Bettors rejecting LIV golf amid funding and quality questions
It's been some time since a sports topic has come along that has been as contentious as the LIV golf tour. While some support the new league as a true form of capitalism, others say it is built on greed, funded by evil and has no place in the sporting world.
Roots go back nearly three decades
The history that led to the inception of LIV golf actually started in 1994. Greg Norman, who was among the best golfers at the time, threw out the idea of a World Golf Tour that would consist of 8 tournaments featuring the 30 top players in the world who would compete for large prizes. FOX Sports agreed to sponsor the tour and be the official broadcaster for the tournament and Rupert Murdoch was apparently set to pay players handsomely for just showing up to the tournaments. Norman said it would help build the game globally, but Tim Finchem, who was the PGA Tour commissioner at the time, said it would damage the PGA Tour, since the best players would skip many tournaments to play in this new world tour. Finchem said that if the new World Tour went ahead then players on the PGA Tour would be violating the "conflicting of interest" clause and would be banned from PGA Tour events. Norman apparently withdrew the idea because he realized that he couldn’t compete with the deep pockets of the PGA Tour.
Had it ended there, Norman may have just left it alone, but Finchem, realizing the idea had merit, joined forces with European Tour, Australasian Tour, Asian Tour and South African Tour two years later to create what would become the World Golf Championships. These events, with reduced fields and larger prize money, featured the best players in the world and are among the most prized events on the PGA Tour. Norman was furious and basically told Finchem that he sold him out. By all accounts from that date Norman made it his mission to get a competing tour. Norman played until the age of 54 and then turned his efforts to other business ventures, as well as hosting the Shark Shootout, whereby teams of two players played a three-day tournament, in the off season.
Norman seemed content to stay on the sidelines, but in 2019 the Saudi government announced plans for a new Saudi golf league that would compete with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour by attracting the best players in a series of tournaments from July to November. Until that time only the DP World Tour Championship, which concludes the DP World Tour season, and the Saudi International, an event originally sanctioned by the DP World Tour that attracts top players by guaranteeing them an appearance fee, had been held in the United Arab Emirates. No PGA Tour events were held in the UAE.
The proposed new Saudi league would receive funding from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (a fund which has $580 billion in assets almost exclusively derived from oil) and was willing to pay star players just for signing up as well as hefty tournament purses. The league turned to Norman to get it off the ground and attract the best players to the tournaments. Greg Norman jumped at the opportunity, likely because of the large salary he was being offered as well as the chance to enact some revenge on the PGA Tour for its actions with regards to the World Golf Championships. Norman turned to the PGA players gave him his pitch and said that the PGA Tour players were disrespected, and this would give them a chance to reshape the way the PGA Tour runs, as well as give them a lot of money. He told the players that the tournament prizes were enormous, and he offered the star players very large signup bonuses.
The league pays $4 million to each tournament winner, $2.125 million to second, $1.5 million for third and just over a million dollars for fourth which far exceeds almost every PGA Tour purse. Even the last place player is guaranteed $120,000. And there is a team tournament as part of LIV events, where four players are assigned to each team, with the winning team getting $3 million to split, second place getting $1.5 million and third place $500,000. As for the signup bonuses, Phil Mickelson was the first to sign, apparently agreeing to a $200 million bonus and that was closely followed by Dustin Johnson receiving $125 million and Bryson Dechambeau, Brooks Koepka and Cam Smith all receiving $100 million for joining. Other players who likely got large undisclosed bonuses were Talor Gooch, Kevin Na, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Abraham Ancer, Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace, Ian Poulter, Hudson Swafford, and most recently Bubba Watson and Henrik Stenson. The others on the tour may have received small signup bonuses, but are mostly playing for the purse money.
This crazy money had many suggesting the Saudi government were sportwashing, i.e., using sports to help improve their sullied reputation, particularly with the world refusing to forget the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the likely involvement with terrorists. In a way it is similar to money laundering which those in the gambling industry are likely familiar with, whereby dirty money gained from illicit activities such as drug dealing, and loan sharking is turned into clean money through legal investments and gambling at legal casinos. Several of the arrests of offshore operators like Jay Cohen were for money laundering and several casinos recently have been investigated for their involvement in money laundering schemes.
When Mickelson signed with LIV, he told a reporter that he was moving to LIV despite the fact that the Saudi Government were "scary motherf*ckers", because the PGA Tour needed to be reshaped.
"They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the Saudi golf league] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour," Mickelson told Alan Shipnuck in a February interview.
Without exactly explaining how the PGA has wronged him, it seems clear that he believed the best players should get money for just showing up. The others that joined also used the similar tagline that the PGA Tour needed to be reshaped, although the majority, such as Dustin Johnson, admitted it was almost exclusively a business decision based on guaranteed money. To make matters worse Johnson and Koepka moved tours despite saying they would stay with the PGA Tour, which had them pegged by most industry experts and fans as hypocritical money grubbers. Other golfers like Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas clearly stated they would not move and reiterated the statement that for real star golfers the motivation is never money first. Tiger Woods, who by all accounts was offered $800 million to move to LIV also stated he was loyal to the PGA Tour and had no interest in taking the Saudi money at any cost. The PGA did raise the prize money at many tournaments to try and combat some of the concern, but Jay Monahan made it clear that anyone who went to LIV was not welcome at any PGA Tour event, would have their memberships revoked and would not be able to play in any sanctioned events, including the FedEx Cup playoffs, the President's Cup and Ryder Cup.
