Two seemingly contradictory statements can be true at the same time, and in the world of sports media, this dynamic plays out with such frequency that it’s practically axiomatic. On the one hand, LIV Golf’s U.S. broadcast debut last weekend probably didn’t deprive PGA Tour higher-ups of any restful slumber; on the other, putting up big TV numbers is hardly a matter of grave concern for the breakaway circuit, which is backed by what amounts to $620 billion in Saudi walking-around money.
According to Nielsen, some 291,000 viewers tuned in for LIV’s inaugural Sunday afternoon outing on the CW, ranking 51st among the weekend’s slate of 58 nationally televised sporting events. That marked a negligible 2% improvement versus Saturday’s round (286,000), although the linear-TV deliveries were also two-and-a-half times what LIV averaged during its strongest YouTube outing in 2022. Still, nothing to write home about; by comparison, NBC’s coverage of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic served up 2.38 million viewers on Sunday, or 8.2 times as many impressions as did the upstart LIV.
It’s worth noting that a number of outside factors contributed to LIV’s rocky TV launch. Aside from the fact that the CW was in unfamiliar territory from the jump—prior to last weekend, the network had never in its 16-year history aired a single sporting event—there were more than a few distribution issues that had to be sorted out as well. For example, the eight CW affiliates owned by PGA Tour broadcast partner CBS did not carry the Saturday and Sunday rounds, which impacted availability in some of the nation’s largest media markets: Chicago (No. 3), Philadelphia (No. 4), San Francisco (No. 6) and Atlanta (No. 7). While other local stations wound up subbing in for the abstaining CW outlets, the subsequent scheduling confusion likely didn’t do LIV any favors.
More to the point, the CW is hardly an intuitive fit for a rogue golf league. The network’s original programming, designed to appeal to a younger, primarily female audience, airs in a two-hour primetime window from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. The bulk of the broadcast day is then given over to a virtual junk drawer of half-hour infomercials, syndicated courtroom shows and repeats of off-net fare. Much of this stuff is roundly ignored by the viewing public, and none of it makes for a viable lead-in for an untested sorts property.
But—and there’s always a “but”—you wouldn’t know any of that from listening to Perry Sook. The CEO of CW parent company Nexstar on Tuesday told analysts that LIV’s initial deliveries “exceeded our expectations and, most importantly, the affiliates … were thrilled.” Speaking on Nexstar’s fourth-quarter earnings call, Sook said the LIV package is “selling very well” and should “continue to grow as we get more into the season.”
Sure enough, the CW flagship in New York (WPIX) doubled its deliveries during the Saturday LIV round and nearly tripled them during the Sunday telecast. That said, rate-of-change can be a dicey metric when the baseline performance is negligible; from one Saturday to the next, WPIX gained a few thousand overall viewers, finding traction in approximately 6,000 homes in a market that serves 7.45 million TV households. Baby steps.
On the ad sales front, the CW last weekend churned up some $262,398 in LIV sponsorship revenue, per iSpot.tv estimates, while NBC’s Honda Classic commanded just shy of $1.2 million. Head-to-head, NBC’s golf coverage brought in nearly 328 million ad impressions to the CW’s 20.2 million, leading to solid payoffs for the likes of Pacific Life, Honda, Callaway, Valero, Titleist and TaylorMade. Note the big turnout from the endemic golf advertisers, which are as crucial to paying the TV bills as are financial services brands and automotive marques. All told, NBC aired more than 80 ads for golf during its weekend coverage from Palm Beach, whereas the CW booked just four endemic units, all care of first-time national TV advertiser Bettinardi Golf.
If $262,398 in total ad spend isn’t much to crow about—that’s probably less than what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spends each week on bone saws—every dollar the CW books is pure gravy. The CW’s two-year deal with LIV is not structured around a rights fee, and while the partners split the ad revenue, LIV is on the hook for all production costs.
Depending on how much of a guileless sabermetrics nerd you happen to be, the principles of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) or VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) arguably apply here. For the CW affiliates, the prospect of exponentially increasing ratings during the otherwise sleepy weekend afternoon hours is like stumbling across a suitcase stuffed with non-sequential bills late one night on the 6 train. The value of the replacement programming is practically inestimable, given that you don’t have to pay for any of it. As Sam Cooke was wont to say, the best things in life are free.
If you’re an advertiser (admittedly, one with few or no compulsions about supporting a sportswashing initiative), you can get in on the ground floor of a new sports property for a unit cost that’s well under $4,500 a pop. Play your cards right and you may be able to reach an audience of upscale golf enthusiasts for less than the average monthly rent for a Manhattan apartment. Lock in the dirt-cheap rates when everyone else is busy trying to get a read on the potential for subsequent outrage, and watch the ROI roll right in.
And if you’re one of the chaps who controls the purse strings of the bottomless Saudi Public Investment Fund, every dollar you spend to further this ambitious reputation-cleansing operation is a rounding error in the eternal calculus. He who fixates on the economics of renting out airtime on the network that used to air Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill is lost. Odds are, you’re already cooking up a plot to subvert the global tennis power base, and it’s not as if any interference from Riyadh could further sully international soccer’s whole deal.
Hearts and minds, baby. You’re either a sultan or a sucker.