TORONTO — Rory McIlroy said he hopes the LIV Golf League is going away, but an official for the rival team-focused circuit told ESPN on Thursday that the league being fronted by two-time Open Championship winner Greg Norman isn’t going anywhere.
“We know the big picture,” the LIV Golf official said. “We don’t know the details because this is the beginning of the [merger and acquisition] process. There’s just a lot to be worked through in the coming weeks. I think a lot of our questions will be answered … but the big picture, LIV is not going anywhere.
“We are — and we will continue to be — a stand-alone entity. It is business as usual for us for this year and beyond.”
That’s what Norman told LIV Golf officials in a teleconference Wednesday. Norman, the league’s CEO and commissioner, was kept in the dark — like just about everyone else in men’s professional golf — about the new alliance between Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which financed the LIV Golf League, and the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.
Others at the highest levels of the sport don’t seem convinced that the LIV Golf League will have a seat at the table in the sport’s new global ecosystem. Multiple sources have told ESPN that if there’s a team concept in future seasons, it won’t be in the form of the LIV Golf League — and it won’t include Norman.
“I still hate LIV,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “Like, I hate LIV. I hope it goes away, and I would fully expect that it does. I think that’s where the distinction here is. This is the PGA Tour, the DP World Tour and the PIF — very different from LIV.”
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, brokered the deal with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley and two of the PGA Tour’s policy board members.
Al-Rumayyan told CNBC on Tuesday that he didn’t make Norman aware of the alliance until shortly before it was announced, and the LIV Golf League official told ESPN on Thursday that he didn’t know if Norman had spoken to Al-Rumayyan since.
“LIV has been Yasir’s baby,” the LIV Golf official told ESPN. “He’s poured everything into this and just the idea that he would just dissolve it is ridiculous. All of the people that are saying that are the same people who said LIV was dead in the water.”
Monahan will serve as CEO of the new, yet-to-be-named entity being formed by the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and PIF; Al-Rumayyan will be chairman. Monahan said the future of the LIV Golf League would be determined after a thorough evaluation once its 2023 season ends.
“I don’t want to make any statements or make any predictions,” Monahan said. “But what is in place is a commitment to make a good-faith effort to look at team golf and the role it can play going forward.”
The Saudis dumped more than $2 billion into the breakaway league in its first season, after paying hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed contracts to lure Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and others away from the PGA Tour. Most of those deals were multi-year contracts.
Top LIV Golf players were also given 25% ownership of their respective franchises; the league owned the other 75%. The Saudis hoped to recoup their investment once the franchises were sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. The league’s lawyers said in court documents obtained by ESPN in February that it generated virtually no revenue in its first season in 2022.
“Do you really think that Yasir was going to lure DJ, Brooks, Phil and Bryson over to LIV with the promise of creating these franchises that could have these billion-dollar valuations, and then a year later they’re just going to dissolve it? No chance,” the LIV Golf official said. “I still truly believe that [Al-Rumayyan] sees his return coming from the value of these franchises. And in my eyes, the franchise values just quadrupled in value, right.”
While LIV Golf had big crowds at tournaments in Australia and Singapore, it has struggled to get a foothold on TV in the United States this year. The league’s season debut in Mayakoba, Mexico, and the second event in Tucson, Arizona, drew poor ratings. LIV Golf has since declined to provide TV ratings.
The LIV Golf League official said the PGA Tour’s partnership with PIF has removed many of the challenges the circuit faced while trying to acquire corporate sponsors and media partners in the U.S. in the past.
“We’re still making deals. We’re still looking for host venues. It’s business as usual,” the official told ESPN. “The biggest thing for us is now that all the headwinds and obstacles that we previously had have now been removed. Our runway is clear. Like Greg said, ‘LIV is supercharged now.’ Sponsors that previously wanted to talk to us are now re-engaging. It’s been an overwhelming response, I’d say, by the open market in general.”
As LIV Golf nears the one-year anniversary of its inaugural event outside London on Friday, its future seems uncertain at best. It has seven tournaments remaining this season, starting later this month in Spain. Its season concludes with a team championship in Saudi Arabia in November.
Whether the LIV Golf League stages another event beyond that remains to be seen.
“LIV can exist within the current ecosystem,” the LIV Golf official said. “They’re different products, right? I’ve never considered them to be competitive, competing products. You can like all of them, or you can like one of them, or you can like none of them. That’s up to the market to decide.
“Clearly, LIV has gained an incredible amount of attraction and there is a market for it. I think to immediately go to LIV is getting dissolved is the laziest take out there.”