In the 1970s, a rivalry league existed.
I take that back. This league not only existed; it thrived.
I am, of course, talking about the ABA. The American Basketball Association is no longer in existence but when it was, it threatened an already weak NBA in both attendance and star power. It had flashy, new-fangled rules, many of which were ultimately incorporated into the NBA. The ABA also landed major players by throwing dollar figures at them the NBA could not match. It was a fresh alternative.
Ultimately, the ABA was absorbed by the NBA and the rest is history.
Other start-up leagues would try to knock off the big boys in years to come. Multiple football leagues, from Arena Football to the USFL and XFL have tried to take a chunk out of the NFL’s already massive viewership. All failed.
The major professional sports leagues of Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the NBA, and the NFL are all but untouchable.
There is a new rival league, however, that is ruffling some feathers. It is attracting its sports biggest names and throwing inconceivable amounts of money at them. Some of this money was turned down. Others jumped at the opportunity.
I’m referring of course to the PGA Tour’s newest arch enemy, the LIV. The LIV, or 54, is a start-up, professional golf tour that is pulling players from the PGA by the day. Brooks Koepka just joined for an undisclosed amount. Dustin Johnson also joined. He was reportedly offered $125 million just to join the tour. Other bigger names have been offered more than that.
So why is this controversial? Despite Greg Norman’s association with the new league (he’s the CEO of LIV Golf Investments), the league has received substantial backing from a Saudi Arabian wealth fund that, in addition to stealing some of the Tour most popular golfers, also had enough money to allegedly offer Tiger Woods “high nine figures.”
Other stars have also left the PGA Tour, despite warnings about being banned, expelled or somewhere in between. Those names include Kevin Na, Sergio Garcia, Bryson DeChambeau, Ian Poulter, Talor Gooch and Louis Oosthuizen. Phil Mickelson’s name has been linked to the tour as well. One could argue his name has taken the biggest hit.
It’s not quite yet what one would call a mass exodus but considering LIV pocketbooks had enough scratch to offer Johnson $125 million, which is almost twice what he’s earned over his 16-year career, for many, this is as no-brainer a decision as they come. PGA allegiance begone!
Questions remain. How will we view these golfers as they jump ship? How will this new league market itself? Will it even need to? Will the PGA Tour maintain its hardline stance? Will these tournaments draw viewership? Will there be a happy ending between the two tours? And where the hell is all this money coming from?
It is at times like these that we turn to our golfing guru, Kevin Paul. Kevin runs the Wife Hates Sports down the internet block and has yet to play 18 with me. Since his handicap is considerably lower than mine, I suppose he’s waiting for me to offer up an LIV lump sum for the round.
Kevin, what in the wide, wide world of golf is going on here? I mean, the PGA Tour must be shitting bricks with its biggest names disappearing daily. I know the PGA isn’t hurting for cash but the numbers we’ve heard floating around are obscene. How in the world did they not see this coming?
How did this all come about and on a scale of 1-10, how in trouble is the PGA Tour?
It’s fair to fall somewhere in the middle on this at the moment. There are way too many unknowns. The only way I’d go as high as a “5” on the scale is because of the insane stacks of cash being thrown at these players. That’s the only reason. Money makes the world go round for so many people. Outside the greenbacks, there are a variety of ways to look at LIV and how it can (or cannot) compete:
Competition (or Lack Thereof)
So you say a lot of big names are following the cash and jumping ship? To a degree, that’s true. But let’s look at a few of the bigger names, their current OWGR, and overall likability.
Dustin Johnson (15th in OWGR, Likability – Low to Medium): DJ is clearly the biggest and most surprising name to jump ship. Still, how likable is he by fans? He always comes across as aloof and just a talented player that is simply there. He always looks half asleep, despite hitting monstrous drives. The fans mostly like the fact that Paulina is a part of the package.
Phil Mickelson (72nd in OWGR, Likability – Medium to High): Phil was a fan favorite for years, but it remains to be seen how many bailed on him following the recent comments. There are rumors swirling about extensive gambling and ruffling the feathers of fellow TOUR members. The guy will be a legend in the game forever – but with some late tarnish. From a competition standpoint, he’s in his 50’s. Astonishing PGA Championship aside, he hasn’t been a consistent threat for years.
Bryson DeChambeau (28th in OWGR, Likability – Low): I admit that I think Bryson is a bit misunderstood and he can be likable at times. Most fans however do not appreciate him, at least outside of the flashy long drives. He hasn’t been a factor at all this year due to injury and mostly rubs fans the wrong way. Does his departure change much?
Patrick Reed (36th in OWGR, Likability – Lower than Low): I have never met one Reed fan. The antics on the course and the violations, no one can be surprised he bailed for LIV.
Aging Veterans (Ian Poulter, Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell) – There are a handful of European players that shifted to LIV and each are on the backend of their careers.
