Selling LIV Golf: Inside the upstart league’s campaign to build a fanbase

Messaging always matters in marketing, especially on a golf tour that is trying to gain traction while squashing any whiff of controversy.

“Hey, Phil,” calls a voice from the set. “Why root for the HyFlyers?”

It’s a mid-winter afternoon at a private club in Florida.

Standing by a practice green, ball at his feet, lob wedge in hand, film crew ringed around him, Phil Mickelson stares into the camera, his expression a mix of smile and smirk.

We’ve seen this look before: cocky, playful.

“Why root for the HyFlyers?” Mickelson says.

He waggles, swings.

We’ve seen this before, too. The long, fluid motion. The ball arcing high and landing softly near the cup.

Mickelson tilts his head and shrugs. “I mean…” he says, as in, you really have to ask?

He could do this all day. The flop shot. The banter. Turns out he might have to.

“Cut!” the director shouts. He wants another take.

About that question, though: Why root for the HyFlyers, the team Mickelson captains on the LIV Golf circuit?

LIV’s critics would tell you that there’s no good reason. From where they sit, the start-up league is a non-starter, with weak fields and a watered-down format. And don’t even get them started on the Saudi backing.

Haters gonna hate, LIV backers would shoot back. That’s the price of disruption.

Through whatever lens you view LIV, the breakaway league is about to kick off its second season, which LIV says is really its first season, last year having been what LIV CEO Greg Norman calls a “beta.”

A few things are different this time around. More events, for instance (14 instead of eight); new venues; fresh additions to the ranks, including Sebastian Munoz, Mito Pereira and Thomas Pieters; and a TV deal with the CW, which will broadcast the full 2023 LIV calendar, starting this Friday from El Camaleon Golf Club, in Mexico. 

Those certainties come at what is still a volatile time in the men’s professional game. Litigation is ongoing between LIV and both the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour. A federal antitrust investigation of the PGA Tour is underway. Questions loom over LIV’s eligibility for Official World Golf Ranking points, a crucial pathway into the majors and a seeming lynchpin to LIV’s long-term viability.

It’s an all-out battle.

And as in most territorial conflicts, part of the fight is for hearts and minds.

Which brings us back to this January afternoon, at the Dye Preserve, in Jupiter, Fla., one of two consecutive media and marketing days that LIV has set aside to marshal its forces and hone its message.

Over this time, all 12 of LIV’s team captains will cycle through: Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Brooks Koepka, Kevin Na, Joaquin Niemann, Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, Cameron Smith and Bubba Watson.

Norman will be on hand as well.

TV spots will be shot. Social media content captured. Interviews conducted.

One of the goals in this buzz-building effort is to counter what LIV sees as the unfair ways in which its players have been painted.

“There were so many attempts last year to villainize these guys,” a LIV spokesperson says. “They are real people who are also some of the greatest players in the world. We’re looking to show their human sides.”

She is sitting on a porch behind the clubhouse, taking in the bustle of a big production. Caterers and key grips are hustling here and there.

On the patio, Oosthuizen is standing by a white board, fielding prompts from LIV’s social media team.

Hey, Louis. Show us your team’s victory dance.

Oosthuizen smiles and fidgets. Dancing isn’t his thing. Still, he musters up a move — a torso wriggle with his fists clenched at his chest — worthy of the world’s most awkward wedding party. Everyone seems relieved when it’s over, especially Oosthuizen.

But if he’s done dancing, he’s not finished singing for his supper. More prompts follow.

What celebrity best embodies your team?


Chuck Norris, Oosthuizen says.

Draw your team logo for us.

His team is Stinger, its logo an S-shaped scorpion tail. Using a Sharpie on the white board, Oosthuizen starts sketching, steps back and laughs. “It looks like a swan,” he says.

Drawing and dancing skills aside, the session underscores the feature that LIV is selling hardest: its team format.

The Saudis, in theory, could float the league forever. But at some point, as Norman says, “our investor is expecting a return.”

The Saudis, in theory, could float the league forever. But at some point, as Norman says, “our investor is expecting a return.”

The path to profit, LIV believes, is by building fan loyalty around franchises, which, in turn, can be sold to sponsors. And one way to form that public allegiance is by asking Oosthuizen to do a jig.

