Rory McIlroy’s interview with TGL owner reveals clues about PGA Tour’s future
If you were watching CNBC around noon ET Monday, the image might have caught you by surprise: There, on either side of the screen, sat the prospective futures of the PGA Tour.
To the left was Rory McIlroy, the four-time major champion and de facto voice of the PGA Tour, sporting attentive eyes and a warm smile. To the right was McIlroy’s business partner, Tom Werner, Red Sox owner and Fenway Sports Group chairman and founder, wearing the same frog-logo knit sweater as his professional golf counterpart.
Officially, the two men were on CNBC to discuss their partnership with the TGL, McIlroy and Tiger Woods’ techy Tuesday night golf league that will soon feature many of the biggest faces on the PGA Tour. Werner is financially vested in the league as the principal owner of the league’s New England-based franchise, Boston Common Golf. On Monday, BCL had its team launch presser, which brought the squad’s owner (Werner) alongside its star player (McIlroy) for a short spot on The Halftime Report from Fenway Park.
The pair’s shared airtime, though, was much more interesting than a promotional carwash. Monday may have marked the first time that Werner and McIlroy have appeared together in public in an official capacity, but it isn’t the first time their names have been connected in recent weeks.
To recap: In June, the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund struck a “framework agreement” that created a new for-profit entity — PGA Tour Enterprises — to allow outside investment in the Tour. In the proposed agreement, the PIF would pump billions into the Tour in exchange for a piece of certain business interests, like media rights and sponsorships. In response to antitrust concerns, among other issues, the PIF and Tour have reportedly slowed negotiations considerably, while the Tour has reportedly begun shopping a multi-billion-dollar PGA Tour Enterprises investment to a series of big-name bidders.
Werner’s primary employer, sports business goliath Fenway Sports Group, has been heavily linked in conversations relating to its potentially taking a private equity stake in the PGA Tour — rumors that have only heated up in recent days. McIlroy, on the other hand, is one of six player directors on the Tour’s Policy Board who will likely be tasked with ratifying a potential big-name investor to shore up the Tour’s finances.
Even if the appearance was for a different venture, it didn’t take much dot-connecting to see a larger theme in the pair’s arrival on CNBC — a link that CNBC host Scott Wapner pounced on almost immediately in a question to Werner.
“It’s been reported recently that Fenway Sports Group recently made a large bid to invest in the PGA Tour,” Wapner wound up. “Can you confirm, in fact, that bid was made by Fenway Sports and how much it was for?”
Werner didn’t take the bait.
“We don’t like to talk about things that are currently in discussion,” he said. “Anything we can do to help Rory and the PGA [Tour], we’re happy to support.”
Wapner pressed on.
“Is there anything you can offer?”
“We just want to offer our support creatively to any of the ideas that are welling up,” Werner said cryptically. “But it’s really up to the players to decide the direction they want to go.”
Sensing Werner’s displeasure with the line of questioning, Wapner moved on, shifting the conversation back to the TGL. But the moment had still proved significant. Werner hadn’t denied making an offer to the Tour, nor had he denied his involvement with McIlroy in forming that offer. Add in the fact that Fenway’s offer reportedly includes Mets owner Steve Cohen and Falcons owner Arthur Blank — coincidentally the highly influential owners of both the Atlanta and New York TGL teams — and suddenly it seems there’s an awful lot of overlap between the negotiations for the future of the PGA Tour and the entertainment product being launched by its two biggest stars. (A product, mind you, in which the PGA Tour owns an equity stake.)
Werner was right: It is up to the players to decide the future of the PGA Tour. It’s far too early to know how the players will vote on any prospective agreement with a new investor, particularly if the all-important dozen-person policy board will ratify any potential sale. There are rumored to be a handful of prospective buyers — all big-name, big-money investors — who are in the bidding for the Tour stake; it would not be a surprise to see any of those rumored bidders emerge victorious.
But before entering into negotiations for a stake in the future of pro golf, it certainly helps to count the two biggest voices on the policy board — Woods and McIlroy — among your current business partners. Werner’s contingent has this backing along with the goodwill of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who was a Fenway executive before he joined the Tour.
“Follow the money” has proved a powerful axiom over these last two years in pro golf, and it may be useful again here. The bidding for the future of the PGA Tour is still a long way from the finish line, but right now the money seems to be running through, of all places, the TGL.
Neither Werner nor McIlroy spoke a peep of this on television screens across the U.S. early on Monday afternoon. But then again, they didn’t need to.
As they spoke shoulder-to-shoulder in glowing terms about the future of golf, their sweaters said it all.