robust junior golf program. So we’re very proud of the fact that not only did we get golf in the Olympics and had a successful competition, we have a legacy that is still in operation. It was a real highlight of my career to be able to be a part of that process.
FCP: Unfortunately with Covid-19, the Olympics have been postponed. After seeing golf back in the Olympics, what were your hopes for Tokyo this year and what do you hope to see in the future with golf in the Olympics?
Votaw: Brazil generally and Rio specifically did not have really strong golf history, and from a golf-playing nation perspective, Brazil was not a golf-playing nation, but we had a very successful golf playing competition. We had record crowds and sold-out crowds for both the men’s and women’s competitions. Japan, by contrast, has rich golf history. It is probably the second-largest golf economy in the world with the number of golfers, golf courses, equipment sales. So we had a golf tournament in Japan for the first time last fall and the crowds were fantastic. It was called the Zozo Championship and it was the first time we’d had an official event on the PGA Tour in Japan. We got a window from that experience what it would be like for our players with the Olympics in Tokyo. And certainly everything turned upside-down with Covid and the pandemic so that has been put on hold and we’re hopeful we will have a successful 2021. It will be the same kinds of anticipation that we were going to have for 2020, with record crowds and enthusiastic reception and the players will really enjoy it like they did the Zozo Championship.
FCP: The Tour recently started back up with the Charles Schwab Challenge and this past weekend with the RBC Heritage. What concerns did players have leading up to that first event and how did the Tour prepare for the return amidst all of the uncertainty still surrounding Covid-19?
Votaw: Everybody’s concern was just the risk of exposing our players, our caddies, the public at large, sponsor guests, etc. You can’t mitigate all risk in any setting, but in this environment with the highly contagious virus, we made the decision that we wouldn’t be able to restart unless we had a robust testing program that was not taking away anything from public health. We were able to secure through Sanford Health a mobile testing unit that goes from tournament to tournament and is capable of doing about 500 tests a week with a quick turn-around time. So we were providing the testing ourselves, which was the key to making our players feel good. We’re trying to do as much as we can to create as much of a bubble for the players, caddies, tournament officials, sponsors as we can so there’s probably around 500 people in that bubble. We encourage social distancing and encourage players staying in tournament hotels. We can’t require them to do that, but we’re encouraging them. Over the first two weeks we’ve had over 1,000 tests and only one positive with Nick Watney last week. He tested negative when he first arrived and on Friday morning complained of one symptom, shortness of breath, and a little bit of sluggishness because of that. He had a tee time so he was on site to come play in the tournament with his tee time, but when he said to us he was not feeling well, we tested him immediately. He had to wait until the test results came back and as soon as they did, he was removed. He didn’t start his round, but he was certainly preparing for his round if the test came back negative. He immediately got put into quarantine and he is still there.
FCP: The PGA Championship, the U.S. Open and the Masters have all been postponed to later in the year. The Masters, which was supposed to be in April, is now being played in November. How will Augusta National play in November? As of now, are the hopes to be able to include spectators? How soon do you think we will see spectators back, if at all this year?
Votaw: The hope is we will be able to do that. The fact that golf is a sport played on expansive land and acreage, you probably won’t see the kind of tightly packed crowds around a given green, but hopefully we will be able to have some level of fans at Augusta. The PGA Championship that is going to be held in August in San Francisco has just announced it will play without fans. It’s unclear what the U.S. Open will do, and it’s unclear whether the Ryder Cup is going to be postponed to next year or played without fans this year. So we’re just in this kind of wait-and-see approach where it’s really going to be dependent on the conditions that are on the ground locally, how much of a spike the virus has had, are we going to get a second wave in the fall when flu season starts again. All of those things are unknown and we’re living in these uncertain times because of a lack of vaccine. What we’re going to try to do is do everything we can to mitigate as much risk as we can, but you can’t mitigate all risk and people who are coming to see the tournament I guess accept some level of risk that they want to experience what they’re experiencing with that risk in mind. All we can do is create a set of circumstances where we try everything we can do to mitigate that risk.
FCP: What has the overall effect on the PGA Tour been from Covid-19 in terms of lost broadcasting and sponsorship?
