It takes a second to understand LIV chief media officer Will Staeger when he says that Christmas came late this year. It takes another to realize he means that literally.
“I think the hardest part was the timetable,” Staeger told GOLF.com Friday, a day after LIV announced it had wrangled a multi-year agreement with its first-ever television partner, the CW. “We wanted to get [the deal] done in enough time to have coverage from our first event, and so that really made it a time crunch.”
Then he states the truth more plainly.
“None of us really had holidays.”
As it turns out, even that’s underselling it. It took until January 19 — nearly a month into the new year — for Staeger and his team to earn so much as a weekend off. But with the ink dry on an agreement that will tie the Saudi-backed upstart league to a much-needed U.S. TV partner for the foreseeable future, last Friday evening might as well have been Christmas Eve.
“Hopefully we’ve got a couple well-deserved days off coming up here,” Staeger said with a laugh.
He and his staff successfully brought a television product from inception to a national TV deal in the span of nine months. That’s an unprecedented accomplishment in the hyper-capitalist world of sports television, even if LIV did have the benefit of a handful of unprecedented advantages, like billions in seed money from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (a solid chunk of which was funneled directly into the media team Staeger now oversees).
“I’m pretty sure it’s a record across history — going from the launch of a new league to nine-and-a-half months later having a broadcast network media rights deal for an entire season,” Staeger said. “It’s funny, I think LIV has been in the news for so long, so much all the time that I think people feel like it’s been a long time. Truth of the matter is we ran eight events, and then we moved on to a broadcast deal.”
Yes, it benefitted Staeger to have a production budget rivaling most major networks, with millions more to offer splashy hires like the Premier League’s Arlo White and NBC’s David Feherty. (And who could forget LIV’s brief flirtation with a Charles Barkley broadcast megadeal?) But it is difficult to argue his point that the CW agreement marks a striking step forward for the upstart league. It is easier, instead, to quibble with the details of the new arrangement with the CW, many of which still remain a mystery more than a week after the deal was first reported.
According to Staeger, LIV received bids from “multiple networks” at its offer deadline in the fall of 2022, though he would not say which networks were among the potential suitors or how many networks were in the running. (Over the summer, LIV CEO Greg Norman told ESPN1000 Chicago the league was in “active negotiations” with “four different networks.”)
After receiving the offers, the CW emerged as the finalist from the group of bidders around a month ago. Negotiations heated up shortly thereafter, rounding into their final form over the first days of the new year.
“Very few deals of this magnitude have have come together in what was — by the time we were in an exclusive negotiation — maybe three weeks,” Staeger said.
For a league unafraid to gas the news cycle with fodder of an $800 million Tiger Woods offer, LIV is noticeably coy about its TV agreement. The league will not divulge specifics about the deal’s financials or term, offering only that the agreement will run “multiple years,” and that LIV will not be paying the network for airtime. (The Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand reported Tuesday that the agreement is for two years, with a one-year option based on viewership.)
“First of all, for the record, it’s not a time buy,” Staeger said. “We’ve said from the beginning that we’re not interested in doing a time buy with anybody. We don’t feel we have to.”
Staeger’s description leaves plenty of room for interpretation about the agreement itself, particularly regarding which parts of it will result in financial gain for the upstart league. No one from the league has publicly stated if LIV will receive a “rights fee,” or annual lump-sum payment from the network in exchange for the “right” to broadcast LIV’s events. Such agreements are common practice in most major sports TV deals and result in the vast majority of TV revenue for leagues. Sources told GOLF.com last week that LIV would not immediately receive a rights fee from the CW. In lieu of a rights fee, LIV’s best avenue to financial gain from the CW agreement could come in the form of a revenue-share between the two sides. Traditionally, such agreements include splitting a share of advertising dollars generated as a result of the property’s broadcasts.
“The model I’ve liked to talk about is how NBC Sports handled the English Premier League in the U.S., and how ESPN and Formula One combined with Netflix and ‘Drive to Survive,'” Staeger said. “Those deals really grew the property’s popularity in the U.S.”
If a revenue-share is the path forward for LIV, at least in the short-term, a separate issue arises. Per the CW’s current agreement with the audience-tracking service Nielsen, weekend viewership numbers are not tracked on the network, meaning LIV will be incapable of showing advertisers the value of their paid time-slots without a separate agreement. Staeger admitted it was early yet to know how the two parties would breach the data gap, but vowed there would be viewership metrics available for LIV in 2023.
“It’s critical to our plans,” he said.
But not every benefit to a television deal is financial. As Staeger points out, LIV’s agreement with the CW — a network that reaches more than 120 million households in the U.S. — has the opportunity to broaden the league’s reach and its viewing audience. Its new owners, Nexstar, have big plans to transform the network into an entertainment powerhouse (utilizing sports as a key part of that platform), following the outline first laid by FOX some two decades ago. The nature of the agreement is such that each party is deeply invested in the other’s success.
“There’s a strong promotional commitment the CW is going to put into place. Virtually everybody within the organization, from executive ranks on down, is enthusiastic about our products, and they expressed that really early on. They share our vision,” Staeger said. “Being their first sport, I think that enhances the situation. In a way, we’re being treated like the NFL for them. So I think that will help the ratings, and that’ll help the growth of our viewership.”
There are other levers to help boost ratings and, by extension, revenues for all parties involved. One avenue is through additional rights deals. LIV’s agreement with the CW encompasses its U.S.-based programming, but the league still has the freedom to shop the remainder of its broadcast rights to international partners. Staeger hinted that more news on those agreements could be coming very soon.
“We’re in negotiations in every territory in the world right now,” he said. “We were just wanting to announce this one first.”
Another avenue to growth is through “original programming” — an opportunity Staeger noted specifically as part of LIV’s efforts bolster support with golf audiences. That could mean the creation of a documentary-style TV show in the ilk of ‘Full Swing’, the PGA Tour-focused docuseries soon to release on Netflix. Such programming could live on the CW, Staeger said, but could also be shopped to other networks and/or streaming properties.
“Think ‘Drive to Survive’ or ‘The Last Dance,'” he said. “Programming is the sword that really ties the viewers and the space to the personalities of your stars and your league. I look at the NBA and the NFL, and we plan on following in their footsteps.”
Of course, it’s one thing to act like the multi-billion-dollar enterprises that are the NBA and NFL, it’s another to be them. Viewership lies at the heart of the NFL and NBA’s success, and it’s also why networks like ESPN, NBC, TNT and CBS shell out billions in rights fees. LIV’s plans will matter very little if the league finds itself incapable of wrangling the audiences and advertisers to make their primary broadcast agreement with the CW worth its airtime. That’s a goal that will require a significant bump from last year’s few hundred thousand YouTube views per tournament round.
Still, with a 2023 schedule and U.S. broadcast partner officially established, LIV Golf’s short-term future is finally taking shape. And how does that future look?
“We’re fully entrenched,” LIV CEO Greg Norman told Fox News. “We know where we’re going. We know what we’re doing.”
Before his first free weekend in months, Will Staeger’s vision was even more encouraging.
“We’re a rocket ship,” he said. “We’re about to take off.”
He’s right about one thing: the countdown has begun.