Golfers, fans and bettors feuding over PGA and LIV Golf
When Greg Norman announced last year that LIV Golf, backed by the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Saudi Arabia, would start operating in June this year, it raised the eyebrows of both golfers and the PGA Tour. Norman, the CEO of LIV along with some PGA Tour and DP World Tour players, said they would join the LIV Tour since they needed to "reshape how the PGA Tour operates." Aside from crazy prize money for tournaments, LIV tried to entice some major stars to join LIV by offering some obscene sign-on bonuses. In return, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan provided the players an ultimatum - them or us. Monahan indicated that PGA Tour players who played on the LIV Tour would be suspended from all PGA Tour events, with the possibility of a lifetime ban. Greg Norman called the PGA Tour bullies and hypocrites and many PGA players said they would join LIV Golf anyways.
In an interview with Alan Shipnuk, a golf writer and author, Phil Mickelson said:
"[The PGA Tour has] been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse."
Mickelson did not give specific examples of how the tour has harmed him and other players, aside from his belief that star players should get appearance money for just showing up, and the prize money at tournaments should be higher, but clearly Mickelson’s belief was echoed by other PGA stars as they joined LIV as well. Four known signup bonuses included $200 million to Mickelson, $125 million to Dustin Johnson and $100 million to both Bryson Dechambeau and Brooks Koepka. And, by all accounts Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, Kevin Na, Lee Westwood and Patrick Reed were also given sign-on bonuses, while other players are likely playing just for crazy prize money, including a $4 million to the winner of the first tournament.
Monahan said that he has full authority to revoke memberships of players who break the regulations and has effectively implied that the Saudi government violates everything the PGA Tour believes in, including their involvement in terrorism and human rights violations against women and non-Muslims, as well as the idea of paying players to simply show up. Norman and the LIV players, on the other hand, have downplayed the Saudi government's abuses, including the torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and have said that the PGA Tour is violating anti-trust laws by trying to ban them, as golfers are free agents and can play wherever they want. Lawyers have argued the merits on both sides of the equation although the predominant view is that the PGA Tour as a private entity has the right to set any rules and guidelines it likes, as long as it doesn't violate any human rights code, so any lawsuits against the PGA Tour will likely be dismissed. Along with the PGA Tour, players on the LIV Tour are ineligible to play in the Korn Ferry Tour, PGA Tour Champions, PGA Tour Canada, and PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Thus far the DP World Tour (European Tour) and PGA Tour of Australia have not banned LIV players, although they both indicated they are looking into the possibility of doing so. However, the DP World Tour would have to amend its constitution which doesn’t allow it to prohibit players from participating in competing tour events. But there is a chance they may do so if lawyers can figure out a way this can be done without paying a hefty penalty.
Opposing points of view
Players on both tours have been unapologetic. Dustin Johnson said he was doing what was best for him and his family and if the LIV folded in a few years, he wouldn’t care since he would have more money than he would ever need and would simply enjoy the good life and pack away the clubs. Both Phil Mickelson and Bryson Dechambeau effectively said the same thing. On the other side of the coin, Rory McIlroy made a huge dig at Greg Norman after winning the Canadian Open when he said in his victory speech that the win was important to him because it was one more than another particular golfer (Greg Norman who won 20 events). And Justin Thomas had some unkind words for Greg Norman and LIV players as well, although he said he was just mostly sad that players have decided to leave. But perhaps the biggest rebuke of LIV players came from Jon Rahm, who tactfully called LIV players moneygrubbers and said they were in the game for the wrong reasons. Rahm said he understands the appeal of LIV and discussed it with his wife, but he said money isn’t the most important thing in his life.
"Truth be told I could retire now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again. I’ve never played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world. My heart is with the PGA Tour."
Comments among fans have been mixed, although a group dedicated to the survivors of 9/11 all but called LIV players traitors. Terry Strada, the national chair of 9/11 Families United sent a scathing letter to all the American players on the LIV Tour.
"Please, do not insult our loved one's memories and take the pathetic position, as one of your foreign colleagues did last week, claiming you are 'just golfers playing a game' or blandly treating the evils of the Saudi regime as 'human rights' concerns. You are all Americans, keenly aware of the death and destruction of September 11. Whether it was the appeal of millions of dollars of hard cash, or just the opportunity to prosecute your professional grievances with the PGA, you have sold us out. This is a betrayal not only of us, but of all your countrymen.”