The major tournaments are also somewhat divided although indications are that the Masters, (British) Open championship and PGA Championship will not extend invitations to those on the LIV Tour as of next year and are under no obligation to do so unless players earn it through player points. But since no points are offered on the LIV Tour, they won’t automatically qualify. The U.S. Open has made no such similar commitments leading Davis Love III to suggest that if the U.S. Open lets LIV players in, then PGA Tour and DP World Tour players would boycott the event making a meaningless tournament. In turn, 11 players on the LIV Tour have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour for forcing them to relinquish their memberships and Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones have filed for a temporary restraining order which would allow them to play in the FedEx Cup playoffs. While Monahan effectively said the players made their bed so they can lie in it, the LIV players have effectively said that they should be able to play where they want and when they want. The question for the courts is whether this is an issue of free enterprise and players who are free agents can do what they want with or without a membership or whether, to use the old American Express tagline, membership has its privileges.
Not surprisingly this has led to the situation we are in now, where most fans and the media, including Boomer Esiason, view the LIV defectors as disloyal, money-grubbing traitors, while the other side views them as smart businessmen. One on those saying that the LIV players are right is Donald Trump, who said that those not taking the LIV deal were fools who would regret their decision. Trump’s comments, however, were likely the result of the PGA Tour disassociating themselves with Trump golf courses after his actions on January 6, 2021, while LIV held their last tournament on the Trump Bedminster course. Trump also commented that the Khashoggi killing in 2018, which happened while he was President, was old news.
And it’s not just fans that are divided. Mainstream and cable TV networks in the United States have no interest in airing the tournaments, which are currently only streamed on YouTube. But, some independent non-American stations have been showing that stream on their TV stations, citing it as a freedom issue. And sportsbooks have been divided as well. About half of the sportsbooks in the United States have put up odds on the LIV tournaments, while others, such as BetMGM, have refused to put up odds, apparently because they don’t want to be seen as supporting the Saudi government. Other sportsbooks have put up odds in some jurisdictions and not in others based on the local feelings towards LIV.
Attendance at the tournaments has been quite poor and tickets had to be given away in London just to make it appear that fans were showing up. And at Bedminster, tickets were available for $1 apiece on Stubhub for the first day and $8 on the final day. Plus, many fans only bought the cheap tickets to heckle the players and let their views of the Saudi government be known. "Do it for the Saudi Royal Family," one fan yelled at Phil Mickelson before he hit a shot. And while that was picked up by the cameras there were reportedly numerous other incidents where attendees let it known how they felt. One fan on Twitter said he was removed from Bedminster for refusing to let up his attacks on the players and Norman.
The betting handle tells the story
Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker for the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, described the difference in wagering interest between the PGA and LIV like the difference in betting handle for the NFL vs. the USFL. Prior to the first LIV event, Sherman told the Las Vegas Review Journal that the Westgate will "write 10 times more (handle) on the Canadian tournament than we will on LIV."
I spoke to three gamblers I know who wager heavily on golf and asked them if they wagered on LIV. All three said no, but for different reasons. Jack, from New Jersey who bets upwards of $5,000 on golf each week said he won’t bet on LIV because he lost loved ones at the World Trade Centre on 9-11 and won’t support a league funded by a group he claims was responsible for that day.
"How can I wager on LIV and put my head on the pillow at night? I won’t give them legitimacy."
Harold, who lives in Ontario and has been a regular bettor on golf, similarly said that he won’t wager on the events because he doesn’t like the funding of it and feels he would be disloyal to the tours he does bet on.
"I made a lot of money betting on the PGA Tour, European (DP World) Tour and the Champions Tour. As far as I’m concerned, the players who jumped are greedy sons of bitches and I can’t actually root for a player I have no respect for. I think LIV is bad for the sport and just like I would never bet on cockfighting, I won’t bet on a tournament whose whole purpose I don’t agree with."
Kevin, also from Ontario had a slightly different reason why he won’t bet on LIV, mainly that he doesn’t like the product.
"I decided to give it a shot and watched the tournament in Portland on my tablet. I found it confusing. The shotgun start, the mishmashed coverage, and the lousy commentating gave me a headache after half an hour. I didn’t find it enjoyable and I’m sure if I bet on it I wouldn’t have a clue where I stood. It also seemed to me that a lot of players were disinterested and just going through the motions. This isn’t good golf to me, so I won’t bet on it."
Many also noted that the LIV has a lot of players with bad attitudes that the fans generally despise, such as Mickelson, Reed, Watson and Dechambeau. It is also notable that none of the big name players have won yet. Charl Schwartzel won the first tournament, his first win in 6 years, Branden Grace, a serviceable, but not really well-known golfer, won the second tournament, and Henrik Stenson won the third tournament, his first win since the 2016 Open Championship. Stenson has also been playing horribly missing more than half the cuts over the last two years.
So, LIV golf has now had three events and the feelings towards it are mixed, although the majority seem to be unimpressed. The question that really has to be asked is whether this is really a threat to the PGA and DP World Tour, whether players are free agents or whether they are bound to play for the Tours that made them who they are, whether players should be ashamed for accepting money from a source known to fund terrorism and murder innocent civilians, and whether gamblers will ever really get on board. That answer may not be known until after the PGA Tour season has finished and it is known who else is ready to jump ship. Infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar said that "everybody has a price. The important thing is to find out what it is." We'll soon find out if he is right.