Ladies European Tour CEO Alexandra Armas reveals all about the fight for equality and why a merger with the LPGA is on the cards.
Alexandra Armas is a rare commodity in a male-dominated sport. If you do not know her by name, it’s precisely because she prefers it that way. Unlike other leaders, she does not crave the spotlight and cares more about serving the interests of the players she once called her peers.
She is disarmingly honest over the course of our 45-minute conversation and speaks at length about the fight for equality, as well as the wealth of opportunities that could result from the LET partnering with the LPGA to unify the women’s game.
To fully appreciate the scale of her ambitions, you have to go back three years, to a time she refers to as the most tumultuous period of her life.
It was her job to lead the LET through the pandemic, weeks after becoming only the second female Chief Executive in the tour’s 45-year history. It was a big appointment for all concerned, and that was before the chaos of Covid took hold and players were left without a place to play for five months.
The responsibility of providing a tour to come back to weighed heavily. Some members had to find temporary jobs to supplement their income; others had to take out loans or rely on the generosity of others to pay their bills.
“The hardest part of this role is that you have the responsibility of 300 athletes and their livelihoods,” admits Armas. “When they are not competing, players don’t have a job. They are not making any money. That was the hardest part during Covid, but it was also the biggest motivator to get going, too.”
Armas is popular with members because of her transparency and willingness to fight their corner. It helps that she has seen things from the other side as well.
Between 2001 and 2004, the Spaniard competed as a player on the LET. She was so highly thought of as a Player Director that she was asked to join the board on a full-time basis.
“It helped that I wasn’t playing well at the time,” she says, chuckling. “But I was always more interested in the business side of golf. It was the perfect marriage.”
After putting away her clubs for good, she spent the next eight years working as the LET’s Executive Director, before vacating the role to set up her own sports marketing consultancy in early 2013.
“I didn’t think I would come back,” concedes Armas, who has a degree in business economics and an MBA in finance. “I probably wouldn’t have done it, but then an opportunity with the LPGA came up and I was given the chance to change the direction of the LET.”
Despite originally returning to the LET as a consultant in October 2019, she assumed responsibilities as acting CEO following Mark Lichtenhein’s departure and was offered the role permanently three months later. She just didn’t count on the pandemic ruining her best-laid plans.
The schedule was reduced to just 13 events and players had to comply with social distancing and Covid testing protocols at every tournament.
Armas doesn’t like to put a number on how many players never came back, though it’s easy to assume that the events of 2017 played a part in their thinking.
It was public knowledge back then that the LET was on the brink of financial collapse. Seven tournaments were canceled due to a lack of funding, which prompted then LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan to step in and strike an alliance to help safeguard the LET’s future. Armas is especially grateful that he did.
“Realistically, it would have been a struggle to get through the pandemic and to get back up playing as soon as we did without the (help of the) LPGA, she admits. “Thankfully, we were able to tap into some of their resources to carry us through that period.”
Much of Armas’ time has been spent firefighting, trying to keep players and sponsors happy with limited resources. Under her watch the LET has grown from 19 events in 2019, totalling €11.5 million in prize money, to 30 events with a record-breaking combined purse of €35 million this year.
“I think we’re in a good position now,” she explains. “My first focus was to try and stabilize the tour. It had lost a number of tournaments, the fields were shrinking. The footprint in Europe had really reduced, so my remit was to increase the playing opportunities, the number of tournaments in different countries in Europe, and to increase the prize money.
“We are probably at the optimum number of tournaments now, somewhere between 30 to 35, which has allowed us to do more television. That gives us more exposure, which allows us to tap into more sponsorships. That’s the first phase. We’re still nowhere near comparable to what men’s sports get, but we have huge potential.
“There are a lot of upsides, which we can still work on to leverage the growth of the tour. We are comfortable but, you know, the more revenues we can get, the more opportunities we can give our members.”
Armas comes across as immensely ambitious but approachable, and she is also realistic about where the LET sits in golf’s hierarchy. She bristles at the word ‘feeder tour’, but at the time of writing, only three players have earned in excess of $500,000 on the LET, compared with 42 on the LPGA.
She accepts that the LET cannot compete with the prize funds being offered by their American cousins, but she is keen to point out that their business models are very different.
“I think we’re relevant for different reasons,” she says. “We collaborate very closely with federations. We are part of grassroots progression. In that way, we are slightly different.
