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Reporter roundtable: What we made of LIV Golf’s first year, what needs to change and how LIV can work with the PGA Tour

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The emergence of LIV Golf has dominated the sport to an extent fans haven’t seen since Tiger Woods joined the picture in the 1990s.

For that reason, indifference in regard to the breakaway entity that has split professional golf in half is rare to find. Some enjoy LIV’s format, which features individuals and teams competing for outrageous sums of money via shotgun starts in a festival-esque atmosphere that makes you almost forget you’re at a golf tournament. Others scoff at the idea of the major champions and mini-tour players alike playing in no-cut events that have been largely criticized as a way for Saudi Arabia to sportswash it’s human rights record, seeing as LIV is financially backed and supported by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund.

Over the last year, LIV held eight events and secured some of the best players and characters pro golf has to offer. In 2023, LIV will transition to a 14-event league with even loftier goals for its future. To help contextualize all that happened this year and look ahead to 2023, I enlisted the help of some friends and colleagues from various media outlets who covered the upstart circuit in its inaugural year.

What did you make of LIV Golf’s first year?

“I think LIV had almost exactly the year it wanted. In that I mean it had huge goals and accomplished many. This time a year ago LIV held massive goals of disruption and for establishing itself in the lexicon. It did that, which is all I seem to think about these days. It proves how ripe men’s pro golf (and potentially pro golf at-large) was for the taking.” — Sean Zak, Golf Magazine

“I attended the LIV Golf events at Pumpkin Ridge, Rich Harvest Farms and Trump National Doral, albeit from a news-gathering position and not so much the actual golf. It was one heck of a party everywhere I went. The atmosphere was decidedly different from what I’ve seen at the majors and PGA Tour events. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but it was definitely different. There was music on the driving range, practice green and around the course. Players definitely seemed more relaxed. One thing that was missing was the tension in the air that you can feel at a major or big PGA Tour event.” — Mark Schlabach, ESPN

“First, it is different than anything I have experienced covering golf, the music, the champagne celebrations, the players coming to post-round interview sessions with drinks. Not all of it is bad and the players all appear to be having fun, but that also is because throw a lot of money at someone and they will adapt. As for fans, I believe there is a segment that embraces that and they have tapped into that.” — Tom D’Angelo, Palm Beach Post

“Well, I think the way to answer that is you have to look at the big picture going back a year, when they first announced Greg Norman as the commissioner. They had plans then to have a league start in 2022 and that got severely blown up in February with all the (Phil Mickelson comments). That they were able to somehow rebound from that, play eight events, get whatever it was, six or eight major champions, I think is pretty remarkable. That little part right there I think is a success for them. Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a long way to go, they have a lot of hurdles, but if you look at the big picture, that’s all pretty impressive.” — Bob Harig, SI

“Well, it was a bit of a circus. Everything that is happening around the golf is more interesting than the golf itself. I wonder how much that dynamic is going to be able to sustain people’s interest in future years of the league. But obviously there was a lot of novelty this year about this new kind of breakaway league with shady funding and with a bunch of the most unlikable players formerly on the PGA Tour. There was a bit of zip about it this year. It was fascinating to follow. It was problematic to follow and kind of an irresistible topic for journalists, and from what I’ve seen, it’s been equally irresistible to fans and readers and listeners. It was fascinating this year. It was somewhat dispiriting at times. It was hard to deal with at times. But I just wonder if this kind of energy is going to stick around.” — Garrett Morrison, The Fried Egg

Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Was LIV Golf successful in year one?

“It was unquestionably successful. That doesn’t mean it will ultimately be successful, but for year 1, it successfully upended the pro ranks of the sport, earned commitment from some of the best players in the world and forced the entire sport to reckon with money, capitalism, greed, etc. like never before. LIV splashed, which means success to me. It wasn’t a belly-flop and for various reasons it also wasn’t a cannon-ball. Now I want to know how well it can swim.” — Zak

“I think it depends how you define success. I was at The Genesis in February when LIV Golf seemed dead in the water. One by one, top players made commitments to the PGA Tour, whether it was through interviews or statements. For LIV Golf to secure the number of top players it did, especially Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Joaquin Niemann, has to be considered a success. But the lack of a TV network or major streaming deal and its audience metrics for the first eight events have to be alarming for Greg Norman and LIV executives. No matter how they spin the numbers, there just doesn’t seem to be a large audience of golf fans watching.” — Schlabach

“LIV was very successful. Many said that last week and I do agree: No one believed in February we would be where we are with LIV right now. Though its field still does not compare to the PGA Tour, no matter what they say, it is much better than we all believed. We all knew Phil would join but DJ, Koepka, Cam and others were a surprise. And even some of those who are not as popular like Niemann and Casey, they all helped.” — D’Angelo

“Yes, it was. They launched, they played eight events, they got a lot of attention, not all of it for the best reasons, but they attracted a good number of players. I remember for the first event after it was announced, there was this thought that they might not be able to fill the field. Obviously they had a lot of interest. So from that standpoint, I believe it was a success.” — Harig

