Has the first controversial season of LIV Golf been a success?
The 2022 LIV Golf schedule will conclude this week in Miami at Doral Golf Course as it ends the seven-tournament season. Doral was one of the prized locations on the PGA Tour until 2017 when the Tour decided to move the WGC from Doral to Mexico City. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump, who owns Doral, decided to take a shot at the tour in 2016 for the move suggesting they were moving from a great spot to a country that is wrought with criminals. On the Hannity show Trump stated:
"I just heard that the PGA TOUR is taking their tournament out of Miami and moving it to Mexico . . .", Trump said. "They’re moving their tournament; it's the Cadillac World Golf Championship. And Cadillac's been a great sponsor, but they're moving it to Mexico. They're moving it to Mexico City which, by the way, I hope they have kidnapping insurance."
In its defense, the tour stated that in 2016 GM decided not to sponsor the event anymore and the PGA Tour received a great offer for sponsorship from Grupo Salinas. Grupo Salinas is a large Mexican conglomerate founded by Ricardo Benjamín Salinas Pliego, a multi-billionaire, who decided the PGA Tour could help improve branding of his companies through the event. At the time, many in the golf world and the media expressed outrage at the move, saying that an important event like the WGC should remain in the U.S. and not be given to a country that simply wants to improve its branding via a form of "sportswashing." Quite ironic, since LIV is owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, which is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. And, many of the same people who expressed outrage for moving the WGC Championship, including Trump, are defending and promoting LIV, despite suggestions that the only reason the Saudi government has any reason to fund the series is to detract from its human rights abuses by attracting many of the best golfers through its own form of sportswashing.
To attract the best golfers, the series has provided crazy purses for its tournaments as well as sign-up bonuses for the top players. Phil Mickelson was the first golfer to sign up and become a spokesperson for the series. In return he received a $200 million signing bonus for his commitment. Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson Dechambeau and Cameron Smith have all been rumored to have received around $100 million as a sign-up bonus and other golfers received sign-up incentives as well, although likely not as high as those mentioned. Johnson, Koepka and Smith have all won an LIV tournament this year, but Dechambeau and Mickelson have been uncompetitive. In fact, Mickelson has been near the bottom of the leaderboard in every event. If LIV used the traditional PGA Tour format which includes more than seventy players and a cut, he wouldn’t have made a single cut. As one golf analyst said to me:
"Mickelson has been absolute trash in LIV. He no longer has game and is an embarrassment. He’s likely laughing every day as he looks at his bank account realizing that if he was still on the PGA Tour he wouldn’t have even made enough to pay for groceries for the month."
All about the Benjamins
Greg Norman, the CEO of LIV, along with many of the LIV golfers, have indicated that it is not just about money per se, but rather the way the PGA Tour conducts its business. Many of the LIV golfers have said that they are forced to commit to too many tournaments on the PGA and DP Tour, which doesn’t leave enough family time. They also stated they should own the rights to their highlights so that they could sell them as NFTs if they want and that the best players should get appearance fees for tournaments and not simply paid based on performance. They also want increased purses for events. But there is no doubt that first and foremost is money.
Dustin Johnson has won over $31 million in six tournaments, which includes $18 million for leading the season points list, Branden Grace has won $3 million more this year than he has in eight seasons on the PGA Tour and eight players have made at least $8 million, a figure some of them likely never dreamed of. There is uncertainty as to whether LIV prize money is independent of the signing bonus or whether the prize money is applied against the bonus. The belief is that for some golfers like Mickelson it is, but for the majority, it’s not. To fight back, the PGA Tour announced it will introduce a revamped schedule in time for the 2023 season that will include increased purses of at least $20 million for marquee events and three events will have limited fields, no cuts and a purse over $25 million. The top players committed to play 20 tournaments in return.
The question posed by a few PGA Tour players like John Rahm, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler, who said they would never join LIV, is what the motivation of the players on LIV truly is? Amateur golfers have always said their motivation for playing is to win major tournaments and play in the Ryder and President’s Cup for their country, and that money is always a secondary factor. So, they want to know when the priorities changed, and it has become all about the money. If the majors aren’t a concern for LIV players, then a lot of Tour players believe they should just accept their decision and move on. To that extent, they deeply resent LIV players trying to circumvent the process to get an exemption.
Currently, the majors are obligated to let golfers play based on a set of criteria that includes Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points. But LIV tournaments don’t generate OWGR points so golfers like Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Adrian Otaegui and others are playing on the DP (European) Tour to try and gain OWGR points to get the exemption. The DP Tour is obligated to allow the players to enter the events this year, but they have suspended and fined players who joined LIV golf and they indicated they will follow the PGA and ban LIV players next year if the courts allow. In turn, many LIV golfers have sued the DP Tour to stop that from happening. LIV also filed an anti-trust suit against the PGA Tour, which was joined by 11 players. But one-by-one they have withdrawn their name from the suit preferring to let LIV itself handle the case. Three of the eleven golfers still have their name on the suit. Most analysts believe the real reason eight of the players withdrew their names is that they suspect they may lose, and they don’t want a permanent black mark putting their names on the lawsuit should the PGA Tour ever consider allowing them back in. LIV also created a strategic alliance with the Middle East and Africa (Mena) Tour so that technically any golfer that does well on LIV would get OWGR points as well, but the OWGR doesn’t seem anxious to offer points regardless of that alliance. The main objections raised by those in charge of OWGR has nothing to do with the Saudis owning the series, but rather that LIV tournaments are limited to 48 players, have no cut and are contested over 54 holes. The shotgun start is unconventional too, but that doesn’t seem to be a barrier. They want more traditional formats before they will give a consideration to offering OWGR points for LIV tournaments.
