Exorbitant purses, team golf and shotgun starts: Where does LIV Golf go from here?

Exorbitant purses, team golf and shotgun starts: Where does LIV Golf go from here?

MIAMI — During Wednesday’s pairings selection at the LIV Golf Team Championship, held inside the Ivanka Trump ballroom at Trump National Doral Golf Club, eight team captains sat in front of a group of reporters, while a moderator announced the matchups, in which the higher-seeded teams were allowed to pick their opponents.

After four-time major champion Brooks Koepka announced that his Smash GC team would be playing Niblicks GC, the 12th seed, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, a non-playing captain for the Niblicks, was asked for his thoughts on the matchup.

“I’m not worried,” Watson said to Koepka, who was sitting at the other end of the dais. “You might have more injuries than me. You are getting older.”

Majesticks GC, the sixth seed, was up next and decided to play the ninth-seeded Iron Heads GC, which is captained by five-time PGA Tour winner Kevin Na.

“Well, I figured Kevin and I hit it really short, and we could just hold hands down every fairway, so if I pick one of the other boys they’re going to be 50 yards in front, and it’s going to be a pretty miserable day,” Majestics GC captain Ian Poulter said.

When asked about Poulter’s stellar career record in singles matches, Na responded: “I heard that he’s the captain this week because nobody wanted to play the foursomes with him. You know, their team average age is like in the 50s, where I’ve got some young guys, and I think we’re all right.”

Later during the news conference, Na joked about Majestics player Lee Westwood “being on crutches.”

“He’s getting old,” Na said. “He needs a cane out there.”

The light-hearted banter seemed like a lot of fun, but it also was a microcosm of one of the biggest criticisms of LIV Golf during its inaugural season. While golf has indeed been (much) louder on the tour being funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, with music blaring from speakers on the driving range and musical acts like Nelly, Snoop Dogg and The Chainsmokers entertaining fans at tournaments, how serious are LIV Golf’s (very) highly paid players about the actual golf?

With $50 million, the largest purse in professional golf history, on the line at the inaugural team championship, the players displayed a jarring dose of levity during the news conference. Three years ago, while Koepka was trying to win a third straight PGA Championship or U.S. Open, his intensity might have burned holes through reporters who asked about his chances of winning. He once said other PGA Tour players didn’t like him because of his confidence.

“The world of golf is way overreacting to this LIV thing,” said former PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen, now a commentator for NBC Sports and Golf Channel.

“It’s not a threat to the PGA Tour. It’s a threat to the players’ careers that are leaving. It’s almost like they’re retiring from golf. They’re highly paid and highly skilled — and the outcome is of no consequence.”

The atmosphere at last week’s LIV Golf selection news conference begged the question: Does this ragtag bunch of former major champions, world No. 1 golfers and aging PGA Tour defectors still care about playing elite golf? And what’s next for the upstart circuit that has embraced 54 holes, team golf and shotgun starts? Does LIV Golf have a long-term future, or is it simply a flash-in-the-pan enterprise in which already-wealthy golfers are getting even richer?

That seems to be the only certainty: LIV golfers are getting filthy rich. Dustin Johnson’s 4 Aces, which also includes former Masters champion Patrick Reed, Talor Gooch and Pat Perez, won the inaugural team championship Sunday and split the winner’s $16 million purse. Johnson, a two-time major champion, collected more than $35 million in prize money in the inaugural season.

“[Look at] Tom Brady’s contract,” said LIV golfer Bryson DeChambeau, who reportedly received a multiyear, guaranteed contract worth more than $125 million. “He’s still trying to win a Super Bowl. We have a bunch of guys in MLB that are making a crazy amount of money. You don’t think they want to win a World Series?

“You don’t think we want to win the team championship? We’re competitors at heart. That’s what makes us who we are. That’s why we’re great. Yeah, the money is amazing, but when we get under the gun, we get frustrated, we get mad, we get passionate. We care about it because it’s our job.”

MONEY HAS BEEN flowing on the LIV Golf circuit this year. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which reportedly manages $620 billion in assets, was prepared to dump at least $784 million into its new sporting venture in its inaugural season, according to an LIV Golf news release earlier this year.

But LIV Golf president and COO Atul Khosla, a former executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, told ESPN that total expenditures have actually been much more than that. The $784 million total includes employee salaries, build-outs at tournaments and production costs for broadcasting LIV events on social media and its official website.

That total does not include the guaranteed, multiyear contracts for players, which might be at least one-third of that. Along with DeChambeau’s whopping contract, the PIF has reportedly bankrolled as much as $200 million for six-time major champion Phil Mickelson, at least $150 million for Johnson and at least $100 million for reigning Open Championship winner Cameron Smith. LIV Golf officials declined to provide details of the players’ contracts.