There are other ways, of course. In the branding and composition of its 12 four-man teams lie hints of LIV’s broader strategy. As the Ryder Cup and other events have shown, geographic ties can be powerful draws in golf. Sure enough, several of LIV’s squads have a regional bent: all-Aussie, all-American, all-Spanish-speaking, and such. More of that kind of theming seems inevitable, assuming LIV can recruit the right component parts.

Around the globe, meanwhile, LIV is also after a younger-than-traditional golf audience. Hence music on the tee, shorts on its players, and names for its teams — Fire Balls, Crushers, Ripper, Range Goats — that smack of something between Marvel Comics and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

At the Dye Preserve, the ads and social-media snippets all hammer at the notion that the teams, and the individuals on them, are cool. The captains themselves speak to this, too. In sit-down interview after sit-down interview, Bubba, Bryson and Co. sound similar refrains (an exception is Mickelson, who declines to be interviewed) when explaining their decision to join LIV. The lavish contracts didn’t hurt, they concede. But they were also lured by the prospect of playing for a team while expanding golf’s appeal.

In DeChambeau’s account, “It’s so cool hearing ‘Go Crushers’ out there. And it’s not just me. I feel like I’ve got a band of brothers out there.”

As Watson tells it, he was inspired to join the circuit last year when, while sitting at home rehabbing his knee, he wound up tuning in to a LIV event on YouTube with his kids.

“And that’s what hit me,” he says. “A 10-year-old and an 8-year-old are watching this, and they know the Aces. They don’t know the people. But they know the flip-flop of who’s winning, who’s losing. I called my manager right from bed and said, ‘Hey, man, is it too late? I know they asked me, and I’ve been dragging my feet. I want in now.’”

Bubba Watson in a recent LIV Golf promotion. LIV Golf

No matter how they’re swinging, LIV golfers can all hit talking points.

That’s true of big-time athletes in nearly every sport, of course. On the PGA Tour, media coaching is standard practice. Messaging matters, but perhaps more so on a fledgling circuit that is trying to gain traction while squashing any whiff of controversy.

In some respects, public image-making is a modern science. But much of it comes down to old-fashioned common sense, says Craig Esherick, associate director of the Center for Sport Management at George Mason University. The key, Esherick says, is that communications pass the smell test. Hogwash, after all, has a distinctive scent.

This became an issue for LIV last year when some of its players tried to downplay the extent to which money had factored into their decision to sign up with the circuit.

“Most people had the same reaction,” Esherick says. “We’re not idiots. Please, just stop.”

More recently, Esherick says, it seems that LIV has learned its lesson: You can’t say it’s not about the money. Ask the players now, and no one denies the significance of huge signing bonuses and $25 million purses. That has the benefit of being honest. And yet it’s not a great sell on its own. Rich athletes getting richer does not arouse fan interest. Excitement needs to come from something else.

At the Dye Preserve, the social-media content gathering continues. Kevin Na tells the cameras that The Rock is the celebrity who best embodies his team, the Iron Heads. Sergio Garcia does a passable job sketching the Fire Balls logo: a comet with sunglasses, trailing flames.

The filming of TV spots continues, too, each ad meant to highlight a player’s talent or personality. There’s one with DeChambeau, bombing drives. Another with Ian Poulter, cracking droll jokes with Henrik Stenson. A third with Cameron Smith, facing a lengthy putt.

By his own admission, Smith is not much of an actor. But, boy, can he roll it. In take after take, he follows the script — “Commit to Ripper, kids, because drives are for show but putts are for dough” — syncing up his lines with his ball as it drops into the cup.

With Phil Mickelson, something similar unfolds.

“Cut,” the director calls after each of Mickelson’s flop shots, before asking his star to test out different lines and facial expressions. Upward of an hour passes before they get the look and feel they want.

Along with other LIV ads, including ones you’ll find on this site, that spot is now airing on the CW, running in repeat to tease this Friday’s start of the new season.

Why root for the HyFlyers? Or any of the other teams, for that matter?

Fair question.

Time will tell if LIV has furnished a persuasive response.

Josh Sens Contributor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.