Past champions get an exemption to the Masters, meaning that Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel can automatically play in the Masters going forward, which is another reason many are angry at Reed and Garcia continuing to play in DP events.
For his part, Rory McIlroy has said that LIV is their own worst enemy in a BBC interview:
"The only ones that are prohibiting them for getting world rankings points are themselves," McIlroy said.
"It's not as if they [the OWGR] created this criteria out of thin air a few months ago to try to prevent LIV [players] from getting points… I think if they were to pivot, have cuts, have a minimum field of 75, have more of a merit-based system where there's a meritocracy for how to get on the tour . . . there's a bunch of stuff where they don't meet the criteria yet, but if they were to change and meet all those points then there's obviously no reason not to give them world ranking points.
I'm certainly not for banning them from majors, but my only thing is with the way the world rankings are now, if someone that hasn't won the Masters before, can't garner enough world ranking points to be eligible, then I think that's entirely on them.
They knew the risks going in, and actions have consequences . . . That was a risk that they were paid for ultimately. If some of these guys that don't have exemptions in the majors don't qualify for them, I have no problem with that because they knew that going in."
Continued lack of interest
What none of the LIV golfers or directors will say, but has to be eating at them, is the lack of interest in the series. They claim that enthusiasm is growing, but viewership suggests otherwise. Ticket sales (at least paid ticket sales) have been poor and the audience on YouTube, where events are broadcast, has been less than stellar. The highest viewed event was in Chicago, where the final round drew about 900,000 viewers and the last event in Thailand drew less than 300,000 viewers. Those figures aren’t bad, but they likely include people who may watch for as little as 3 seconds. Some local stations have shown the YouTube feed on TV, but the Tour has yet to sign a deal with a major broadcaster. There have been rumors that LIV is willing to pay FoxSports to broadcast its tournaments on FS1. This would be quite a turnaround from other tournaments, where stations pay the tour for broadcast and advertising rights. It hasn’t been lost on golf analysts either that Donald Trump has been a big proponent of LIV and effectively called those being loyal to the PGA Tour fools, and of course Trump and the Republicans are fully supported by the Fox network. And both Trump, Norman and Fox have effectively shrugged at the connection that many fans have equated between terrorism and the Saudi government, including 9/11. While Trump has blamed the Saudi government at least partially for the 9/11 attacks he claims nonetheless they are still his friends. In better words, again, money comes first.
"If you don’t take the money now, you will get nothing after the merger takes place, and only say how smart the original signees were," Trump stated earlier this year to PGA players.
Regardless, it’s pretty clear that it will be quite some time, if ever, that LIV tournaments will draw the same viewership that PGA Tour events do.
Lack of Action
It is also notable that LIV golf betting is offered by most sportsbooks across the world, but action is still poor. I spoke to a trader at a British based books with operations across the globe and he said that the amount of money bet on LIV is still terrible in comparison to other events.
"We offered LIV golf because some of our best customers asked for it, but the amount bet is a fraction of even the smallest tours. We know it’s a learning curve not only for the bettors, but for us. The shotgun start causes issues and we are constantly being forced to halt markets as we determine which player is where, what holes they have left and what a reasonable score would be for the remaining holes. I’m sure that confusion is even more prevalent with the bettors. But I also feel there is much resentment towards LIV because of its association with the Saudi Prince and people don’t want to bet on it for moral reasons. I understand that and support their beliefs. But we are a sports betting operation, not the morality police. We get similar complaints when we offer odds on the next pope, but players have to decide for themselves what is right for them and whether they feel good about betting on something. Will LIV ever get the same betting action as say the Scottish Open or the Player’s Championship? It’s very unlikely. And I doubt it will even get the same action as a minor LPGA event. But we don’t only offer odds on events we know will be massive. We offer odds that we know some of our good clients want. You take the good with the bad."
So, as the LIV series is set to conclude for the year this weekend and there are still a lot of questions that have to be asked.
- Will LIV ever generate OWGR points?
- Will the best players on the PGA and DP Tour continue to defect to LIV?
- Will the Tour ever get an actual TV contract which will generate a good audience?
- Will the betting public ever start putting good money on the event?
- Will Phil Mickelson ever finish in the top half of an LIV event?
It’s hard to say if the first season of LIV has been a success or failure, but if the measure is viewership and betting then the answer is clearly that it has not been very successful at all.