For the Saudi-backed upstart LIV golf tour, 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 the PGA Tour stars were major disruptions in what has become 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 is 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, president of NBC Sports, which shows by far the most golf in the United States. “We are not only where we are, but unbelievably pleased where we are.”
Some golfers may not resist the pull of the new tour, whose events are over the PGA Tour’s (three days instead of four) and offer huge payouts, with individual winners receiving $ 4 million and members 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 has gotten there now 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 any media rights agreement with any of them, according to people familiar with those discussions. LIV broached the idea of buying time to show at the London tournament on Fox – an inversion of the normal business relationship, where the media company pays the sporting organization its show – but didn’t go far.
In the end, the London tournament wasn’t on American broadcast TV or popular sports streaming platforms such as Peacock and ESPN +. Instead, golf fans can watch it on the streaming service DAZN, YouTube, Facebook or LIV Golf’s website, without commercials.
Limited viewership numbers do not suggest 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 the Golf Channel, and 2.78 million watched when coverage switched over to CBS.
The absence of a media rights agreement will generally 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 to improve the kingdom its image around the world. Players who have joined the LIV tour Has been accused of helping “sportswash” Saudi Arabia’s record abuses human rights, including killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
LIV did not respond to a request for comment.
But NBC and other broadcast networks have a longer list of reasons than other reputational losses to steer clear of the new venture.
LIV’s main barrier to entry into 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 deal, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private agreements. But they believe 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’s currently investing in spring football), may seem like a good candidate to team up with LIV, but Fox doesn’t televise any golf, and that’s by design. The network had broadcast rights to the US Open through 2026, but paid money to give those rights to NBC.
Even if the 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 has not had any stars on board until recently, and it is not clear if 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 is 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 may soon become the subject of litigation. Players have also been dropped by sponsors, either because of the association with Saudi Arabia or because companies do not 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 the interest in the PGA Tour would be reduced if LIV lured away more top golfers. They believe the PGA Tour’s appeal lies in competing against one of the best golfers in the world every other weekend, and LIV is directly threatening that.
LIV’s future may depend 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 US Open; the PGA Championship of the Professional Golfers Association of America runs; And the R&A puts on the British Open.
If allowed to compete in majors, LIV golfers could earn huge paydays on the low-taxing LIV tour while continuing to play in 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 US Open, is at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., This weekend, and LIV golfers are present. The USGA, which organizes the tournament, said in a Carefully worded statement Last week that any golfer who had qualified would have been allowed to compete. But the USGA noted that its decision “should not be construed as a USGA supporting an alternative organizing entity,” and on Wednesday, the organization’s chief executive, Mike Whan, said he could foresee a day when players were denied entry to the US Open. based on the 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 the invitations to players who have won them. (Mickelson has exemptions from the Masters and PGA Championship for life, for example.) Decisions are expected this fall and winter as plans are solidified for tournaments in 2023.
An occasional overlooked golf body, the Official World Golf Ranking, is also expected to have an impact. 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 into 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 each of the four majors, as well as 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 representatives from all four majors allow LIV’s golfers to accrue ranking points – and therefore signal they are comfortable competing with LIV golfers in their events – LIV Golf might just be attracting more golfers.