Aside from the headliners, enough money was offered to lure former major championship winners Sergio Garcia, Reed and Louis Oosthuizen away from the PGA Tour. Chile’s Joaquin Niemann and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer were ranked among the top 25 players in the Official World Golf Ranking when they defected to LIV Golf.

Spending so much to lure players away from the PGA Tour was the cost of doing business, Khosla said.

“I’m not sure if everyone has sort of understood that when you have a startup, when you disrupt a space, it’s no different than I would imagine, you know, decades ago, Amazon coming in and disrupting the book industry at that point in time, or Uber coming in and disrupting something else,” Khosla said. “There is capital required. There’s a burn rate required. There’s a tenacity that’s required to work through the first couple of years. That’s what we are, that’s what we’re doing.”

When former U.S. President Donald Trump walked off the 18th green during Thursday’s LIV Golf Pro-Am at a golf course he owned, he complimented the Saudis for what they’re doing in men’s professional golf.

“It’s big time and it’s big-time money,” Trump said. “It’s unlimited money.”

Trump also suggested LIV Golf wasn’t done luring away top PGA Tour players. He hosted LIV Golf’s third event at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. There’s also speculation another one of his courses, Trump National outside Washington, D.C., will join the LIV Golf schedule next season.

“A lot of other people are coming over,” Trump said. “Big names, they’re coming over. The star system is very important in sports. If you don’t have the star system, you’re not going to be successful.”

Khosla insists LIV Golf isn’t some sort of college football NIL collective wildly spending millions of dollars for players with no financial concern. Majed Al Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation and a high school friend of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, told The New Yorker that the PIF had funding for LIV Golf through 2025. At some point, Khosla knows, the Saudis will expect a return on their investment.

“We report into a board, and that’s the expectation,” Khosla said.

Will the Saudis play with their new toy for a couple of years, lose interest and move on?

“I don’t believe that at all,” Khosla said. “You know, they are prudent investors. They’ve made investments all over the world, many in the United States, with great American companies. We are clearly viewed in that lens.”

Just in August, the Public Investment Fund spent another $7.6 billion on shares in U.S. companies like Amazon, Home Depot, Microsoft and Zoom.

HOW QUICKLY LIV Golf can generate at least a fraction of the money it’s spending remains to be seen. The main revenue sources for professional sports leagues are TV/streaming rights and sponsorships. So far, at least, LIV Golf has struggled to land partnerships in both areas, and it has largely struggled to attract viewers to its broadcasts on social media, the streaming service DAZN and its official website. The manager of one of LIV’s top players says the lack of a TV or streaming partner was his biggest concern heading into the next year of the league.

“It’s hard to find [LIV Golf], even if you’re looking for it, let alone just run across it,” said Golf Datatech executive Tom Stine, a former co-founder and publisher of Golfweek. “You’ve got to be hooked up with the right service and then go hunting for it.”

A recent survey of golf fans by Golf Datatech, which provides market research to the golf industry, found that only 12% of respondents watched the LIV Golf event outside Chicago on Sept. 16-18. The poll found that 80% of the respondents, which included 641 “serious golfers” who averaged 70 rounds per year, hadn’t watched any of the LIV events. The poll was conducted Sept. 20-25.

According to data obtained by ESPN, the LIV Golf tournament outside Boston in early September averaged 114,000 concurrent viewers on YouTube in the final round. The average dropped to 20,000 concurrent viewers for the final round of the Bangkok event and 26,000 for the tournament in Saudi Arabia. By comparison, the final round of PGA Tour events this past season, excluding the majors, averaged about 2.6 million viewers on network TV.

About 72,000 people were watching on YouTube when Johnson made a short putt to win the team championship Sunday.

“According to our survey, [LIV Golf] doesn’t seem to be gaining ground or gaining acceptance,” said Stine, who also worked at Golf Channel when it launched in 1995. “My opinion is the same as LIV Golf’s opinion: They need a television contract in order to be successful. I don’t think anybody disputes that, do they?”

Various published reports have noted that LIV Golf was unable to secure a media rights deal with multiple TV networks and popular sports streaming platforms such as ESPN+, Apple TV+ or Peacock. The TV networks that have traditionally broadcast professional men’s golf — ESPN, CBS Sports and NBC Sports — struck a nine-year, $6.1 billion deal with the PGA Tour in March 2020.

