We’ve learned more about LIV’s future. How will it measure up?
It was December in the Bahamas when Tiger Woods, addressing the media for the first time in months, made an appeal to LIV Golf’s leadership.
“I think Greg has to go, first of all,” he said.
“Greg” referred, of course, to Greg Norman, the CEO of LIV, the Saudi-backed breakaway league. Woods’ comments echoed those of fellow PGA Tour loyalist Rory McIlroy, who had called for Norman to “exit stage left” just a couple weeks earlier.
Woods characterized Norman’s potential departure as an “opportunity” for the game. If LIV dropped its lawsuit and its controversial figurehead, perhaps there would be room for compromise.
“I think Greg’s got to leave and then we can eventually, hopefully, have a stay between the two lawsuits and figure something out,” he said.
But Norman hasn’t been fired. Quite the opposite; per Sports Illustrated, he has essentially been promoted. Norman will absorb the role of LIV’s managing director Majed Al-Sorour, who will take a step back as the circuit enters its second season.
In other words, it’s full steam ahead for the fledgling league and for its leader. LIV has a TV deal now. It has a schedule, too. We know its cast of characters. We know its business model. We have a grasp on the who, where, what and how much. Now it’s time to see how LIV measures up to the competition.
When PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan met with reporters in Hawaii, he was asked why he hadn’t made contact with Norman throughout this contentious process. Monahan first cited ongoing litigation but also implied that at this point, there isn’t much to say.
“We’re at a point now where it’s product versus product,” he said.
Product vs. product. He’s right. Since its inception, LIV has been spoken about in abstract terms; it’s been more an idea than a reality. But now it has evolved and the Tour has, too. It’s product vs. product. So how do the two leagues stack up?
While LIV has yet to finalize its list of players for the 2023 season, there’s no question that for now, the PGA Tour will maintain its edge in top-tier talent. LIV now boasts just one top-20 player — world No. 4 Cameron Smith — while the other 19 play full-time on the PGA Tour.
Sidenote: That’s somewhat misleading, given a few have slid down the rankings since ceasing to play a Tour schedule. But another illustration of talent distribution, DataGolf’s player rankings, places LIV’s top pros at No. 12 (Dustin Johnson) No. 17 (Smith, likely undervalued) and No. 21 (Joaquin Niemann). You get the idea.
But what LIV lacks in top-ranked pros it hopes to make up for in big names. If you’re willing to trade the world rankings in for name recognition, the league’s roll call sounds better: LIV snagged five of the top 10 players from the PGA Tour’s 2021 Player Impact Program — Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Bubba Watson — plus a bevy of past Masters champs and Ryder Cup stalwarts.
How you view LIV’s roster likely correlates with your general level of optimism for its future. You could make the case the league has enough star power to draw a crowd — both in real life and on TV. You could scoff at its roster compared to that of the PGA Tour, which boasts fields that are both stronger and deeper, and suggest it’ll never measure up. You could take a rising-tides approach and surmise that there’s enough intrigue for both leagues to coexist and even thrive. Or you could take a doomsday perspective and suggest that the sport isn’t strong enough to support both; a schism in pro golf is bad news for all involved.
Regardless, the balance of players is the most important piece of the entire equation. Most of ’em want to play against the very best, and so far the PGA Tour has retained its significant majority.
We don’t have to spend too much time here, but let’s revisit the basics: LIV exists because it’s backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which consists of more than a half-trillion (!) dollars. The league paid a boatload of money to its early commits — including nine-figure contracts to the likes of Mickelson, Johnson and DeChambeau — and will continue to offer monster purses going forward.
LIV announced over the summer that it would pay out $405 million over 14 tournaments in 2023, a significant per-tournament sum given its 48-player field sizes. The PGA Tour has upped its pay in an effort to keep pace and will dish out $460 million over 38 events between January and August 2023. It will pay an additional $100 million in Player Impact Program payments at the end of the season, a system designed to reward its biggest needle-movers.
In other words, there’s a lot of money flowing through the system. And while LIV promises more per event and per participant, the Tour has stepped up its payouts in an effort to keep top pros happy.
LIV’s schedule came out this week and it is as follows:
Feb. 24-26: El Camaleon Golf Course, Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
March 17-19: The Gallery Golf Club, Tucson, Ariz.
March 31-April 2: Orange County National (Crooked Cat), Orlando, Fla.
April 21-23: The Grange Golf Club, Adelaide, Australia
April 28-30: Sentosa Golf Club (Serapong Course), Singapore
May 12-14: Cedar Ridge Country Club, Broken Arrow, Okla.
May 26-28: Trump National Golf Club, Washington D.C.
June 30-July 2: Real Club Valderrama, Sotogrande, Spain
July 7-9: Centurion Club, London, England
Aug. 4-6: The Old White Course, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
Aug. 11-13: Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster, N.J.
Sept. 22-24: Rich Harvest Farms, Sugar Grove, Ill.
Oct. 20-22: Trump National Doral, Miami, Fla.
