Sportswashing and the New Game in Town
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The game of golf has swiftly picked up steam since the pandemic began over 2 years ago—as it was one of the few sports that requires no physical contact, is played outdoors, and there is no sharing of equipment—unless you let your buddy borrow your driver after witnessing you hit a 300-yard bomb.
However, even these self-isolated features of the game didn’t stop most clubs from putting foam noodles in the cups so people weren’t grabbing the flagstick and spreading the ‘Rona—because science. To this day it is still arguably one of the dumbest and laughable responses to stopping the spread—but I guess it did help my back so we will allow it.
While the pandemic was the catalyst to reinvigorate and renew a love for the game, a more recent event kicked off this week that turned the game of golf on its head with unknown impacts for years to come.
The LIV Golf tour kicked off its inaugural event (of 7 regular season events) with a few high profile names such as Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, and Sergio Garcia defecting from the PGA Tour. It was recently reported that Patrick Reed and Bryson Dechambeau will also be joining the new league soon.
The format is set up for 48 players on 4 teams where there are guaranteed payouts for individual and team scores—the first time this arrangement has been tried. Each of the 12 teams has a captain that chooses the remaining 3 players via a snake draft before each event begins. A few additional differences to the PGA Tour regular season format are the shotgun start (meaning every group of players will start on a different hole so that they all finish simultaneously), the 54-hole setup in contrast to the PGAs 72-hole format, and no cuts for the LIV Golf players.
This all sounds great so far. Live scoring, course heat maps, team and individual scores, 4-5 hour window—sign me up.
So why has this new league garnered so much criticism by the PGA Tour and golf purists?
Well for one, the players who joined LIV are getting PAID big time. Here is the prize purse for the first event that kicked off Thursday morning at London’s Centurion Club. I’d love to shoot 85 for three straight days and make $120k.
It’s great that the players on LIV are making guaranteed money with no cuts. If you miss a cut on the PGA Tour you don’t make a dime. Some argue this is still a good thing as it reiterates the meritocracy. But comparing it to bench players in other major sports makes it look borderline criminal. Imagine being the best in the world then “working” a few days for free because you didn’t have your best stuff. Better luck, try again next time.
Jack Raines discussed golfer's pay further in a new post, mentioning golfers don't have leverage, because they lack both a players union and an alternative league.
The problem expressed by many isn’t the amount of money being distributed out but rather where the source of funds is coming from. The LIV Golf tour is backed by a huge investment from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF)—which has a $620B war chest according to the FT. Saudi Arabia has been publicly criticized for its poor human rights record amongst other atrocities.
CEO Greg Norman recently secured a backstop of $2B from the PIF which would fund LIV Golf for years to come—even with the large signing bonuses and tournament payouts and no real business plan.
There’s actually a word that describes what we are witnessing and it’s not the first time it’s been done. That word is sportswashing. Sportswashing is when a government or group tries to garner goodwill and repair a tarnished reputation through the use of sports. So far it’s working. Everyone has a price.
Norman doesn’t see it as sportswashing but rather as a way to turn around a country for the future generations that want a clean slate and a brighter future. He went on further to discuss other Saudi investments in startups and companies that Americans love to use yet refuse to boycott after “following the money”:
Whether the money is coming from blood or oil or both, it’s a tough look for any player who accepts it while turning a blind eye. Watching a few of the pre-tournament interviews, it was eye-opening how many of the players were clearly uncoached on how to respond to taking this tainted money.
Moreover, you’d think that some of the players who’ve defected already have net worths in the tens or hundreds of millions would have chosen morals over money. It’s easy to say what you would do until offered a blank check. Rory McIlroy (who just won this week’s RBC Canadian Open and won it back-to-back) had his own thoughts on the matter.
It is unfortunate that this new league couldn’t have been backed by “cleaner” money from the likes of an American billionaire such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or Jeff Bezos. Then I believe the PGA Tour wouldn’t really have a leg to stand on with regards to how it currently pays the players or operates their league.
The PGA Tour has responded critically to the new tour and players who defected by banning them from playing both tours. It is still unclear if the LIV players will still be allowed to accrue points in the Official World Golf Rankings as well as play in the major championships. Regardless, I’m sure the defectors are extremely distraught and will wipe their tears with the cases of $100 bills.
As Kyle Porter from CBS put it:
Dustin Johnson signed a $150m deal to defect and it’s reported that Bryson Dechambeau is being paid $100m to join. This is huge money for golfers. For reference, this is more money than Tiger Woods made in his entire golfing career (not including sponsorships).
As LIV Golf tees off for the first time this morning, a look at just a portion of the tour's spending:
➖ Bryson DeChambeau, $100M+
➖ Dustin Johnson, $125M
➖ Phil Mickelson, $200M
Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a nearly $1 billion deal to join the series.
— Front Office Sports (@FOS)
Jun 9, 2022
Another problem noted by many is the dilution of the game. When you think about any major sports league, whether it’s the NBA, NFL, MLB or other, they are known as the premier league where the best in the world come to play. LIV Golf wants to be that competitor but unless it attracts the best golfers in the world (via more boatloads of tainted money) it will continue to be subpar to the competitiveness of the PGA Tour.
The LIV Golf slogan of “Golf, but louder.” is a feeble attempt of refreshing and rebranding a sport that to most is considered extremely boring to watch. If you want golf but louder just go to the Waste Management Open in Phoenix or go play a muni course and drink 50 beers.
After watching the kickoff event, my initial take is LIV Golf appears to be a mashup of the PGA, XFL (has-beens and never-was), and F1 (concerts, cool, and how do you do fellow kids vibe). While it has the possibility of being entertaining, we won’t know how sticky it will be to viewers yet. We want to see the best in the world compete against each other on one main stage, not Charl Schwartzel and Hennie Du Plessis duke it out for $4m. No matter how many PGA Tour players eventually defect, it will never take away the spirit and excitement and legacy of golf’s major tournaments.
- The team format is actually an interesting twist for the weekend warriors who are used to playing in scrambles and other team formats.
- The shotgun start is good because everyone starts and ends at the same time. This is a much more interesting format to those who don’t feel compelled to watch 10 hours of golf and follow specific groups.
- The competition and deep pocketbooks of the Saudis and potentially other new investors could force the hand of the PGA to update some of their Draconian and conservative values that many players (especially Phil Mickelson) have complained about over the years.
- Dilution of the top golf league in the world. While at the moment LIV Golf is mostly comprised of lesser known players or ones past their prime, it nonetheless detracts from the activities taking place on the PGA Tour.
- Morals vs Money. The tainted source of funds gives the PGA Tour the moral high ground.
- It's distracting to all players and viewers involved. The bans handed down by the PGA (and future major championships?) will likely be taken to court.
Undoubtedly, the PGA Tour needs more competition and an updated business model for the times and to keep the sport moving for the next 100 years. LIV Golf is unlikely to ultimately be that answer but we won’t know until we see the next few events (and years to come) play out.
Competition is good. Nonetheless, many have found the new format enjoyable to watch. More shots. Less talking. Less commercials.
At the end of the day, money can't buy glory.