In response, players said they felt sympathy to the concerns of the group and were all affected by 9/11 as well, but their choice to join LIV was just a business decision.
No effect . . . yet
Regardless of the public sentiments and the banishment by the PGA Tour, the truth is that no players were really affected to date because LIV players can still play in the Majors. At last week's U.S. Open 14 players on the LIV Tour were in the field and four of them made the cut. They included Dustin Johnson, Richard Bland, Patrick Reed and Bryson Dechambeau. Notables to miss the cut were Mickelson, Kevin Na, Talor Gooch, Sergio Garcia and Louis Oosthuizen. Mickelson has always contended that his focus in golf was the majors, the Ryder and President Cup, the Player’s Championship and the FedEx Cup events. The other events he entered were used strictly as a way to tone up his skills. And most of the other star players on the LIV Tour would likely concur with Phil's stance. But there is a chance that as of next year the Major tournaments may fall in line with the PGA Tour and cut out LIV players.
The Masters, which is owned and hosted by Augusta National Golf Club, has already indicated that they will likely not invite past champions like Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson to compete and all other players would be excluded from the event since they are stripped of FedEx Cup points and will fall out of the top 50 in the world in world rankings, which is the only guarantee for a spot in the event. And the PGA Championship, operated by PGA of America and the U.S. Open, run by the U.S. Golf Association, have indicated they are also looking at their next moves, which could exclude golfers that are not members of a recognized tour (of which LIV is not). The British Open Championship, run by the R&A (Royal and Ancient Golf Club) will likely do whatever the DP World Tour decides after this year and indications are that the DP World Tour will likely make a similar announcement to the PGA Tour’s at the conclusion of this year’s schedule. The LIV players are automatically excluded from the Ryder and President’s Cup as those events are controlled by the PGA Tour.
If the major tournaments all come to the side of the PGA Tour and players are constrained to the LIV Tour, Asian Tour and possibly the South African Sunshine Tour, it is expected that Norman and LIV players will launch their lawsuits against all the tours banning them, although as mentioned, most lawyers feel the LIV players don’t have a leg to stand on. But two other factors that can’t be ignored are the TV coverage and betting on the events.
Battle for viewers
Right now, the LIV Tour is only available by streaming on YouTube and Facebook, and viewership of the first event was poor. Fewer than 20,000 people tuned in at most times (peaking at about 100,000) and viewers who did watch it said it was not innovative, plus the coverage was far too fast paced and resembled a video game. Viewers were also split on the shotgun start, the fact there was no cut, and that the tournament was only 54 holes long. Opinions could change if a major network came forward to offer the LIV events, but thus far there are no takers. It’s highly unlikely that NBC, ABC or Fox will want to get into a war with CBS who also owns the Golf Channel for fear of retaliation and most cable channels would likely see little value in buying the rights to the tour, plus most cable networks are owned by a major network. Moreover, streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime would serve no purpose as viewers would probably not pay to watch the events and would simply rather continue to watch it for free on YouTube and social media channels.
Betting on LIV Golf
And as for sportsbooks, there is no question that betting on live sports increases the value and interest in events. In the first LIV tournament DraftKings, BetMGM and PointsBet, all who have partnerships with the PGA Tour, put up odds on the tournament, as did BetRivers and Bet365. But FanDuel and WynnBet did not. BetCaesars also didn’t offer odds. It’s uncertain if the sportsbooks would stop offering odds on LIV Golf if the PGA Tour asked them to, although it is almost certain the PGA Tour would cut ties with any sportsbook that agreed to take on LIV as a sponsor. I asked a colleague who works at Bet365 how the betting was on LIV and his response was:
"It wasn’t enough to even be worth mentioning. We didn't even get a fraction of what we get on the Champions Tour and LPGA Tour. The good thing is we made money on the event as very few people bet Schwartzel at 30/1 odds." Asked if he believed the amounts bet would increase when LIV is played in the U.S., he said it was "doubtful as the public wants to bet on tours they know and right now LIV is in its infancy." He also is skeptical that LIV will be around in 2025.
So, the quarrels continue between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, but players and fans haven’t really taken notice since all the big stars played at the U.S. Open. This may not be the case next year if most of the big named LIV players are banned from the majors, and fans will almost certainly notice at the President’s Cup, when the likes of Johnson and Mickelson aren’t there. But one thing is certain. The PGA Tour events are still far more popular with fans and bettors and unless LIV Golf can get a TV contract and can continue to entice more betting on the events, LIV Golf’s lifespan could be short.
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