“I’m going to focus on the word successful and try to figure out what that means. I don’t think that you can say that this first year was completely successful or completely unsuccessful. I think you have to break down LIV into its component parts and assess which parts were successful and which weren’t. What was successful was that LIV recruited more high-profile and just plain good players than I think anybody would have expected when Greg Norman was announced as the CEO of this breakaway tour. It could have gone any direction when Norman was hired. It could have gone up in flames or it could have been successful in recruiting big-time players to participate. Dustin Johnson is a big-time player. Cameron Smith is a huge get for them, he is one of the best golfers in the world. Bryson DeChambeau, obviously, is one of the most interesting golfers in the world. Phil Mickelson is a legend. I don’t think that anybody would have guessed that all of these players would be participating in this league at this point. In that sense, LIV has been wildly successful. But in a few other senses, the positioning of the league looks a little bit tenuous to me. The big questions right now are, will players on LIV have a pathway to the majors, whether it’s through OWGR or some other method, and the other big question is whether they’re going to be on TV anytime in the near future.

Both of those outstanding questions about LIV’s future would become a lot easier to answer if they were to recruit just a few more of the best players in the world, right? If they start to look like the strongest golf league in the world, the TV deal is going to materialize, a pathway to the majors is going to materialize a lot more easily. As of now, we don’t know whether LIV’s going to get those things. So in that sense, you can’t call the first year entirely successful, because it’s not totally clear to me that this league is going to survive another few years. Because if it doesn’t get a TV deal, and there’s not a pathway to the majors, I don’t see how LIV can be a long-term concern.” — Morrison

Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

What do you think LIV needs to change/do in year two to stay relevant and keep growing? 

“In my opinion LIV needs to find other areas to display growth. YouTube viewership information is both flawed and insufficient. LIV needs to demonstrate proof points, and many of them. One brand buying in is not enough. One TV network accepting a pay-for-play deal is not enough. Almost every NBA team has a sponsor patch on its jerseys. There is demand for visibility with every level of pro sports, so LIV needs to prove it fits in with pro sports.” — Zak

“I think the cool thing about LIV Golf is its franchise model. I’m not as excited about the actual team play as the trades and free agency. Free agency is hugely popular in other professional sports, and LIV Golf has a chance to make some noise in the offseason with transactions. But they’ll have to come up with better names for their teams to make people really pay attention. Despite the Saudi’s deep pockets, I don’t think LIV Golf can survive without a TV network or streaming partner. The Saudis will expect a return on their investment at some point in the future.” — Schlabach

“The most obvious is LIV desperately needs to be seen and to do that it needs a TV contract, or contracts, whether it’s in U.S. or overseas. This year the golf was secondary. Most of LIV’s publicity this summer has come from the politics and the players trickling in from the PGA Tour. Once that stops – the politics will never completely go away but it will die down some and after December these teams and rosters should be set. LIV has to find a way to get people interested in the actual golf.” — D’Angelo

“Well, I think there’s a few things. I think it would help them to tone down the rhetoric, whether it’s from their leadership or from the players, I don’t think it does them any good. They’ve launched, they’re doing what they wanted to do, I think I’d keep my head down and just push forward. Obviously they’re going to need to sign a few more players, which I think we expect they’re going to do here in the offseason. They need a TV deal. I mean, it’s just imperative. If you’re going to try to sell franchises and get this thing popular, you need to have more widespread exposure, and they just haven’t had that yet. So that’s going to be important. And then I think they need to get world ranking points. I’m not saying they should, but I think for their sake, they need them. Those are four pretty big things right there that they need to make some headway on over the next couple of months and going into the next season to be able to build on what they’ve gotten to so far.” — Harig

“Going back to those two things that LIV is lacking right now, the pathway to the majors and the TV deal, I think there needs to be significant movement on one or both of those. Now, the pathway to the majors is going to be a sticky wicket. That’s gonna take a while, probably. I think the most likely scenario is that the majors will give way before the OWGR gives way, and eventually, the OWGR will receive pressure from the majors rather than the majors receiving pressure from the OWGR. I think it’s a lot more likely that if LIV recruits enough of the best golfers in the world that the majors will say, ‘We want these players in our events, we can’t hold majors without these players, we’re going to establish a qualification criterion that involves LIV.’ I think that’s probably the first move that’s going to be made on this front. I don’t know if it’s going to be made, but I think that within the next couple of years, something like that needs to happen in order for LIV to really take hold.

