Talking Business with Symetra Tour CBO Mike Nichols

by Allie White

The 2015 Symetra Tour season saw tournament purse totals hit a record $2.73 million up 72% over the past two years. Still, it is no secret that it is extremely difficult for a player to finance a year of golf on the Symetra Tour. I personally can tell you that expenses are steep starting with the $500 tournament entry fees. With a full season of 23 tournaments that is $11,500 in entry fees alone. Then include travel expenses, equipment costs, caddie fees, dinner, snacks and things can quickly add up to anywhere between $20,000-$50,000 (depending on how much you fly, how much your caddie charges, where you stay, how much your lessons cost). A player needs a good support system to give it a run. But, bigger purses make a big difference too. So it is super news that the Symetra Tour welcomes a 2016 tournament season that boasts an additional $400,000 in overall prize money.

This is in large part due to the efforts of Symetra Tour Chief Business Officer Mike Nichols and his work with the Symetra Life Insurance Co., the title sponsor for the Tour. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Symetra Tour, it is the LPGA’s Official Qualifying Tour where over 200 women professionals compete every year to be in the Top Ten of the season-ending money list and earn their tour card for the LPGA.

I had a chance recently to talk business with CBO Nichols, and it was a great learning experience. Following an interview that lasted nearly an hour, it is very clear that Nichols is extremely passionate about his work for the Symetra Tour and a really easy guy to talk with. His passion and overall likeability are pivotal to his success in keeping sponsors, golf courses, Symetra employees, and players all on board in delivering a great product: A top level golf experience for fans and sponsors.

But how does a Chief Business Officer convince new venues that the Symetra Tour is something they need to have in their community? Keep in mind that in order to sponsor a tournament, sponsors need to raise at least a $100,000 purse and then also have at least as much money available to pay for the golf course rental, volunteer uniforms, pro-am gifts and more. So I asked Mike, what has been the key to getting sponsors on board?

Symetra Tour Haruka Morita-Wanyaolu
Haruka Morita-Wanyaolu | 2015 Symetra Tour Championship

First off, Nichols spends much of his time prospecting new events and trying to get potential sponsors out to watch existing Symetra events or out to play in Symetra Pro-Ams. According to Nichols, “once a potential sponsor experiences the product, they usually see it, like it, and want to be a part of it.”

Why do they see it and like? “Companies want the player experience for fans, pro-am customers, and out in the community,” says Nichols, who spent seven years working at LPGA venues before his three years on the Symetra Tour. “We are working with smaller markets that can’t afford an LPGA event but  want that same player interaction. Success here comes down to the players.”

Over the past three years the Symetra Tour has become very stable in its tournament schedule indicating that sponsors are getting what they want and need from players, he says. It’s nice to hear as a player that we are getting the job done.

Which brings us to what Nichols admits to being the hardest part of his job, getting potential sponsors out to experience a Symetra event.  “People who aren’t familiar with the Symetra Tour don’t understand the caliber of golf that is being played,” Nichols says. “Any given week on the Symetra Tour you have about 15 players who will next year likely be on the LPGA.”

To make his point about just how competitive ladies professional golf is, Nichols compares it to the NFL. The NFL has 60 guys on a team and 32 teams, he says. So all in all, there are 2,000 NFL players (mainly from the States because that is where football is played). A very elite bunch.

The LPGA has 144 players playing each week. They come from all over the world. Like the NFL, the LPGA is a competitive and elite bunch, but with far fewer spots for players. Nichols wants the Symetra Tour to be where everyone else, not on the LPGA, plays. And I can confirm that, besides the Ladies European Tour, for the most part, anyone looking for LPGA-like competition and prep goes to the Symetra Tour.

With most of the talented golfers who don’t make the LPGA playing on the Symetra Tour, that puts a lot of pressure on the Tour to provide a great product for those players. According to Nichols, the top concern he repeatedly hears from players is their desire to play for higher purses and to make more money when they make a cut.

This is why when Nichols talks about the 2016 season, he is most excited about the commitment from Symetra Life Insurance Company to match purse increases. This means that every time an existing Symetra event raises their prize money for a tournament Symetra will match that increase up to $25,000 dollars. Nichols argues that this commitment from Symetra along with their commitment to continue as the Tour’s title sponsor til 2021 has put the tour in a much more stable position which is easier to grow from.

