Thursday September 28, 2023

LIV Has Disrupted Golf, But Will It Ever Be Popular?

  • The Saudi-backed tour is loud and flashy, but can it catch on?
  • Dustin Johnson won LIV Golf's first-ever playoff at its Boston event.
Richard Cashin-USA TODAY Sports
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The LIV Golf Invitational Boston began with Greg Norman falling from the sky.

The golf tour’s 67-year-old CEO and commissioner jumped from a plane with the Frog-X Navy SEAL Parachute Team, landing just before the first tee, where an overzealous gallery greeted him.

It’s not unusual to see that type of stunt performed at other sports and entertainment events — but it’s completely new territory for a golf course.

There are a lot of uncommon sights at a LIV Golf event.

  • Music booms at several holes.
  • Performers hula-hoop and walk on stilts.
  • Norman throws beers to spectators on the 18th green from his perch at Club 54, a lavish premium fan spot.
  • After an F1-esque podium ceremony, Diplo plays a concert.

But Sunday also generated some electricity on the course itself.

Dustin Johnson — one of LIV’s first major acquisitions — prevailed in the league’s first-ever playoff over newcomers Joaquin Niemann and Anirban Lahiri, bombing a drive down the 18th fairway and sending home a tough eagle putt for the win.

The spectacle — on or off the course — is all part of the plan to create a different kind of golf product that eschews antiquated, country club culture.

“It is not like a classic golf event, and it’s not intended to be,” says LIV Golf president and COO Atul Khosla. “Just because it has been played in a particular fashion for X amount of time, doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it.”

Despite the noise, there aren’t that many eyeballs: Only about 166,000 people were watching on YouTube as the playoff began, and each of LIV’s first four tournaments have averaged a little more than 25,000 fans per event, according to data provided to FOS from the league.

Does LIV Golf have a place in the pro sports landscape?

A Golf Festival

LIV’s limited early exposure is by design, its decision-makers claim.

The league’s goal this season — which began at London’s Centurion Club in June and finishes at Trump National Doral Miami in October — was to gather as much golf talent as possible and put it on display as a viable sports product.

“We looked at this year as that ‘beta year’ where we were gonna learn and test and learn again,” Khosla says. “We absolutely needed to put the product out — because it was drastically different from what has come before — so that everybody could touch it, feel it, and see it.”

What spectators and media saw on the ground in Bolton, Massachusetts, was certainly a departure from a traditional pro golf event.

It began with a shotgun start, where every group begins at a different hole and tees off at the same time. While sometimes confusing, it’s meant to condense a golf tournament from the traditional eight or nine hours into a more palatable four or five.

Then, of course, there was the dance music — both on-course and in the fan village — that kept the energy high.

Many fans seemed to like what they were seeing.

“We’re just here to enjoy the golf, enjoy the talent,” said one spectator, who added that the action was good compared to what he had seen at the U.S. Open, held in June in nearby Brookline.

“I was debating whether or not to come, but I’m having so much fun,” a younger fan said to his friends as they traversed the course.

Following June’s Open, many fans remarked that they were just happy to see more high-level golf in Massachusetts: The PGA Tour pulled the state’s annual FedEx Cup Playoffs event this season, and it’s unclear if it will return.

Indeed, part of LIV’s plan is to hit many of the markets the Tour is neglecting — whether in the United States or outside.

Global Team-Building

LIV’s global strategy is appealing for players, too.

Several newcomers at Boston represented key international markets for LIV.

  • Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman (Australia)
  • Joaquin Niemann (Chile)
  • Anirban Lahiri (India)

While future schedules haven’t been announced, those countries and their surrounding regions are expected to be part of LIV’s plans going forward.

“We are working on it,” Smith said in his introductory press conference, “to bring this new, exciting format to Australia. I think it will be embraced.”

Smith and Leishman are half of the all-Australian Punch GC — just one of 12 teams competing in LIV this season.

Many players have lauded the team format in public comments about LIV. From a league office perspective, it’s about value creation.

Khosla says that many players have equity in their teams as part of their contracts, each team is building its own staff — and in the future, the league expects each team to have its own investors.

“The concept is not new, it just has not been applied to golf,” he says. “[We’re] launching 12 brands, 12 teams. Fans might want to follow a golf team tomorrow.”

What stands out most to the players, however, is the experience of actually playing these events.

  • On-course music, the ability to wear shorts, and the enthusiasm of the crowds are small details that go a long way toward making golfers feel comfortable.
  • “I wish there was music on every hole,” said Talor Gooch. “When every golfer is at home just golfing with [their] buddies, we all have music going.”
  • “Out here, it just feels like everyone is having a really good time,” Matthew Wolff said after hitting the first hole-in-one in LIV history.

“It feels like the course has a bit of a heartbeat,” said Smith after his first round.

Filthy Rich

Of course, the massive contracts haven’t hurt.

In fact, much of what LIV has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time is the result of the virtually unlimited resources it receives from the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

  • With $620 billion in assets under management, the PIF is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds.
  • LIV launched its 2022 season with more than $400 million in seed money.
  • It announced another $2 billion investment in May that will be used to fund future seasons.

Given Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights violations and violence against journalists, the source of LIV’s finances has struck a chord with many, evoking both public and private protest.

Most notably, families of 9/11 victims have begun protesting at LIV events and through television ads (though the source of their funding has come into question).

Whether or not you disagree with the way Saudi Arabia operates, the reality is that the country’s influence is pervasive throughout the American economy — even regarding the PGA Tour.

  • Blackstone, Lucid, and Uber are all among PIF’s most notable investments.
  • Many prominent PGA Tour partners — including BMW, Rolex, and Tiffany & Co. — do business in the KSA and have retail locations there.

“There are 23-plus sponsors of the PGA Tour that do multi-billion dollars of business in Saudi as well,” says Khosla. “We are not here telling them they shouldn’t do that. It’s a global economy.”

But because LIV is so brash with the money — with players now openly discussing their massive contracts and the league flaunting its massive payouts — the source feels more conspicuous.

Golf’s Great Test

The Tour must think LIV’s model is working; it made significant changes to its pay structure and leaned into its more youth-facing products in the wake of LIV’s emergence.

“It’s a great time to be a professional golfer,” Khosla says. “And it’s a great time to be a golf fan.”

In the long run, LIV believes there’s enough space for both enterprises.

“The market is big enough for multiple formats to exist and to thrive because I think that grows the game for everybody and brings new fans in,” says Khosla.

Still, Dustin Johnson’s dramatic victory should have been a turning point for LIV, the moment where everyone began taking it seriously as a professional sports league.

And yet, without a TV deal (Khosla claims the league is “in the thick of conversations”), LIV will remain relegated to a glorified exhibition with some big-name talent — though as one of LIV’s biggest beneficiaries, Pat Perez, makes sure to note, “Exhibition matches don’t pay $4.75 million.”

For now, maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not people are watching. The reality is that if LIV Golf can maintain its momentum when it gets its TV deal, it will continue to disrupt the centuries-old game — for better or worse.

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