Jul 15, 2022 - Economy

LIV Golf: We're not trying to destroy PGA Tour

A golf club tees up a quarter

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Despite the public narrative, LIV Golf is not trying to take down the PGA Tour, the upstart league's executives tell Axios.

Why it matters: The Saudi-backed tour, which began play last month, has thrown the golfing world into a civil war, after 17 players (and growing) risked PGA banishment by signing up for the far-more-lucrative LIV tour.

Driving the news: The British Open teed off Thursday from the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland. The R&A is following the USGA's lead, and allowing LIV golfers to compete.

  • But R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers did not come out in favor of the new league, saying during a press conference Wednesday that it "is not in the best long-term interests of the sport" and "entirely driven by money."
  • Slumbers did not rule out changing the eligibility requirements as soon as next year either.
  • Greg Norman, LIV's CEO and a two-time Open champion, was not invited to St. Andrews.

Zoom out: The upstart tour has managed to lure some recognizable names from the PGA Tour with hefty signing bonuses and bigger purses, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler.

  • LIV events feature a much different style of play vs. PGA events, including so-called "shotgun starts," where every golfer tees off at the same time, and no cuts.
  • That ends up in a match that takes about half of the time of a normal PGA match day.

Context: "It's the same sort of thinking that comes from people that have always held a monopoly in that space, which is anything new is bad, except for what the monopoly is going to do next. We feel that there's a space for it all," Atul Khosla, LIV's president and COO, said.

  • "Because we are bringing new eyeballs to the game. How is that bad for the game?" he adds.

Yea, but: Saudi Arabia's involvement has drawn criticism due to the Middle Eastern country's poor record on human rights and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

  • "They are prudent investors around the world in multiple industries and view us as no different than a prudent investment," Khosla said." At the end of the day, we are here to play golf, to enhance the fan experience and to enhance experience for our players."

Between the lines: Unlike athletes that play in the NBA or NFL, professional golfers are considered independent contractors. It is this distinction that LIV execs argue makes the PGA's move to ban players that take part in LIV events an antitrust violation.

  • Earlier this week, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the PGA over antitrust violations. LIV argues that the PGA is engaging in anticompetitive behavior.
  • "They are independent contractors, they have been since the beginning. I don't see how one group can say that this is the only way to play. That this is the world you need to live in," Khosla said.
  • For the PGA's part, a spokesperson told Axios in a statement, "We went through this in 1994 and we are confident in a similar outcome."

By the numbers: LIV has so far held two events, with a third planned later this month in New Jersey. But without a major media deal, its audience has been extremely small compared to the PGA.

  • LIV matches have streamed on YouTube, Facebook and LIV's own website. It has more than 30 different international partners that cover 180 different territories.
  • On YouTube, LIV's event in Portland over the July Fourth weekend averaged 66,000 concurrent viewers over the three days, with 88,000 on July 2.
  • PGA events — excluding majors — meanwhile, averaged 2.4 million viewers on CBS and NBC last season, including 2.8 million for Sunday telecasts, per Nielsen.

What they're saying: "I think the real question is can they both find audiences without cannibalizing each other. There’s a real opportunity to end up driving more interest in golf given LIV isn’t just a copycat version of the PGA. The flip side is both tours could end up re-creating the disastrous split of Indy Car and CART of several decades ago that crippled that sport for years," Pat Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive who now works as a consultant, says.

What's next: Everyone will be paying attention to whether or not Augusta National lets LIV players compete in the Masters next April.

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