On Sept. 27, Golfweek reported LIV Golf was close to finalizing a deal with Fox Sports 1 to purchase airtime to broadcast its events in the U.S. Two weeks earlier, Norman told an ESPN radio station in Chicago that the circuit was still talking to four different networks. In a statement, LIV Golf called the Golfweek report “incomplete and inaccurate.”

At the CAA World Congress of Sports in New York on Oct. 11, Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks told Sports Business Journal reporter John Ourand that there was “not a lot of heat” around a potential media rights deal with LIV Golf.

Sources told ESPN that purchasing airtime on a cable sports network to broadcast a golf tournament on the weekend might cost as much as $900,000 per hour. That doesn’t include production costs, which are considered some of the most expensive in sports because of the number of cameras and personnel required to broadcast 18 holes. Sorour, the Golf Saudi CEO, suggested to the New Yorker that LIV Golf would create its own network if it couldn’t find a partner in the U.S.

“If it was up to me, I’d make it in-house,” Sorour said.

Khosla told ESPN that LIV Golf was still having conversations with linear and non-linear TV and streaming outlets in the U.S., and that the process would play itself out over the next few months. DeChambeau said LIV Golf didn’t yet have a broadcast partner because of “strategic reasons,” but didn’t detail why.

“By next year, I wholeheartedly believe we will have a television partner,” DeChambeau said.

Even if LIV Golf doesn’t attract a TV partner and has to buy airtime, Watson said that doesn’t necessarily mean the new circuit isn’t a good product.

“There’s entities out there in the U.S. that had to pay for their broadcasting at first, and then it’s grown into something,” Watson said. “We can sit here and name the entities that have done that and we all know who they are. [LIV Golf] is broadcast in many countries; people are loving it. I think we’ll get there.”

In the past, there have been examples of brokered programming in sports, in which leagues paid a TV network for airtime, including Major League Soccer, various iterations of professional football leagues not named the NFL, auto racing and professional wrestling. But none of them were paying the exorbitant salaries LIV Golf is doling out — or the enormous purses. During next year’s 14-tournament schedule, LIV golfers will compete for $405 million, $150 million more than they did this season.

“As with anything that is a venture-capital type of structure, there is an expectation of return on investment,” Stine said. “But as everyone has known from the very start with LIV Golf, their investment capital is endless at this point. When the investment fund gets tired of supporting it is the question; not when they run out of money.”

As far as sponsorships, Khosla said LIV Golf has entertained various potential partners at its events. Up until this point, the circuit had just one presenting sponsor: ROSHN, Saudi Arabia’s leading real estate developer, which is also largely funded by the Public Investment Fund. As part of the Saudi Vision 2030 campaign, which seeks to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy, ROSHN hopes to bring home ownership to 70% of the population by 2030.

“It takes time to convince people that this is here to stay, which I believe we have done,” Khosla said. “We are launching the league next year with 12 teams. Those are all fundamentals that we have to establish. And then I think brands come on board because they see what the product is.”

LIV GOLF’S VISION for 2023 and beyond is as bold as Saudi Arabia’s. LIV Golf will transform into a league next year and play a 14-tournament schedule. The league will be built on a franchise model, in which top players will own 25% of their teams and the league will keep 75%. It will be the captain’s responsibility to sell sponsorships for his team, while LIV Golf will also be seeking leaguewide partnerships with advertisers and sponsors of its own. Starting next season, LIV’s teams will operate as independent entities, with LIV Golf providing some support for their operations, but teams will be responsible for their travel, lodging, physical trainers, coaches and other expenses. Teams can also generate revenue through their own merchandise sales and apparel deals.

Watson said he plans to build his team like a franchise in any other sport. He’ll have a president, general manager and support team in place. Watson already plans to change the name of his team, which is currently being called the Niblicks, after the early golf clubs that were the equivalent of modern-day wedges or 9-irons.

“We’re gonna just start making a team,” Watson said. “We’re gonna start having our own logo, like the Yankees [and] the Lakers, all the teams that we’re used to seeing with that logo. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create a league just like the NBA, just like Major League Baseball, just like the NFL.”

Watson, 43, also envisions a day when he’ll step away from his franchise, sell his stakes and turn it over to another golfer.

“These young kids now, they’re pulling for a team,” Watson said. “It’s just like the Yankees. If Aaron Judge leaves or he stays, they’re still going to be Yankee fans. And so that’s what we’re creating. We’re creating franchises, teams that you’re going to follow, no matter who’s on there, because you’re going to have change over, right? Phil’s getting older. I’m getting older. There’s going to be people changing over throughout the years. And so you’re creating a brand, a team, an atmosphere that you want to be part of.”

World No. 1 golfer Rory McIlroy is skeptical that the LIV Golf franchises will be worth much.

