Phil Mickelson’s decision to backtrack on his involvement with the Super Golf League (SGL) has put the Saudi-backed venture’s future in doubt. It is the outcome the PGA Tour had hoped for when declaring that players who join the upstart league would lose their tour membership and face a lifetime ban. Properties sitting atop the sports pyramid have long opposed change perceived to threaten their reign (see: FIFA and the European Super League). But it is fair to wonder if the PGA Tour (along with the DP World Tour and Asian Tour) would benefit from the emergence of an upstart tour taking a vastly different approach. In theory, success could serve as a rising tide and provide a roadmap for the change needed to appeal to the next generation of golfers and fans.
JWS’ Take: The PGA Tour has been vocal in its opposition to the Super Golf League. Presumably, leadership sees the upstart league as a threat to their players and sponsors (note: the Tour has not embraced the Premier Golf League, either). The PGA Tour declined to comment further for our story.
But Greg Norman and LIV Golf Investments, which is backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, insist they did not set out to compete with—or destroy—the PGA Tour. In a letter to PGA commissioner Jay Monahan, Norman said there would be no reason for the two tours to compete for talent. Norman and LIV contend the SGL is about trying to grow the game worldwide, and believe a new format could spark enthusiasm and make golf more attractive to the modern sports fan. It’s worth noting that Norman took on the Tour in the 90s when he attempted to create the World Golf Tour, and golf has already made changes to appeal to younger fans and players (think: Top Golf, more casual dress codes).
Norman and LIV argue if the broadcast of a golf event featured more of the top players within a shorter TV window, it would be more exciting and appeal to a broader audience. A portion of those incremental viewers would likely pick up the game themselves.
Besides “growing the game,” the Saudi’s have put forth a tourism element to the SGL. The government is building world-class golf resorts as part of its Vision2030, and the league could promote the country’s courses around the world. That’s certainly true, but as is frequently noted, in the last few years the Kingdom has undertaken an effort to use entertainment and sports events to change its perception and ‘wash’ away the stains associated with known human rights violations. Even Mickelson, the SGL’s most public supporter, acknowledged the ethical quagmire in his recent comments.
Technically speaking, there is room on the calendar for both tours, and the best players are always going to want to play in—and win—the PGA Tour’s marquee events, no matter how much money they might be making abroad. But playing in the required 15 PGA Tour events and the proposed 18 SGL events would be a significantly increased workload. Most top players currently play in 22 to 26 Tour events a year, and if they dropped down to 15 or so, that would sap value from the Tour, decreasing the audience and the exposure of its sponsors. Any “growth” the SGL spurred would have to drive a lot of eyeballs back to the Tour to make up for the loss.
Perhaps the greatest value to the PGA Tour in the SGL’s attempted disruption would be the pressure it generates on the Tour to disrupt itself with new ideas or the ones the SGL is pushing (see: PIP program).
As it stands, however, the Super Golf League appears dead. Jeff Chilcoat (president, Sterling Sports Management) said he “can’t imagine, without having any cornerstones [committed], that [LIV Golf is] going to get enough players to go over there—especially after people are seeing what is happening to Phil and the backlash he’s receiving.”
Chilcoat also finds it hard to envision the PGA Tour aligning with a Saudi-backed league, even if they were convinced it was in their best interests. The PGA has “such a crisp, clean brand. They are not going to do anything [with the Saudis] without absolute proof that there are no human rights violations [occurring in the country]… and there has been so much damage done through this process” that it is almost impossible to imagine doing anything now.
It is worth noting that the player agent has not heard of any other players on Tour complaining about compensation. “If you’re playing on the PGA Tour for any length of time, you have to be very comfortable and happy with the opportunities you’re given,” Chilcoat said.
Don’t be surprised if in the weeks ahead, LIV Golf revamps its approach and takes another run at getting the SGL off the ground—this time with one or two of the world’s top 50 players and a collective of lesser ranked ones. The money offered may weigh greater on those players’ decisions and be enough to persuade them to go. While that kind of field will not captivate the American sports fan’s attention, it would give LIV a chance to prove out its concept.
Then again, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record might be too much for LIV to overcome. Chilcoat said he has “really shied away” from the Saudi appearance opportunities presented to his players over the last couple of years “for fear there would be this backlash.”
While Chilcoat noted the Saudis have conveyed publicly that they have started to make progress socially, he says, “It is still too dangerous” to associate a client’s brand with the country. It should be noted the Super Golf League did not reach out to any SSM clients about joining.
The PGA Tour remains incredibly strong from both a business and talent perspective. Losing one or two top 50 players is not going to have a discernible impact. But it if doesn’t learn anything from the interest the SGL aroused in some players and fans and proactively ensure its own product is as strong as possible, it will remain vulnerable outside competition.