Wednesday December 6, 2023

Ryder Cup’s Future Hanging In The Balance Amid Saudi Disruption

  • A major change could hit the Ryder Cup amid pro golf’s new landscape.
  • The PGA Tour, DP World Tour, and Saudi PIF are still negotiating a definitive agreement.
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Golf’s worldwide governing structure is confusing, to say the least — especially when it comes to the Ryder Cup. 

This year’s event at Rome’s Marco Simone Golf & Country Club is expected to bring in record revenue for European organizers. That would be Ryder Cup Europe, which runs half of the biannual, three-day team spectacle. When the event is hosted in the U.S., that responsibility falls to the PGA of America.

For Ryder Cup Europe — a joint operation between the European Tour Group (60%), the PGA of Great Britain and Ireland (20%), and the Confederation of Professional Golf (20%) — the revenue spike it gets hosting the event is key.

When France welcomed the Ryder Cup in 2018, the European Tour Group reported $89.32 million in revenue for Ryder Cup Europe — more than 21% of the European Tour Group’s total $409.8 million revenue haul that year.

This weekend, total attendance is expected to reach 250,000 after Ryder Cup Europe’s first-ever ticketing ballot system was oversubscribed sevenfold. It’s “the biggest build we’ve ever had” in Europe, Ryder Cup executive director Guy Kinnings told Front Office Sports.

Marco Simone has hosted the Italian Open several times on the European Tour Group-operated DP World Tour and is great for fans on site, but golf pundits have criticized Ryder Cup Europe’s selection of venues, which recently have been too often based on dollars rather than course design.

Still, the 2023 event has seen a 153% increase in sponsorship revenue compared to 2018 in Paris. However, questions are starting to rise about the Ryder Cup’s future, particularly about the operations of Ryder Cup Europe.

Future On Hold

Like the rest of the pro game, the Ryder Cup has felt the disruptive impact of LIV Golf, and the tentative truce between the Saudi-backed series and the PGA Tour — still to be legally approved — hasn’t quite settled the matter of team selection.

On Team USA, Brooks Koepka was selected by captain Zach Johnson, but fellow LIV members and 2021 Ryder Cup teammates like Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau didn’t make the squad. On the European side, Luke Donald was subbed in as captain after Henrik Stenson opted to join LIV. 

Additionally, elder statesmen on both sides like Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, and Ian Poulter aren’t present — they otherwise would have likely served as assistant captains at minimum. “The landscape in golf is ever-changing and more dynamic,” Rory McIlroy said this week. “And we’ll see what happens and whether they will be part of it in the future.”

Looming even bigger than the inclusion of LIV golfers is the commercial business of the Ryder Cup in Europe.

This week, Endeavor and Fenway Sports Group emerged as potential alternative PGA Tour investors to the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. But if the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, and PIF reach a definitive agreement, the newly formed PGA Tour Enterprises entity would have control of the DP World Tour’s commercial operations, which include the 60% stake in Ryder Cup Europe. That means Ryder Cup Europe would be majority-controlled by a company with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan as CEO and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan as chairman.

For now, executives from Ryder Cup Europe, the PGA of America, and even U.S. media rights holder NBC Sports have told FOS there is nothing to worry about here. “We will always protect the [Ryder Cup’s] unique Europeanness,” said Kinnings, who also serves as chief commercial officer for the European Tour Group. 

The PGA Tour, which currently doesn’t have a stake in the Ryder Cup, hasn’t commented on much related to the PIF deal while negotiations play out. Still, it seems counterintuitive for a company led by the U.S.-based PGA Tour’s top official to be in charge of European operations.

A Rare Showcase

Despite any present and future conflicts, the Ryder Cup remains one of the most prestigious and popular events in golf.

NBC Sports is paying a reported $440 million over 15 years for U.S. rights to the event — $55 million for each 72-hour slice of team action. “The fact that you wait every two years and it is only three days makes the concentration of those three days that much stronger,” NBC Sports executive vice president of golf Tom Knapp told FOS.

NBC exceeded its sponsorship and ad sales goals for this edition, which lead network golf analyst Paul Azinger says is 10 times what it was when he played in the event. “In ’91, the president of NBC was wondering why it was on his TV,” he recalled.

Once the final putt drops in Rome, attention will shift to 2025, when the Ryder Cup will head to New York for a taste of the beloved — and feared — Bethpage Black Golf Course, a previous U.S. Open and PGA Championship host. In 2027, the event heads to Ireland — Ryder Cup Europe hopes to announce a 2031 host by the end of this year, telling FOS it has interest from multiple European governments. 

But with the bombshell PGA Tour-PIF agreement moving towards official status, the bigger questions are what professional golf will look like in the coming years — and how the Ryder Cup will reflect those changes.

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