LIV golf prepares for new season despite huge losses in their inaugural year
LIV golf lost almost $800 million USD in 2022, but Greg Norman, the LIV CEO, indicated that he expected things will turn around once they are able to hire on all the big names on the PGA Tour, get a TV contract and generate Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points.
The losses, though quite large are a drop in the bucket for the Saudi government who are oil rich billionaires. It is well known that the Saudis hoped to use LIV golf as a way to "sportswash" their human rights violations. Sportswashing is a term devised from the concept of reputation laundering, using sports to improve a reputation soiled by wrongdoing. The Saudis hoped that by investing in a prestigious golf series it would make them appear both relevant and important and make people forgive their poor human rights record.
Upon launching the league, LIV indicated its goal was to "holistically improve the health of professional golf" and to "help unlock the sport’s untapped potential." But most skeptics agree that the launch of LIV was simply an effort by the government to try and polish its reputation as a result of misogynistic and antisemitic laws, not to mention the country's involvement with both the 9-11 attacks against the United States and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In fact, Phil Mickelson acknowledged the Saudis were not good people when he called them "scary motherf*ckers" in an interview prior to signing on with LIV. Other forms of sportswashing include recent Olympic and World Cup events held by China and Russia, as well as the 1936 Olympic games held in Berlin, when Hitler hoped that hosting the Olympics would legitimize the German plan to wipe out Jews and take over Europe.
Big money gets big players
In order to attract the best players, LIV paid out enormous signing bonuses to the best players, including a reported $200 million to Phil Mickelson, $150 million to Dustin Johnson, $100 million to Bryson Dechambeau, Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith and other large contracts to major winners like Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Patrick Reed. Players that have not won a major were apparently given a bit less, to be explained later. As part of the agreement for the signup bonuses, all LIV players are expected to wear LIV apparel at all LIV and non-LIV events, will not give interviews without first okaying it with Norman and the Saudi government, have limited media rights and access to profits from their name and likeness (something ironically that Phil Mickelson complained about when signing with LIV), must play in all LIV events, unless they have a legitimate reason not to and get an exemption, and must be ambassadors of LIV by helping recruit other high name players to the series.
Naturally, LIV wants the most prestigious players and deems those to be players who won a major tournament (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship). In fact, LIV has offered a $1 million bonus to any LIV golfer that wins a major. Consequently it was reported that Norman offered Tiger Woods $700 million to join LIV to which Tiger basically told him to go to hell, and there were mammoth offers being bandied about for Rory McIlroy, John Rahm, Colin Morikawa, Hideki Matsuyama, Scottie Scheffler, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Xander Schauffele (an Olympic gold medal winner). Schauffele was almost assured of leaving the PGA Tour, but decided to stay after receiving what he deemed "an obnoxious offer".
The main reason the series specifically wants players who won a major is that the rules of those tournaments state that prior winners automatically get a lifetime exemption to play in those tournaments. This is a big concern for LIV, because LIV golf does not generate OWGR points and there is no indication it will any time soon. For that reason, many LIV players who stated they joined LIV to play less but are not exempt in the Majors, are playing in other tour events such as the DP Tour to generate OWGR points. The DP (European) Tour is going before the courts to see if it is legal for them to ban LIV players, as the PGA Tour has done.
But McIlroy, Rahm, Thomas and Scheffler have been adamant about how they disapprove of LIV and all it stands for and if anything, have been ambassadors of the PGA Tour, urging others not to be enticed by the money. They were also quite instrumental in convincing the PGA to increase the prestige and purses of several events starting this year, in an effort to convince those on the fence to stay. And Tiger Woods has been quite instrumental too, even holding a meeting with all the players last year telling them to be patriotic to the free world, and he assured them they will get their money in the long run. That meeting apparently persuaded many, including Spieth and Matsuyama to stay put. Woods and McIlroy also announced the creation of TGL golf starting in 2024. This will be a virtual team event aired on Monday nights where players will be able to earn more money in a team event without the stress of walking a course. It is being done in conjunction with the PGA Tour.
