A worldwide audience of just under 50,000 fans and curiosity seekers on Thursday streamed the official launch of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, as Dustin Johnson ripped his first tee shot down the middle of the fairway at Hemel Hempstead’s Centurion Club. Two hours later, while Phil Mickelson glowered over his double-bogey putt on the ninth green, the number of onlookers monitoring the action via LIV Golf’s YouTube channel and Facebook page had crept over the 100,000 mark.
As much as they are the biggest names linked to the Saudi-backed breakaway tour, Johnson and Mickelson probably aren’t terribly concerned with how many people took in Thursday’s round. The routing numbers associated with their respective bank branches are likely of more interest to the two renegade duffers, as Lefty signed on with LIV Golf for a reported $200 million, while Johnson improved his own financial lie to the tune of $150 million.
While the combined deliveries for the two feeds rarely topped 110,000, the initial streaming numbers do not include impressions notched via the LIV Golf website and the subscription service DAZN. Incomplete as it may have been, the first glimpse of Thursday’s traffic was largely in line with early projections by the PGA Tour’s stateside media partners.
“I tapped out after 45 minutes, but I didn’t see anything that made me fearful for the future of the game or our place within the golf ecosystem,” said one network exec. “We’ll see how things progress as LIV poaches more household names, but at the moment this may be more of a distraction than a disruption.”
If LIV Golf continues to throw money around at the likes of Mickelson and Johnson—2020 U.S. Open champ Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, winner of the green jacket in 2018, are among the latest to abandon the PGA for the arriviste tour—the streaming figures will improve. But if LIV is to shake up the establishment in a meaningful way, it will have to link up with a broad-reach television network, as the demographics of golf aren’t at all simpatico with the organization’s digital-first strategy. (The average American golfer is around 54 years old, and the median age of those watching at home is in the high 60s.)
Ironically, at least one aspect of the LIV tournament format appears to have been designed with younger viewers in mind, although the execution suggests something far more geriatric. Each of the 12 Centurion foursomes bears a name that sounds like the sort of thing your dad might come up with if he suddenly developed a weird affinity for League of Legends. Johnson leads the “4 Aces” crew, Mickelson is the driving force behind the “Hy Flyers” and representing the Theatre Kids/Hogwarts division are Ian Poulter’s “Majesticks.”
In the near term, LIV would seem to have no clear path to securing a demographically apposite TV deal, no matter how much escarole Greg Norman and the Saudi Public Investment Fund may be willing to invest. For one thing, the PGA Tour’s media partners aren’t getting in bed with the controversial startup, which takes CBS Sports, NBC Sports and ESPN off the board. Two years ago, the PGA Tour inked a nine-year, $6.3 billion deal that will keep it in business with these three major sports outlets through 2030.
Meanwhile, there’s no chance that Norman will find a receptive ear in Fox Sports, which in 2016 unceremoniously cut bait on the Shark a year into his tenure as its lead U.S. Open analyst. At the time, insiders suggested that Norman simply did not do the work required to serve as a viable broadcaster, and that he failed to take the necessary steps to improve his on-air game despite multiple interventions from the higher-ups. Norman later groused that Fox had tossed him under the proverbial golf cart; in 2020, the matter became wholly academic when NBC snapped up the remaining seven years of Fox’s USGA package.
Nor will LIV have any luck with Warner Bros. Discovery, which has a $2 billion international deal in place with the PGA Tour that isn’t set to expire for another eight years. (Earlier this week, WBD agreed to an extension of a sublicensing agreement that will keep the PGA Tour on Sky Sports in the U.K. and Ireland.) While the original Discovery-PGA deal does not include domestic broadcast rights, the overseas package is highly valued by WBD CEO David Zaslav, who isn’t about to muddy the waters by entertaining any propositions from LIV Golf.
The home to televised golf in the U.K., Sky Sports turned down a recent overture from LIV Golf.
Also not helping matters on the distribution front is the recent departure of LIV chief commercial officer Sean Bratches, the former affiliate sales boss at ESPN and Formula One mastermind. Bratches walked away from the startup a week after Norman’s hot take regarding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (“we all make mistakes”) prompted a backlash from human rights organizations.
In the absence of any interest from Disney, Comcast, Turner Sports, Fox and Paramount Global, LIV for the foreseeable future is more or less shut out of the U.S. TV market, unless AMC Networks or the Hallmark Channel suddenly decide to junk their longstanding business models and dive into live sports and the 54-hole LIV format. (If by now you’ve figured out that “LIV” is how the ancient Romans indicated that they had 54 of something, you can probably thank the Super Bowl and its enduring naming convention.)
While LIV Golf will have to find a way to grow its audience from outside the brand-amplifying platform that is traditional TV, the current digital configuration does not pose a clear and present danger to the PGA Tour’s media partners. Although LIV has assembled a competent broadcast crew in former NBC Premier League announcer Arlo White and ex-Golf Channel commentator Jerry Foltz, Thursday’s round diverged from the standard TV model inasmuch as it was presented with no commercial interruptions.
Sales efforts are expected to ramp up ahead of the second LIV event, which is scheduled to be held June 30-July 2 at Portland’s Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club. The tour’s U.S. opener will mark DeChambeau’s debut, and while some advertisers may be intrigued by what LIV has to offer, the political ramifications of aligning with the new brand will make for a tough sell. If nothing else, the hardware store chains are probably going to want to sit this one out.