“People have to remember, golf is a niche sport,” McIlroy told The New Yorker. “All you’re getting is four golfers. And I get it, some MLS teams are worth 700 million dollars. But it’s all tied to the economics of the league, and right now that league doesn’t have any economics.”

Some LIV golfers might be forced off rosters sooner than they would like. Relegation and promotion are part of the franchise model, and lesser-known players who struggled this season might not be back next year. LIV Golf plans to have a 60-man roster next year, with four active players and one reserve on each team. Watson, who was a non-playing captain this season because of a knee injury, hopes to return to the course next year. That means at least one of the current four players won’t be back. “We have three right now on the table,” Watson said. “We’re looking for the fourth.”

That might not be as difficult a blow for nondescript former PGA Tour players such as Perez, who earned more than $8 million despite not playing very well until Sunday, and Charles Howell III, who made nearly $3 million, than it would be for younger players who haven’t been pros for very long. For example, former U.S. amateur champion Andy Ogletree played in the first LIV Golf event in London, finished dead last at 24 over, collected $120,000 and hasn’t played on the circuit since. He has made three starts in the LIV-affiliated International Series on the Asian Tour.

Khosla said LIV Golf hopes to develop a developmental and promotion route for players through its alliances with the Asian Tour and little-known MENA Tour, which is a developmental circuit that plays in the Middle East and North Africa. Players who are relegated off rosters probably won’t be allowed to return to the PGA Tour.

DeChambeau has an even bigger vision for his franchise, which is currently called Crushers GC. His long-term plans include junior golf academies, fitness and sports complexes, and maybe even his own golf course. He believes having Anirban Lahiri on his team will open opportunities in India that he otherwise wouldn’t have.

“One of the reasons why I picked Anirban is he’s a huge player in the Indian market, and we want to help go over there and grow golf-build driving ranges, maybe even golf courses,” DeChambeau said. “The real estate over there is very difficult to acquire because of how jampacked it is. There’s opportunities to not only take certain players but utilize them in a positive way in their area of the globe.”

WHETHER NORMAN REMAINS part of LIV Golf’s long-term vision remains to be seen. When his new circuit was attempting to poach the PGA Tour’s best players with enormous guaranteed contracts, he took on the most forward-facing role, fueling the ongoing rivalry against the tour. At a news conference before the inaugural LIV Golf tournament outside London in May, Norman referred to the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s alleged involvement in the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. citizen, as a “mistake,” a remark that drew widespread criticism.

“I guess I’ve been a pinata for a long period of time because of my success and the way I’ve approached life,” Norman told ESPN in May. “It’s no different here today. People have a slanted view on me.”

Since then, Norman hasn’t done many interviews with journalists outside of his native Australia.

It’s not the first time the 67-year-old Australian, widely known as the “Shark,” has attempted to convince golfers to break away from the PGA Tour. Before the Shark Shootout at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California, in November 1994, Norman invited the tour’s top players to a closed-door meeting to hear his plans for an eight-tournament circuit that would begin play the next year. Fox Network had signed a 10-year deal with a management company to stage eight tournaments, in which 30 to 40 players would compete for $3 million purses.

Jacobsen, a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, was among what he believes were 15 to 18 players in the meeting that day.

“My partner was Arnold Palmer,” Jacobsen said.

“When we got up there, [Norman] presented us with a schedule of events around the world. Tournaments in places like Singapore and Hong Kong and Montreal and Johannesburg, places all around the world. He was talking about this series of tournaments and how we were all invited to play.”

Jacobsen remembers someone — but doesn’t remember who, nearly 28 years later — asking Norman how they were going to secure releases from the PGA Tour to play.

“Maybe you misunderstand, we’re going to renounce our PGA Tour membership and join this tour,” Norman told the players in the room, according to Jacobsen.

“The temperature in the room dropped by around 15 degrees,” Jacobsen said.

Palmer, who won 62 times on tour, including seven majors, was the next person to speak up.

“How many times do you think we were offered the opportunity to leave the tour and create our own?” Palmer asked Norman.

“Probably quite a few times,” Norman replied.

“And do you know why we didn’t?” Palmer asked him. “It’s bad for golf, bad for the players and I don’t want anything to do with it.”

According to Jacobsen, Palmer got up and walked out.

“And that pretty much spoke volumes for most of us in the room,” Jacobsen said.

“Maybe some players liked the idea, but everybody in my generation, we learned at the feet of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. We looked at those players as our mentors. Let’s not forget, Arnold and Jack had started the PGA Tour back in 1968, ’69 when they defected from the PGA of America.”