Why would Symetra Insurance continue their support? According to Nichols, the Tour has, “worked so well growing the Symetra business. The exposure and behind the scenes help by having top Symetra customers playing in Symetra Pro-Am events at each tournament is huge.”

As a player, it is great to hear that our best financial backer is getting the support they need out of us. Again we are getting the job done.

laetitia beck Symetra Tour
Laetitia Beck – 2015 IOA Golf Classic Symetra Tour

The additional $400,000 in purses is not the only thing Nichols is excited about. He is also a fan of the Tour’s decision to change the cut line from the top 70 and ties to the top 60 and ties. He hopes that “moving the cut line will make it that much more competitive. And the purse will be separated amongst a smaller group of players which will put a premium on making cuts and hopefully help prepare players for the next level.”

I would have to agree that most players are happy to see the cut line dropped. In the past, making the cut and finishing say 65th where you might make half of your entry fee back always seemed a bit ridiculous.

Some other great financial changes for the Tour this year? For the first time, the LPGA and Symetra Tour have the benefit of a Health Care option. For someone like myself who is turning 26 this year and getting ousted from my parents’ Health Care, it is an absolute blessing.

Also, the LPGA has passed on to the Symetra Tour the ability for players to pay entry fees with a credit card versus check only. This might sound like a small deal, but with my new Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card, I can probably turn this season’s expenses into a free flight somewhere. Hello, Vegas… haha or another golf tournament!

Although Nichols takes no personal responsibility for these changes he does credit the LPGA’s ownership of the Symetra Tour as the means to which we have access to these benefits.

At the end of the day, the Symetra Tour is still a hard place for players to make a living. It is not really designed to be somewhere that most people can afford to stay and play. However, it is an essential part of the LPGA business model. With only 144 spots a week on the LPGA tour, the LPGA must invest in giving future stars a place to play. And Symetra Tour players are extremely grateful to Symetra, Mr. Nichols, and all of the hard working folks constantly battling to make our financially difficult but fun journey a bit more doable.

Julia Boland - Sioux Falls GreatLIFE Challenge
Julia Boland – Sioux Falls GreatLIFE Challenge

Although Nichols concedes that the LPGA does not have enough employees in its sponsorship department to help all 400 or so Symetra and LPGA members find sponsors to help them cover expenses, he does offer some advice on gaining sponsors to struggling Symetra players. “Stay local and start with people you know. The Symetra Tour is not a televised product so wearing a logo isn’t a big sellable point for a player.”

He argues that local clinics and personal relationships are a Symetra player’s best chance at adding value to a company.

And Nichols really does want players to make it and to feel free to reach out to him with any questions. “I want to have an open dialogue. We are all on the same team. If I have success you do too.” Again, I can confirm that it was very easy to get in touch with Mike and his guarantee to open player-CBO dialogue is the truth.

Nichols favorite part of the job? “Seeing the success and growth of the players.” He especially loves the card ceremony where “all of the blood sweat and tears of the folks who wake up and go to bed thinking of the Symetra Tour are rewarded and we are able to give those ten ladies the opportunity to chase their dream of being on the LPGA.”

Nichols cites his eight-year-old daughter McKenzie, commonly known as ZZ, as part of his passion for providing young women with working opportunities. Simply put he would like his daughter to have those same opportunities to succeed that can only come from an investment in her future much like the investment Symetra Tour ladies receive from the Tour.

It was a great way to get to talk about the Symetra Tour with Mike Nichols. We players thank Mike and all the others for all of their hard work. And it makes me wonder, what is the next challenge for the Symetra Tour? A lot of us players might want it to be lower entry fees? Maybe sponsors could help with that too? Lower entry fees might be just what that next great LPGA talent needs to get started. In the meantime, I am most certainly thankful for all of the great new advances for 2016 and I can’t wait to get out there!

Allie WhiteAllie White from Lancaster, Ohio, is a professional golfer and golf journalist. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Journalism at Ohio University. With four years of experience on the Symetra Tour, a cut-made at the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open, and a 2016 Ohio Open Championship, White hopes to continue her golf career during her academic breaks.

“I grew up on an 88-acre farm in Southeast Ohio and currently live in the same area with my dog Finley where I cheer like crazy for all of my favorite Ohio sports teams. I love to play my guitar, listen to music, watch movies, and read good stuff! 

My two biggest golf dreams are to play in Toledo Ohio’s LPGA event and to make it back to another US Open. I’m still hunting for that first hole in one!”

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