2005: PGA picks ‘consensus builder’

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The PGA of America culminated its yearlong search for a new chief executive officer by settling on its longtime rainmaker to run the 28,000-member association.

In selecting Joe Steranka to replace the retiring Jim Awtrey, who has run the association’s day-to-day operation since 1987, the PGA tapped the man most closely associated with its biggest moneymakers, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup. As managing director of communications and broadcasting, Steranka perhaps was best known for spearheading negotiations for the PGA’s lucrative television rights, which he says have increased tenfold since the late 1980s. And he has been instrumental in shepherding virtually every PGA initiative in recent years, including its Internet ventures, the Play Golf America participation program, PGA Retirement Plus and the association’s revamped educational programs.

“Frankly, he’s the architect of the last four or five major projects directed at our members,” said M.G. Orender, honorary president of the PGA.

Steranka, 47, was hired by the PGA in 1988, becoming one of the cornerstones of a staff built by Awtrey, who had been appointed executive director the previous year. (Awtrey became the PGA’s first CEO in 1993.) Steranka had spent the previous five years at ProServ, a Washington-based firm whose clients then included Michael Jordan.

At the time, the PGA was a cash-strapped organization, but Steranka said he was intrigued by corporate marketers’ interest in investing in golf, and also the PGA’s vast reach.

“The PGA was one of those unique organizations that had events that the whole world tunes in to, yet it’s in the retail business,” Steranka said. “It would be like (NBA commissioner) David Stern having 10,000 stores around the country.”

With a veteran staff and long-term TV deals in place with NBC and CBS, Steranka says his priorities will be the continued rollout of member services, including the Certified Professional Program, an online educational curriculum, and expanded employment services. He’ll also oversee Play Golf America and PerformanceTrak, an initiative to gather course-operations data for use in PGA education programs.

“I will focus more attention on promoting those programs to our members and to the people who employ our members,” Steranka said.

Unlike Awtrey, Steranka, who will take over as CEO at the PGA’s annual meeting this week in Scottsdale, Ariz., is not a PGA member.

“He may not carry the card, but Joe Steranka bleeds blue and gold,” Orender said, referring to the PGA shield’s colors.

Steranka describes himself as a “consensus builder,” and as Awtrey’s longtime lieutenant, he built a reputation as an ideas guy who has a knack for quietly and quickly bringing together parties with diffuse interests.

“He’s a bit of an enigmatic personality, and he gets stuff done,” said Leigh Bader, a PGA member from Massachusetts and president of 3balls.com, which partnered with the PGA and eBay to develop the PGA Trade-In Network and PGA Value Guide for used equipment. “When you talk to him, he doesn’t say, ‘Let me work on that.’ He just goes away, and two days later it’s finished.”

Though he has been charged with bringing in the TV money that pays for much of the PGA’s agenda, Steranka apparently has developed an easy rapport with network executives.

“A good many of the times we have negotiated walking outside, the import of which is it’s never been formal,” said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, which broadcasts the Ryder Cup and Senior PGA Championship. “It’s a conversation about his interests and our interests and trying to find a meeting point. . . . He drives an excellent bargain, but it’s a bargain, and you don’t walk away from the table feeling like you’ve been taken.”

John Wildhack, senior vice president of programming for ESPN and ABC Sports, said he has had similar experiences in his decade of dealing with Steranka. He said there’s never any acrimony, with Steranka focused on a result that’s “fair” to both sides.

“You know where Joe stands, and he likes the same straight talk from his business partners,” Wildhack said.

In dealings with TV executives and others, Steranka has been the PGA’s low-profile dealmaker. That will change to some degree.

Bader recalled a conversation at the first Golf 20/20 conference in 2000 in which Steranka suggested that Bader consider running for national office. Bader thanked him, but said he preferred to work behind the scenes to bring about change. Steranka, Bader recalled, replied, “I understand. I feel the same way.”

But as CEO, Steranka will step squarely into the spotlight.

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