The other thing is the television contracts. I don’t know enough about TV contracts or how the business of television works to know how close LIV might be to getting something resembling a TV deal that they wouldn’t have to pay for themselves, but it strikes me as essential that they be on U.S. TV on some kind of accessible cable network within the next year or it’s going to just kind of fade out of interest. Because people need to be watching the product and be interested in the product for this to continue being a viable investment for the Public Investment Fund. I know that people are saying the Saudi Arabian government doesn’t care whether LIV is profitable, but if it’s just a complete non-entity, especially in the U.S. on YouTube, and nobody’s watching it, they’re getting 40,000-50,000 viewers on YouTube, I just don’t see why that would continue to be an interesting investment for the Public Investment Fund. So I believe there needs to be movement quickly there.” — Morrison

Can LIV and the PGA/DP World Tours co-exist?

“They can co-exist in the sense that competitors co-exist, but not graciously. They are too much at odds at the current moment, literally working through litigation against each other that will continue to dominate headlines both in 2023 and 2024. It’s plausible down the road that we all grow to accept both tours as viable entities in their own right, but I don’t think that’s at all what golf fans want. And golf fans play an important role here with their eyeballs.” — Zak

“PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has made it clear that he doesn’t plan to work with LIV Golf to co-exist in the current golf ecosystem, and I can’t see his position changing, unless a federal judge orders him to do so. LIV Golf is an existential threat to the PGA Tour, not so much because of the product but because of the Public Investment Fund’s endless buckets of cash. The PGA Tour has made some good changes, but there are lingering questions about what happens to the non-elevated events and non-star players. The bigger questions to me are what the Official World Golf Ranking and the majors do in terms of LIV players. I think for the foreseeable future, we’re only going to see all of the best players in the world competing in the four majors.” — Schlabach

“I don’t think so. Not so much because of the rhetoric, people have said much worse and come together in business. But the schedule with 14 events, the shotgun starts, the 54 hole events … it would take a lot of concessions for LIV to form and alliance and I am not sure if they are willing, especially if they poach a few more big names.” — D’Angelo

“I think so, but I think there needs to be compromise. I don’t think you want this friction between them. The compromise could come in two forms. One is there’s no merger of any kind, which is probably more likely. So in that case, you need to allow for there to be world ranking points and you need to let these guys have a reasonable shot at playing in the majors, which I contend if they got world ranking points under the current system would not be easy. They’re going to be greatly reduced. Go ahead and give it to them and let it play out. And then LIV needs to probably just do their thing and tone down the rhetoric. You got what you want, you got world ranking points, you’ve got your own league, you’re making all this money, let’s see where it all falls.

“The other way is an agreement between the two. For that to happen, there needs to be some pretty significant compromise on each side. If LIV players want to be able to compete on the PGA Tour, they’re going to need to follow some sort of rules set forth by the PGA Tour, and it’s not going to be easy to do in their present configuration. I don’t think they can play 14 events, I think they would have to reduce it. Same for the Tour. If they want the LIV guys back in their marquee events, they probably need to reduce the minimum number. If they do that and collaborate with LIV, the Tour can reap some of the benefits of the TV deal. The Tour could extract subsidies for purses that aren’t LIV events. The LIV players might be penalized by not earning FedEx points in LIV events, but that would give them incentive to play PGA Tour events so they can qualify for that, and they would need to collaborate on their schedule so that the LIV events aren’t disruptive to Tour events. They’d have to pick spots where the Tour is willing to let them play. Could all that happen? It doesn’t seem likely right now, but that is one way that they could collaborate. I think at this point, what we know now, that’s asking a lot.” — Harig

“In a technical sense, they can coexist the way that roughly they are right now. LIV has a few players, the PGA Tour has a few players, the PGA Tour becomes weaker, the DP World Tour becomes weaker, and LIV just kind of gradually collects more and more players. That can kind of go on for a while and that is a kind of coexistence. But when people talk about some kind of formal cooperation between the PGA and DP World Tours and LIV, I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

LIV has players under contract to play 14 events a year, and presumably the top players will want to play for majors on top of that. That’s 18 events. That’s almost as many events as most of the best players in the world want to play in a given year, and I’m talking about top 20, top 30 players here. They don’t play many more events than that. They play somewhere between that kind of 18 to 25 event load. There are outliers like Patrick Reed and Sungjae Im, who might play a few more, but that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking to settle right around 20, 21, 22 events in a year. So if LIV is going to have players required to play 14 events in a year, then I don’t see how there can possibly be any kind of official cooperation between LIV and the PGA and DP World Tours, because what does that look like? The LIV player plays 14 events and then plays four majors and then plays three PGA Tour events or three DP World Tour events and that’s the whole schedule? That’s not cooperation at all, or at least it’s not the cooperation of equals. I think people just need to think this through a little bit when they’re talking about LIV and the PGA Tour making a deal, because clearly players can’t really play on both leagues. That can’t happen. Both tours, both sides want most of the best players in the world, because that’s the way that they’re going to be profitable. They can’t be profitable unless they have most of the best players in the world. That’s true in the PGA Tour’s case. That’s true in LIV’s case, and players can’t really play on both. So when people go on about coexistence, again, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. What does that actually look like?” — Morrison

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Source : USA Today