Votaw: Yeah, there’s obviously been events that have been cancelled. The structure of a PGA Tour event is somewhat unique in that if the PGA Tour does not own and operate the event – we operate about 13 of our 47 events – the rest of the events have what we call a three-party agreement that underscores the economics of the event. So one party is the PGA Tour; obviously, the other party is the sponsor, title sponsor or in the case of our event in Orlando or Deerfield Village presenting sponsors; and then the third party is a host organization, which is typically a 501c-3 charitable organization that is charged with operating the event to our standards and taking some of the financial risk associated with the risk and then taking the net proceeds of the event and donating them to charity. A sponsor pays a fee to the PGA Tour. We take that fee and give part of it to the tournament host organization and part of it to our television partners. In exchange for the money given to the television partners, the sponsor gets television inventory in that event and in events throughout the rest of the year, so that not all of their advertisement sponsor is all in that one week. We try to spread it out around the year to make it as valuable to them as possible. And then the TV partners pay us a rights fee for the right to broadcast the event and we take that rights fee and subsidize the purse of the tournament. So if a tournament is a seven or eight million total prize money, we contribute a significant portion of that purse out of the rights fees because that is a manner in which we can get television revenues into our players’ hands. Because the PGA Tour is a 501c-6 professional association organization, our players are members and our obligation is to create financial opportunities for them and certainly the prize money is the most obvious way in which we give financial opportunities to our players. We also have a robust retirement plan and try to use the platform of the PGA Tour to increase the marketing value of the players themselves, so that the platform enables Rory or Tiger or Rickie to have their own sponsors because even though they’re members of the Tour, they’re independent contractors. Their own personas are brands themselves and they secure sponsors for themselves on their hats, golf bags, golf shirts. If the platform of the PGA Tour is valuable through television and media exposure, that is only going to make the players more valuable to sponsors themselves. That is another way we try to create opportunities for our players through making the platform as strong as it can be.
So when an event gets cancelled – like 11 events got cancelled from March until just before Colonial – what typically happens is a negotiation ensues. When that event gets cancelled, they don’t have to pay the purse, if enough notice is given, and they don’t have to undertake the expenses of putting grandstands and hospitality up. But the sponsor in a cancelled event does have some value to being a title sponsor throughout the year, they do receive commercial inventory throughout the year. The week of a cancelled event, what our television partners did was basically replay last year’s event, which obviously isn’t as valuable as a live sporting event, but you still have three hours of programming on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday where that sponsor’s name is. So there is some value to that. We undertook a negotiation with each of our sponsors and virtually all of them took the position, the value proposition, that the value they get from the PGA Tour is a strong one that they want to keep long term, they see this as a temporary scenario, and they want the long-term relationship to be as strong as it can be. We’ve got great partners with long-term agreements and we want to keep those relationships as healthy as possible so there’s a certain give and take in each of those discussions.
In the case of Zurich International, our event in New Orleans, Zurich, the title sponsor, matched the amount of money that was given last year to charity so that the charities involved don’t get impacted. Many of our sponsors are doing those types of things as well. … We want to give back to the communities in which we play and our sponsors feel very strongly about that.
FCP: You were General Counsel of the LPGA and then later became Commissioner of the LPGA. You then transitioned into various executive roles with the Tour. What similarities do you see between the two? How did working with the LPGA help prepare you for the Tour, especially given your legal background?
Votaw: LPGA players are no different than the PGA Tour players in the sense that they want to play for as much prize money as they can, play the best golf courses that are willing to host them, and they want as much TV exposure for themselves so their sponsorships can be possible. They’re no different; they want the same thing. And they think the platform we provide them through television and social media and the integrity of the PGA Tour itself makes them more valuable to sponsors as endorsers of their product. The difference is there are just not enough dollars to support women’s sports, unfortunately, as there are in men’s sports. We had a much smaller staff at LPGA when I was there, probably had about 80 people. The great thing was that while you were stretched in terms of workload, you were involved in about every aspect of the organization and when you’re the leader of that org you have to get your hands dirty and be involved in every aspect of the organization. You see yourself having an impact in real time when you do that.
When you come to the PGA Tour, because it has more resources – we have about 900 employees – your work is still significant in trying to do the things that you’re trying to do, the things you’re asked to do, but you have a lot more resources and you don’t have your fingers in every area of the Tour like you did at the LPGA. But having said that, the resources that are there make it easier – not easier, but there’s greater complexities when you have more dollar signs associated.
Both of them are very gratifying experiences. I never had the same day twice. In my area both at LPGA and PGA Tour, much of my work was dealing with people that come from different cultures, different parts of the world, come from different norms and values, so dealing with a sponsor from Korea is very different than dealing with a sponsor from Mexico, and dealing with a sponsor from China is very different than dealing with a sponsor from Brazil. Every day you have to understand who you’re dealing with, how they relate to golf, what is golf like in their country, is it a fully developed golf-playing marketplace, is it a developing marketplace, or a to-be-developed marketplace. All those things play a part in how you try to grow the game or commercialize the game in those markets.
I haven’t traveled anywhere since March 16 since working at home, but I’ve never had the same day twice, whether I’m working from home or traveling the world. That’s something that appeals to me in a great way because anything you do in this world, you have to maintain a certain intellectual curiosity and have a 365-degree view of the world because everything relates to everything else. What happens in Mexico could impact what happens in other parts of the world. If the dollar is stronger in Mexico and the peso is weaker, that affects sponsorships just like it does in Japan where the dollar is strong and the yen is weak. And so all those things you have to take as I’ve said, a 365-degree view of the world and realize that everything you do can’t be done in isolation to what else is happening either in the world or in your organization.
FCP: The LPGA and the LET joined forces to revive golf in Europe. Do you think the LPGA will merge with the PGA at some point in the future? Or do you see potential opportunities in the future for team events involving both men and women?
