The human rights record of its funder, Saudi Arabia, may be the least of the new tour’s challenges when it comes to getting on American television.
For the Saudi-backed upstart LIV Golf tour, the strategy for luring top golfers like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson away from the prestige and stability of the PGA Tour was simple: Offer cash, and lots of it.
The arrival of the new tour and the defection of PGA Tour stars were major disruptions in what has been a stable and even staid sport. But when the first LIV event was finally held outside London last weekend after months of anticipation, it was not shown on television in the United States. And it’s unlikely that any American network will be broadcasting LIV events anytime soon.
The reason boils down to this: The networks are happy airing the PGA Tour.
“We are positioned as the home of golf in this country,” said Pete Bevacqua, the chairman of the NBC Sports, which shows by far the most golf in the United States. “We are not only satisfied where we are, but unbelievably pleased where we are.”
Some golfers couldn’t resist the pull of the new tour, whose events are shorter than the PGA Tour’s (three days instead of four) and offer huge payouts, with individual winners receiving $4 million and the members of winning teams sharing $3 million, far more than most PGA Tour events. Even last-place finishers get $120,000; PGA Tour players who don’t make the cut after two rounds get nothing.
But the LIV tour got nowhere with those who might have aired its events in the United States. Representatives for LIV Golf spoke with most American broadcasters, but did not have substantive discussions about a media rights agreement with any of them, according to people familiar with those discussions. LIV broached the idea of buying time to show the London tournament on Fox — an inversion of the normal business relationship, where the media company pays the sports organization to show its event — but discussions did not go far.
In the end, the London tournament was not on American broadcast TV or popular sports streaming platforms such as Peacock and ESPN+. Instead, golf fans could watch it on the streaming service DAZN, YouTube, Facebook or LIV Golf’s website, without commercials.
Limited viewership numbers suggest not many of them did. The final round of the London event attracted an average of 68,761 viewers on YouTube and fewer than 5,000 on Facebook, according to Apex Marketing, a sports and entertainment analytics firm. On the same weekend, 812,000 viewers watched the final round of the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open on Golf Channel, and 2.78 million watched when coverage switched over to CBS.
The absence of a media rights agreement would normally threaten the survival of a new sports league. But LIV Golf is not a commercial entity with a profit imperative. It is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and part of a larger effort by the kingdom to improve its image around the world. Players who have joined the LIV tour have been accused of helping to “sportswash” Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights abuses, including the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
LIV did not respond to a request for comment.
But NBC and other broadcast networks have a long list of reasons other than reputational damage to steer clear of the new venture.
LIV’s main barrier to entry in the United States is that most major media companies are deeply invested in the success of its competitor, the PGA Tour. NBC, CBS and ESPN are collectively in the first year of a nine-year, $6 billion-plus agreement to show the PGA Tour in the United States, while Warner Bros. Discovery (which owns TNT and TBS) is paying the PGA Tour $2 billion to show the tour worldwide.
The media companies are not contractually restricted from showing LIV, according to the people familiar with the deals, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private agreements. But they believe that doing so would draw attention away from the tour on which they are spending billions.
Fox, which has a history of risk-taking in sports (it is currently investing in spring football), might seem like a good candidate to team up with LIV, but Fox does not televise any golf, and that is by design. The network had the rights to broadcast the U.S. Open through 2026, but paid money to give up those rights to NBC.
Even if networks wanted to take a chance on LIV Golf, the logistical challenges would be significant. Golf monopolizes entire weekends throughout the year and is more expensive to produce than arena- and stadium-based sports. (Golf presents a particularly difficult hurdle for Fox, which rarely puts sports on its streaming service, Tubi, meaning it is difficult to show golf when schedules collide.)
LIV Golf also did not have any stars on board until recently, and it is not clear whether it will attract enough top golfers to make its events attractive to fans. Questions about the tour’s backing have been uncomfortable for those who have joined.
“I would ask any player who has left or any player who would ever consider leaving, ‘Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?’” Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, said in a televised interview Sunday.
Players who have signed contracts with LIV have been booted from the PGA Tour, though that could soon become the subject of litigation. Players have also been dropped by sponsors, either because of the association with Saudi Arabia or because companies don’t want to support golfers competing on a tour few are watching.
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Still, many of those involved in the PGA Tour media deal acknowledged that interest in the PGA Tour would decrease if LIV lured away more top golfers. They believe the PGA Tour’s appeal lies in the world’s best golfers competing against one another every weekend, and LIV is directly threatening that.
LIV’s future may depend partly on whether LIV players are allowed to play in the four major golf tournaments — none of which is run by the PGA Tour. Augusta National Golf Club hosts the Masters; the United States Golf Association stages the U.S. Open; the Professional Golfers Association of America runs the P.G.A. Championship; and the R & A puts on the British Open.
If allowed to compete in majors, LIV golfers could earn huge paydays on the less-taxing LIV tour while continuing to play in the legacy-defining events in front of millions of fans.
“Majors are extremely important to professional golfers, and they will be a key variable whether this is successful or not,” said David Levy, a former president of Turner Sports who created the Match, a high-stakes golf exhibition.
This year’s third major, the U.S. Open, is at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., this weekend, and LIV golfers are present. The U.S.G.A., which organizes the tournament, said in a carefully worded statement last week that any golfer who had qualified would be allowed to compete. But the U.S.G.A. noted that its decision “should not be construed as the U.S.G.A. supporting an alternative organizing entity,” and on Wednesday, the organization’s chief executive, Mike Whan, said that he could foresee a day when players were denied entry to the U.S. Open based on which tour they came from.
The other majors have not said whether they will bar LIV golfers from their events. Nor have these tournaments said whether they will continue to extend lifetime invitations to players who have won them. (Mickelson has exemptions from the Masters and P.G.A. Championship for life, for instance.) Decisions are expected this fall and winter as plans are solidified for tournaments in 2023.
A sometimes overlooked golf body, the Official World Golf Ranking, is also expected to have influence. The organization bestows ranking points on golfers based on their performance, and tournaments use those rankings to determine eligibility. Currently, LIV golfers do not receive ranking points, meaning they will inevitably fall in the world rankings and lose their eligibility to compete in the majors.
LIV has said it will submit an application to have its events ranked. That application will be considered by the governing board of the Official World Golf Ranking, whose chairman is Peter Dawson, an English former professional golfer. The board also includes representatives from each of the four majors, along with the PGA Tour, the European Tour and the International Federation of PGA Tours, an umbrella organization of professional golf tours.
While the PGA Tour will almost certainly vote against LIV’s application, it is less certain how the other tours will vote. And even if they also vote no, if representatives from the four majors all vote to allow LIV’s golfers to accrue ranking points — and therefore signal they are comfortable with LIV golfers competing in their events — LIV Golf might just succeed in attracting more golfers.
Source: Golf - nytimes.com