There are rumors of others that could pivot to LIV (e.g. Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler), but that remains to be seen at this point. Despite a few big names, most are not likable. The supplemental players committed to LIV are unknowns or entrenched in the twilight of their careers. All the top stars remain committed to the PGA TOUR.
Does this group make for a better product? No way.
Gimmicks Come, Gimmicks Go
We all know gimmicks. They grab your attention temporarily, but often fizzle out quickly. LIV is a lot of that from what I can see. Upon watching the live feed of the first event, I picked up on a few things:
The combination of Individual and Team Events are interesting and a clever change
That gets far outweighed by the leaderboard and team names, which to me look like a NASCAR race leaderboard mated with the “Create a School” logos from the NCAA Football video game franchise
In the end, it’s just golf – we are watching something similar that claims to be different, only with a lot less talent on the course
PGA TOUR: What is Buried Beneath?
Like every league, there are flaws and disagreements buried behind the scenes. That’s clear with the PGA TOUR and we may not know just what all those issues are. No sports league is perfect and it’s clear that many trail the NBA and the way it attacks issues quickly and effectively.
The suspensions and some of the drama to come out of this may paint the PGA TOUR in a negative light, and you can’t help but wonder if others will head to LIV as a result. It’s not something to speculate on, because there has to be more going on behind the scenes. Can the conflicts be resolved?
One thing is quite clear, there remains a lot of backing by the TOUR’s top players. The most notable quotes have come from big names like Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas.
Saudi Backing vs Schedule
Finally, what is most interesting (and misunderstood) is the LIV schedule of tournaments as compared to the Saudi funding. Most people heard the Saudi funds being thrown at players. They know the dirty background and blood money. They also know the controversial comments thrown out by Phil Mickelson a few months back. People hear a new league backed by the Saudis with a tournament opener in England. As a result, it’s frequently assumed that: 1) All LIV tournaments are outside the United States and 2) Departing for the LIV tour is un-American and these big names are taking blood money and bailing on their country. People in this country bleed red, white, and blue – and that’s why these comments are being made. But do they know this about the upcoming LIV events?
2nd Event: Pumpkin Ridge, Portland, Oregon
3rd Event: Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster, New Jersey
4th Event: The International, Boston, Massachusetts
5th Event: Rich Harvest Farms, Chicago, Illinois
8th Event: Trump National Golf Club Doral, Miami, Florida
Do they know that five of these events are also being played in the United States? Do the diehard political backers know about the 3rd and 8th events? Let’s face it, we are politically divided more than ever these days. Would these facts change the popularity of LIV or not?
Getting back to the original question, it’s really the money that could make LIV a threat. Outside of that, there isn’t much on the surface – at least, not at the current time. If you ask me, this is just an extensive rich version of the XFL, being played on a golf course instead of a football field.
I think you’re easy to dismiss these names, calling them formerly popular and partially likable, and suggesting this whole thing is no big deal. If Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Zion Williamson all left the NBA to play in some billionaire’s rivalry league, and Commissioner Silver put his foot down telling them he never wanted them back, that would be huge news.
One thing the NBA learned long ago is that marketing its individual athletes makes smarter financial sense that marketing its teams. It embraces the collective strength of its superstars, working in conjunction with them to promote its product. The players, not the league, hold all the cards, or so they would have them believe. No one wants to pay top dollar to see players they’ve never heard of. It’s why no one watches the G League.
The PGA Tour needs personalities like Phil, Dustin, Brooks, and Bryson far more than those guys need the Tour, otherwise none of this would be happening. I’m pretty sure Dustin Johnson didn’t labor his decision to part ways with the PGA when in one fell swoop, LIV offered him fifteen years pay with the opportunity of more. When asked what he’d do if the PGA Tour never took him back, DJ coolly replied, “whatever the hell I want.” That doesn’t sound to me like a guy who’s too concerned about his future or a welcome back party.
You are right, this whole debacle is fluid, tenuous and changing daily. Meanwhile, the PGA Tour’s scrambling like Ed Rooney after demanding Sloane’s father produce her grandma’s death certificate, with Ferris Bueller waiting patiently on the other line. After Koepka took his talents to Saudi, I can’t help but wonder if you’d come off your five-star crisis rating. Sure, you have Rory and Rahm fighting the good fight, speaking out as if they’re anti-vaxxers, blasting the LIV, all but calling it untrue golf and hinting that those who left the tradition of the PGA Tour behind will have to sleep in the beds they’ve made. Those guys are comfortably getting eight hours a day in their diamond encrusted Posturepedics. So what if they’re middle eastern knock offs?
And when can we put aside this “blood money” nonsense? It’s not like the PGA Tour has this rich tradition of inclusivity, not until Tiger Woods came along and made them all rich. Now that the PGA’s stance is threatened, we’re supposed to believe they’re some champion of human rights? I’m not buying it. The PGA Tour is as self-serving as any other American institution and no convenient verbiage will convince me otherwise.
