Monday December 4, 2023

LIV Is Trying To Become The F1 Of Golf

  • The breakaway league is positioning itself as the flashier F1 to the PGA Tour’s provincial NASCAR.
  • There’s a lot to like business-wise about LIV’s approach, but still no TV deal and a bad image.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
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A video of bad boy LIV golfer Pat Perez singing, “We Are the Champions,” on the tour’s luxury plane recently went viral. The party-hearty scene illustrated the difference between the rebel LIV Golf and the staid PGA Tour.

Like glamorous F1 drivers, LIV golfers have been treated like rock stars, with opulent accommodations, champagne and a winner’s podium.

Like F1 races, LIV events have been presented commercial-free. A rotating scoreboard down the left side of the screen is straight out of the F1 TV handbook.

And like the international F1 circus, LIV events have a Euro-chic vibe, complete with fan festivals and “après-golf” concerts.

Four months since its official debut, the breakaway golf league is positioning itself as the faster, flashier, more global F1 to the Tour’s provincial NASCAR.

LIV’s motto says it all: “Golf, but louder.” In its increasingly bitter competition with the PGA Tour, it’s a brand positioning that could pay off for the Saudi-backed circuit led by Chief Executive Officer Greg Norman.

The competition between the breakaway LIV and established PGA Tour has split the golf industry. If LIV can generate anything close to F1’s mojo and popularity among younger fans, the breakaway league could become a global competitor to the U.S.-based PGA Tour and DP World Tour (the former European Tour).

For those who find PGA Tour telecasts too slow and too boring, LIV offers “supercharged” golf:

  • Shorter Tournaments: Eight three-day events and no cuts.
  • Team Golf: 12 teams of four players, with names like “Smash,” “Crushers,” and “Hy Flyers. All will receive a cut of a combined $50 million prize fund.
  • Bigger Purses: Each regular-season event offers a purse of $25 million. The individual champ at the end of the season will collect a cool $30 million.

Even in the lucrative world of pro sports, the contracts being thrown at LIV’s biggest names are impressive.

The circuit’s paying 52-year old Mickelson $200 million — and over $100 million to young guns like Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. 

With no cut, young Andy Ogletree still earned $120,000 for finishing dead last at LIV’s inaugural event in London.

Viability of the Product

Despite the controversy, there’s a lot to like business-wise about LIV’s new approach, according to Peter Kostis, the former CBS Sports golf analyst.

There’s more action in less time. LIV’s three-day tournaments are more of a “sprint,” he said. The shotgun starts “condense” the golf day.

“LIV is a different breed of dog. In some ways, it fits into the millennial lifestyle,” Kostis said. “Everybody wants to do everything quicker, shorter, and faster.” 

  • The famed golf coach expects LIV’s 12 teams to attract corporate sponsors. 
  • If they’re smart, they’ll wear jerseys with their sponsor names on the front, ala pro soccer teams.
  • Kostis believes the team-golf format makes LIV “ripe” for the brave new sports world of sports betting — especially the commercial-free streams.

But there’s still the lack of a TV deal in the U.S. market. 

CBS, NBC, ESPN, and Golf Channel all have long-term agreements with the PGA Tour. That leaves Fox Sports, which sacked Norman as its lead commentator in 2016. So that’s probably a no-go. 

LIV’s events are streamed on YouTube, Facebook, and its own web site. Look for a future deal with a big streamer like DAZN, Amazon, or Apple.

“When you look at the current state of televised golf, the amount of promos that all the networks run make the shows virtually unwatchable. It’s a joke how cluttered the telecasts are,” Kostis said. 

“While I may have issues with the announce team LIV Golf has, the commercial-free aspect of it is exactly what golfers are asking for. If they were to come up with a first-class announce team for Amazon, or whatever streaming service they’re on, and make it commercial-free, I think that would be a huge selling point to the golfing public.”

Blunders On Both Sides

Both the Tour and LIV paint the other as villains. But both organizations have made blunders that created the current stalemate. 

Kostis believes the PGA Tour did “a huge disservice to its members” by refusing to negotiate with LIV or take Norman’s calls. The Tour’s hardass approach backfired — sparking a mutiny by disgruntled players who might have stayed. 

On the other hand, Mickelson’s notorious description of the Saudis as “scary motherf***ers” nearly sank LIV from the get-go. 

From that point on, the media painted LIV players as greedy sellouts, indifferent to Saudi Arabia’s attempt to “sportswash” its history of human rights abuses. 

LIV players haven’t done themselves any favors since, embarrassing themselves in awkward press conferences and failing to come up with any real reason to join LIV except money.

While production values have been excellent for LIV’s first two streams, the announcers have come off too much like “shills” to Kostis’ way of thinking.

If LIV posts big losses, there’s no guarantee the fickle Saudis will continue to play sugar daddy. Mickelson and Co. would be left flapping in the breeze, and the power would shift back to the PGA and DP World Tours. Can you say lifetime bans?

Could Feuding Tours Eventually Merge?

PGA Tour golfers are independent contractors. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether the Tour is engaged in anti-competitive behavior as it battles LIV.

Yes, LIV and the PGA/DP Tours are trading body blows. But other rival sports leagues have put aside their differences and joined forces for sound business reasons.

The upstart AFL eventually merged with the established NFL in 1970. That deal transformed the NFL into the biggest force in sports and entertainment.

Six years later, the NBA absorbed the ABA’s four most popular teams to create another combined league.

These challengers also added something to their respective sports.

The AFL brought downfield passing to the run-happy NFL. The ABA popularized the three-point shot that now dominates the NBA.

Down the road, Kostis expects the Tour and LIV to work out a modus vivendi — as long as LIV keeps its eye on the ball. 

“They have to make the competition the most important thing — not the spectacle,” Kostis warns. “When they get that right, I think it’s going to be a pretty entertaining product.”

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