Nov. 3-5: Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
The schedule is notable for a number of reasons. It includes three former PGA Tour venues (El Camaleon, Greenbrier and Trump Doral) plus a longtime PGA Tour Q-School venue (Orange County National) and a longtime DP World Tour stop (Valderrama). It features three Trump properties. Eight of the 14 venues are in the United States. And the season concludes in early November at Royal Greens in Saudi Arabia, where things should really heat up for the season finale — literally. Jeddah’s average high temperatures approach the upper 90s that time of year.
As for how LIV events line up with PGA Tour events? Our Sean Zak laid it out:
It’s no surprise to see LIV taking on soft spots in the Tour’s calendar; their schedule doesn’t go head-to-head with any “designated events” until the playoffs in August.
There will certainly be weeks that there’s more star power in LIV fields than the Tour’s down weeks; that was an inevitability given its focus on designated events plus the fact that it holds a tournament every single week. The events in Spain and England will stand up well against the Rocket Mortgage and John Deere Classic.
There will be also plenty of clashing all season; Zak points out that six of LIV’s first 11 events are within a time zone of their Tour counterparts. And LIV’s event at Trump Bedminster runs up against the Tour’s first playoff event in Memphis. Product vs. product.
THE TV DEALS
LIV’s biggest announcement this week was its TV deal with broadcast network The CW. Last year the league aired for free on YouTube; this year it will remain free but will air on the CW app on Fridays before airing on the CW channel on the weekend.
While the CW isn’t paying LIV for its rights, it’s still taking a risk by taking on the controversial league as its first-ever live sports property. LIV is taking a risk, too; its “disruptor” identity aligned somewhat more naturally with YouTube’s younger audience than with a cable channel. But the CW is available in a large number of American homes; Norman crowed that its reach is “120 million households across the United States.” Nothing to shake a stick at.
Our James Colgan has more on that deal here, but this has been another Rorschach test for how you feel about LIV — it’s easy to make jokes about the league and the CW (please do!), but it’s also worth noting that a TV deal of any kind could represent a significant step forward.
LIV came onto the scene like a tornado; its disruption was swift and significant. The league represented a real departure from the status quo, too: 54 holes? Shotgun starts? Team events?
But perhaps the most interesting development of the schedule release and CW deal is that LIV is beginning to look somewhat … familiar. The league will be conducting stroke-play golf tournaments in the United States on the weekends on cable TV. That’s already true of the PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour and the DP World Tour and the Ladies European Tour and the PGA Tour Champions and the Korn Ferry Tour and the Epson Tour and so on. LIV’s format is slightly different, of course. And there’s no question that its effect on the sport has already been immense. But when it was on YouTube, among the most utilized platforms on Earth, that felt distinctly different. This feels more same-y; it will be interesting to see just how TV audiences divide their time if a Tour event is wrapping up at 5 p.m. on NBC while a LIV event is concluding just minutes later.
And even as LIV continues to look more like a version of the PGA Tour, the Tour continues to look a bit more like LIV, too, including the introduction of a team series for 2024; the TGL (TMRW Golf League) will be a series of Monday night matches in 2024 as teams of top pros play each other in a Florida stadium that will combine screen golf with real life golf and features everyone from Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy to Jordan Spieth to Justin Thomas to Adam Scott to Collin Morikawa, with more to come. That will feel distinctly different, that’s for sure.
Now we see how it plays out. We’ll get the first taste of a true PGA Tour “designated event” at the WM Phoenix Open the second week of February, when the wildest tournament on the schedule gets super-charged by having the best players in town plus an infusion of energy from the Super Bowl being in town that week. (It’s all good unless you want to book a hotel room.) The following week comes the next designated event, this one at the players’ favorite course on the schedule: Riviera Country Club.
The week after that, LIV makes its season debut at longtime PGA Tour host Mayakoba while most top Tour pros skip the Honda Classic. That week will represent what LIV has taken from the Tour in two ways: They’ve seized the tournament venue, for one thing. And Honda is stepping down after decades as title sponsor of the Tour’s West Palm-based event, which feels like a recognition that it has become a diluted Tour field. It’s easy to imagine golf fans flipping to the CW that week.
All the while, lawyers battle in the background. It seems like there’s news every day on the suits between the two leagues, which are each now probing deeper into the other’s activities. LIV wants access to Augusta National’s communications. The Tour wants access to the PIF’s communications. The OWGR continues to evaluate LIV’s application for points; Monahan has recused himself from the process, acknowledging a conflict of interest. The battle for who will be playing where will play out for a long time to come.
As each tour has focused on honing its upcoming season, the war of words between its competitors has gone rather dormant. Well, sort of. Just this week Norman took a shot at Woods, calling him “a mouthpiece for the PGA Tour” while adding that “he doesn’t know the facts.” And Patrick Reed, who has been suing everybody, didn’t take kindly to Rory McIlroy ignoring him on the range.
For a while some merging of tours felt inevitable. Now it seems like compromise will come only if court-ordered. LIV and the PGA Tour are trains on separate tracks, and they’re picking up steam. Will they merge? Or crash?