What we are learning about here is power structure, who holds it and who doesn’t. What’s fascinating is that it’s happening before our very eyes. This is not something we ever thought about before. The PGA Tour boasts no team owners and no player’s union. It has essentially coasted unfettered without any checks and balances until a shark (pun intended) swam up and took a bite. The PGA Tour is gonna need a bigger boat.
Let’s say the LIV is a flash in the pan, and folds within a season or two. How likely is it for the Tour to continue its hard line and disallow its most popular names back in? This isn’t Major League Baseball turning its back on Rose, Clemens, Bonds, and Shoeless Joe… or is it? Fans flock to tournaments to see the players, not the Tour. Mickelson, Bryson, DJ and Koepka are still some of their biggest draws. If they lose many more names, there’s no way attendance doesn’t go down. If the networks even sniff a dip in PGA Tour demand, and rise in the LIV, rest assured new television contracts will be drawn up to reflect said interest. Don’t think for one second, golf fans won’t be curious enough to pay to see the new tour with its new names.
And why is the PGA Tour only barking at its players. What about the courses that have agreed to host LIV tournaments? Courses like St Andrews or Augusta don’t need anyone’s money but theoretically, what if the LIV wanted to host a tournament at a club that has traditionally been a PGA mainstay? Would the Tour part ways with them as well? Those courses would tell the PGA to stick it. Augusta National answers to no one. While these tour stops offer a nice bump to many courses, I’m sure their bloated membership dues are enough to get them by if the Tour ever decided to sever ties.
The PGA Tour remains contentious. It’s backpedaling. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan called LIV an irrational threat to the game of golf. He claims the PGA can’t compete with the money LIV is throwing around. Meanwhile, Monahan is pulling in $4 million a year. That’s not quite Goodell money but he’s far from going broke. The PGA has its rich tradition to stand on, but nine figure checks represent a tradition all their own. This isn’t the nineties when selling out is frowned upon. This is 2022 where cash grabs are king.
This could all be temporary, with LIV’s money eventually running dry. The exiled players will be just fine, like investors who cashed in their crypto before the market crashed. Mickelson will skate off into retirement, making appearances as needed. Dustin Johnson won’t be far behind. And Bryson DeChambeau can tour the country in his camper hustling Ranger Ricks for long drive money. If nothing else, this little experiment has been revealing from the perspective that an institution we once thought untouchable now has board members quaking in their FootJoys.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as bad publicity. This split has people talking golf more than the last time Tiger drove his car off a cliff. By no means am I suggesting this is the end of the PGA Tour but it sure as hell got ‘em thinking, which is obviously more than they were doing before.
If as believed , LIV backed events will also carry ranking points for the Official World Golf Rankings , it leave the PGA in something of an unenviable position.
I have found much enjoyment in watching these insanely rich folks fussing at each other about some of them trying to find a way to make more money doing less. In my opinion, there’s no way on Earth the PGA wouldn’t take back those who “left.”
When you wrote “There is a new rival league, however, that is ruffling some feathers”, I thought you were referring to the USFL. Today, fans in New Jersey and Philadelphia started to show that they care equally about the NFL teams and USFL teams.
Everyone is bailing on Brooks, Rev. He was popular when he had his major winning streak and Bryson hating attitude. But all his quotes were lies and he falls in that same bucket.
There are rumors now about other engagements, commitments and potential delays of the Saudis paying the players. This could fall apart quick.
That’s one thing the PGA Tour does have going for it.
Let’s say, hypothetically, the LIV last 10 years and Koepka becomes the best to ever play that Tour.
We’ll know what he did on the PGA, so maybe that’s not a fair example, but we’ll always question what he could have done had he remained on the PGA, against the world’s best.
The NBA did a good job integrating the ABA so we know where guys like Rick Barry and Dr. J stand but there’s no way we’d ever compare a USFL player’s lifetime accomplishments to someone who played in the NFL.
I agree. There’s something about one hyper-conservative group being fettered by an altogether more hyper-conservative group that just brings me joy.
Especially in times like these.
Wasn’t it Krokus who sang “Eat the Rich?”
The average attendance last season for the least attended NFL team, the Detroit Lions, was over 50,000 fans a game.
Opening Day for the USFL brought their highest attendance at about 17,000 fans.
Fans in Jersey and Philly have nothing better to do than to root for their teams and get thrown out of bars.
You can’t even find a USFL score on ESPN.com. I’m not too sure this league has made a dent.
Talk to me when Fantasy USFL takes over everyone’s lives and I’ll start believing.
Therein lies the rub and something we didn’t discuss, amazingly.
What happens when the Saudis renege on payment? What then?
Did DJ just get cut a check or is his collections agency chasing after guys in robes for the nine figures?
Will the PGA thumb their noses at these guys saying I told ya’ so? And how long of a grace period until they’re allowed back?
Shit just got interesting.