So it seems that LIV will be hard pressed to convince many more stars to join their league in the near future, and based on 2022 viewership and interest, without new blood the series will remain in trouble. LIV were forced to hand out free tickets so that it appeared the stands were full and for their efforts they were often filled with hecklers chanting anti-Saudi sentiments. The series was also being protested by the families of 9-11 survivors, who stated that the U.S.-based LIV players and course owners were traitors and should be ashamed of themselves. And the promotion of the series by Donald Trump, who went on to tell PGA players who didn't defect that they were stupid and losers, didn't help their cause much. It got past no one that Trump courses were on the LIV schedule, after being dropped by the PGA Tour.
New LIV recruits
LIV has thus announced the next two golfers that will be moving from the PGA Tour - Mito Pereira and Carlos Ortiz. Pereira gained notoriety by finishing third in the PGA Championship last year after leading most of the tournament, but did little otherwise on the tour, and Carlos Ortiz is a useful player, but nothing special 31-year-old golfer. The two golfers are from Chile and Mexico respectively, which appears to be important to LIV as they try to entice and grow a Spanish audience.
LIV also finally got a TV contract with CW Network, but it is doubtful that will make a difference. The tournaments are still not on any of the major networks and in most countries a lot of local stations were already streaming the YouTube broadcast, but not many watched. And LIV still badly trails the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, DP Tour and even the Champions Tour in terms of interest and betting. Golf fans and bettors have also indicated they find the scramble format confusing to follow and many wish it was a 72 hole tournament. So what was supposed to be unique and a seller of the series is instead detracting interest.
Consequently, while the Saudis indicated that LIV is here to stay there are rumblings that some in the government are unhappy with the 2022 results and are really displeased that the series is doing nothing to help fix their reputation. By all accounts Mickelson was severely chastised by the government and Norman for his comments in the Golf.com interview and others were warned not to say anything negative about the Saudis or face being barred from the series. Moreover, there are reports that the Saudis are looking to oust Norman and replace him with Mark King, the CEO of Taco Bell and a former Taylor Made CEO. Reports by The Telegraph says that Yasir Al-Rumayan, the governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, which backs LIV golf, met with King and they are working out the final details. The Saudis value King’s association with Taylor Made and they believe having a major golf brand representing LIV golf would help propel them further. Moreover, Norman is seen as so toxic by PGA and DP Tour players and officials that no one will even discuss solutions to allow both series to co-exist as long as Norman is at the helm. If the move is made and King does, in fact, replace Norman, there is no indication if Norman would stay on in a different capacity or if he would be paid to simply shut up and go away.
The series has also been severely chastised by fans and golf commentators for signing dislikable players. The majority of the big signings such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer, Bryson Dechambeau, Patrick Reed etc. are all players that are deemed to have selfish and negative attitudes and are not friendly with fans. Many of the players were notorious for ignoring fans asking for autographs and actually being rude and Reed has often been accused of cheating and was booed when he won The Masters. Thus, losing them to LIV has been met with most PGA Tour fans with nothing more than a shrug.
So, LIV tees off its season in Mexico on February 24th and will commence its 14 tournament schedule in Saudi Arabia on November 3rd. It seems right now that the series in a bit of flux. Despite the rosy picture painted by Norman, it is clear that the Saudi government and many LIV players are unhappy with the progress. They assumed by now that all the big names from the PGA and European tour like McIlroy, Spieth, Rahm, Justin Thomas, etc., would all be playing on LIV, making the other tours irrelevant. But that hasn’t happened. And if anything the opposite has happened, making LIV look greedy and irrelevant, hardly a good sportswashing endeavor. And since former Major winners like Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Garcia etc. can still compete in current majors, both the players and fans really are sacrificing nothing. The only question is can Mark King make a difference if he does indeed replace Norman and just how long will the Saudi government fund the series if they get nothing from it? No doubt the figures from 2023 viewership and interest will be crucial in answering those questions.