Votaw: We’re working on a mixed team event right now. We’re hopeful that either in 2021 or 2022 we will be able to have an event on our schedule that would involve both men and women. We have a good working relationship with the LPGA. We have represented their rights domestically for television negotiations and so we renewed and extended our TV agreements with NBC, Comcast and Golf Channel. We negotiated the LPGA’s TV rights with NBC, Golf Channel. So we assisted them. They’re a completely separate organization with a separate governance and separate board of directors and membership base. I think Mike Whan has done a fantastic job as Commissioner over the past 10 years and I think the discussion about whether the LPGA and the Tour could combine has come up on occasion in the past. When it has come up in the past, there’s been some level of players on the LPGA Tour wanting to control their own destiny and have one throat to choke with their own staff and their own Commissioner and their own team and hold them accountable rather than perhaps be part of a larger enterprise where there may be some benefits from marketing or sponsorship or television, but they may get lost in terms of what’s the priority of the LPGA inside of a PGA Tour organization, versus when Mike Whan gets up every morning as Commissioner of LPGA, his sole objective is to help grow and make the LPGA as successful as possible. That same priority would exist if it was a part of the PGA Tour, but there are also other resources that have to get allocated to the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, our international tours, so where that fits in the overall ecosystem has been a point of discussion. I think, ultimately, we want the LPGA to be successful, they’ve controlled their own destiny for 70 years now, by far the most successful women’s sports organization in the world. I was proud to be a part of it for 15 years. I’m very supportive of everything they do, but I think right now it’s not in the cards that we would combine, but never say never.
FCP: Did you ever see yourself graduating law school and eventually being the CMO and now the Executive Vice President of Global Business for the PGA Tour? What is the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your successful career?
Votaw: I went to my undergraduate college Ohio University thinking I’d go into sports administration on some basis. Whether it be for a team, or being a player agent, I wanted to try to find a career in sports. I did an internship in 1982 with the Cleveland Cavaliers in their PR department and at the time the Cavaliers were not a very successful organization. They had one of the worst owners in the game, a guy named Ted Stepien. There were a lot of legal issues that he had with the NBA. He had a lawyer or an outside counsel by the name of Kent Schneider and I actually spent more time talking to him as opposed to actually doing my job in PR. At the end of the internship, my career goals changed and I said I’d rather go to law school instead of go to a sports administration graduate program, which Ohio University had at the time and still does, probably has the best SA program. I decided to go to law school, trained as a corporate lawyer and worked at a Cincinnati law firm for a few years. While I was there, I developed a relationship with the CEO of one of our clients, a company called Taft Broadcasting. The CEO was Charlie Meacham and he started at the law firm himself and had become a partner and then ultimately was asked to be the CEO of Taft Broadcasting, which he did for 25 years. He retired and came back to the firm “of counsel” and so I had worked with him when he was a client of the firm and when he was of counsel at the firm in Cincinnati that I worked at. When he was CEO of Taft Broadcasting, the company sponsored the LPGA Championship, one of the four majors on the LPGA tour in Cincinnati. They were looking for a commissioner and he had just turned 60 years old, had retired from Taft and was back at the firm. They asked him to be commissioner in 1990 and he started in 1991. I walked into his office in October or November of 1990 and I said, “If there’s any job that you think I could do at the LPGA, I want you to know I’d be interested.” I had been an associate at the law firm for four or five years, and I’d like to think I was on a partnership track and getting good marks from the partners, but a door opened with Charlie. What I tell young people is, if a door opens up for you, don’t be afraid to walk through it. I walked through it and 30 years later I’m still in golf. I love golf, I love to play golf, I’m not a good golfer. I wouldn’t say that I knew a lot of LPGA golfers – Nancy Lopez, maybe Jan Stephenson at the time – and I wouldn’t say I was passionate about the LPGA, but I became passionate about it when I got there and my job was to try and make it as successful as it could be. So I’m living proof that you don’t have to be a good golfer to be in the golf business.
I tell young people: Look, if you have a passion for a sport that’s great, but don’t lead with that. Become the best lawyer you can become, become the best accountant you can become, become the best PR professional, be the best marketing professional. If you have a passion for something or a passion for sports that’s a plus, but it doesn’t get you in the door. Sports is no different than any other business, and in order for the business to be successful, you have to have the best people in the disciplines in which they’re trained to make it successful.
Having a passion for golf might help you, but I’m living proof that being a bad golfer didn’t hinder me in being who I was. But I love to play and I think it’s the greatest game in the world in terms of what it can do for young people, what it can do for the communities in which our tournaments are played, and the values and the integrity that’s inherent in the sport. These are all things that I think I’ve been blessed to have in the career that I’ve had. It’s really something that was very lucky, but I wouldn’t have had it if I didn’t have the courage to walk through that door and talk to Charlie.
Interview Conducted on June 23, 2020.
Photo Credit: R&A via Getty Images