“The LPGA is always going to want to have the best players in the world. We play a big part in nurturing those players coming through. Atthaya Thitikul got to World No.1 last year and she broke through at our tournament in Thailand.
“The way I see it is that we want every player, wherever they choose to play, to be able to make a living. That’s our purpose, offering realistic job opportunities. The top players that have ambitions to play against the top players in the world will go to the LPGA. And that’s fine.
“Our objective is to offer a pathway, to be a home for players, and to give them a platform to improve.
Armas has a lot of strong opinions and is not afraid to divulge some of them. She scoffs at the amount of money on offer in the men’s game and believes that the pay gap largely exists because of a lack of education and recognition of how “immensely talented female athletes are”.
She makes a lot of good points, but she is also aware that people now look to her to help address the gender divide and find new sources of income. Some have proven more controversial than others.
The LET’s association with the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign wealth fund that backs LIV, is perhaps the best example, not least because they are now a presenting partner of five Aramco Team Series events and the Aramco Saudi Ladies International.
Together, those events make up over a quarter of the total prize money on the LET for 2023, which has led to accusations that the tour is complicit in sportswashing.
Armas grits her teeth in anticipation of a question about her own moral compass. She understands how it might look, but she is determined to focus on the positives and the members who are now benefiting from the riches on offer.
“It necessitated a thoughtful discussion,” she says, pausing for thought. “When we entered into this partnership at the end of 2019, we discussed it internally with the board and presented it to our members.
“We wanted to educate ourselves on what the Saudi mission was in terms of sport, growing participation, their ambitions with tourism, and all those things.
“The players supported the introduction of the first event and then through Covid, when the players were struggling, we had a conversation about having two events in Saudi back to back. That kind of set the seed for the Aramco Team Series, so it’s been a progression and collaborative process to get where we are in 2023.
“You know, our job is to give players these kind of opportunities to try and make a living. Women’s golf is really challenging and going through a tough time. The number one thing players want and need is to play for more money, that’s why the Aramco events are an important part of the schedule.”
Inevitably, a willingness to do business with the Saudis does raise suspicions that they may try to muscle in on the women’s game even more. Greg Norman is adamant that a standalone LIV ladies’ series is coming, and LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan, who ranks as one of the most influential people in golf, has already said she would be open to engaging in a conversation. Armas reveals she would be, too.
“There’s been no approach so far, but they (the PIF) are obviously a significant player in the game of golf,” she says. “So, yeah, we’d have to have a conversation to see how a potential proposal would work within the women’s game.”
She stops short of saying too much, no doubt aware of the headlines she might create, but that doesn’t stop her from talking up a potential merger with the LPGA which would unite the women’s game.
“I have always felt that it makes a lot more sense for women’s golf to be unified, to be one organization, so we can drive women’s golf as one and not be so fragmented,” she says. “I still really believe in that and that was one of my reasons for joining in 2020. It is very much at the forefront of both boards, the LET and the LPGA.
“I mean, we’re not here to compete LET against the LPGA. I absolutely believe that having a cohesive, single women’s organization is the best thing for women’s golf. It’s something that we intended to do at some stage through the joint venture, but Covid pushed everything back. If we can all get our ducks in a row, it’s something that I can see happening in the near future.”
Armas refuses to put a time frame on when an agreement might be reached, but the optimism in her voice suggests they are already at an advanced stage.
What that means for her role and the power she currently possesses is something she doesn’t wish to speculate on. Her only concern is leaving the women’s game in a better place than she where found it. So far, she is making good on that promise.
“We are a membership organization and we never want to lose sight of that, she says. “I understand the players’ motivations, their ambitions and their challenges. It kind of takes away this myth that being a professional athlete is glamorous, and brings it down to the core of the reality, of how everything we do is actually for the members.
“I am only really thinking about what the players deserve and the opportunity that exists in women’s golf. There’s still a long way to go, but working with the LPGA on driving the game forward is what excites me.”
About the author
Michael Catling is an award-winning journalist who specializes in golf’s Majors and Tours, including DP World, PGA, LPGA, and LIV.
Michael joined Today’s Golfer in 2016 and has traveled the world to attend the game’s biggest events and secure exclusive interviews with the game’s biggest names, including Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Martin Slumbers and Justin Thomas.