Norman’s grand plan for a world tour died on the vine that day. He waited nearly three decades to launch it again, with the help of Saudi Arabia’s seemingly endless supply of money.

And now, with Norman threatening the PGA Tour’s future again, the tour’s top players, like Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and others, are following the footsteps of Tiger Woods and McIlroy, who organized a meeting of top players before the BMW Championship in August in Wilmington, Delaware, which led to widespread changes and increased purses on the tour.

“I think the people that have decided to stay here and play these tournaments, they or we haven’t done anything differently than what we’ve always done, right?” McIlroy said at the CJ Cup earlier this month.

“We’re playing these events, we’re PGA Tour members, we’re sticking to the system that has traditionally been there. The guys that have [gone] over to LIV, they’re the ones that have made the disruption, they’re the ones that have sort of put the golf world in flux right now.”

OF COURSE, TO accomplish its dreams, LIV Golf will have to become widely accepted by golf fans, and it’s not there yet. If LIV Golf doesn’t take off and survive, it’s unclear if the defectors are too far down the road to go back to the PGA Tour, which has indefinitely suspended them for competing in LIV Golf events without conflicting-event releases.

DeChambeau was among 11 LIV golfers who sued the PGA Tour in federal court Aug. 3 in California, alleging the tour was using its monopoly power to squash competition and that it had discouraged vendors, TV networks and other companies from working with LIV Golf. The PGA Tour filed a countersuit, in which it accused LIV Golf of interfering in its contracts with players. A federal judge ordered the sides to go through mediation by May 1; a jury trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 8, 2024.

The PGA Tour also sued the Public Investment Fund and Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, governor of the fund, in federal court in New York. The complaint remains under seal. Sources told ESPN that the PGA Tour’s attorneys are attempting to obtain a motion to compel from a federal judge that would require Al-Rumayyan to be deposed and require the Public Investment Fund to turn over documents as part of the federal case in California.

Along with the legal battle with the PGA Tour, LIV golfers face an uncertain future when it comes to the major championships and premier team events, like the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. LIV Golf has applied for recognition from the Official World Golf Ranking governing board, which is a slow process. LIV Golf tried an end-around with its loose affiliation with the MENA Tour, which is recognized by OWGR, but it didn’t work. LIV Golfers didn’t receive world-ranking points for where they finished in LIV events, so they’ve plummeted in the rankings, which puts those without previously earned exemptions in majors in danger of not getting in.

“If [LIV golfers] don’t receive world ranking points, then the world-ranking system is flawed,” Watson said. “It’s broken. When you think about the golfers that are here, if you’re going to play against the best in the world, you have to rank us, too, because we’re some of the best in the world. So it’s a flawed system if you say no.”

This past season, LIV golfers who had exemptions or were otherwise eligible were permitted to play in the four major championships — the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship. But the PGA of America has indicated that only its members are eligible for its championship, and the only way for professional golfers to have membership is through the PGA Tour. In its complaint against the PGA Tour in court, LIV Golf accused Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley of threatening to “disinvite players from the Masters if they joined LIV Golf.”

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, reported that the U.S. Department of Justice had expanded its investigation into the PGA Tour’s alleged antitrust behavior to include Augusta National and the USGA, which oversees the U.S. Open.

Watson, a two-time winner of the Masters, said he thinks he’ll be back in Augusta in April.

“I’m confident. I am,” Watson said. “I think I’ll be at Augusta. I don’t see why they wouldn’t let me play. I’ve earned the right to be there. I think I’ll be there at Augusta trying to win another jacket.”

Playing for the U.S. or Europe in the Ryder Cup, which is staged by the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, might not be as easy. Before last week’s LIV Golf team championship, Garcia, a longtime Ryder Cup participant and potential future captain for the Europeans, said he didn’t plan on playing in the required four DP World Tour events next season, which would make him ineligible for the team.

“I knew some of the things that might happen if I joined [LIV Golf], but at the end of the day, as we’re seeing, you can see that some of the guys on the other side don’t really want me there,” Garcia said. “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone and even less in a Ryder Cup. I’d rather be away from that as much as it hurts and make sure that Europe has the best chance of winning than me being there and three or four guys that are going to be there are going to be upset or something.”

That is the uncertain future LIV Golfers face over the next several months — and they seem fine with it.

At the team championship selection news conference Wednesday, Koepka jabbed Mickelson about never being ranked the No. 1 player in the world. Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, complimented Koepka’s green shirt.

“That’s a beautiful green shirt, do you have a green jacket?” Mickelson asked Koepka.

“I do not, but I will, though, don’t worry. I will,” Koepka said.

Like everything else in men’s professional golf these days, that might not be so certain, either.

ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada contributed to this story.

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