LIV from London, It’s a Puttering Mess

28 March 2023

Sports Business

Commercial / Contracts



Golf has lived a relatively glamorous and charmed lifestyle since its humble 15th century Scottish origins. While most other professional sports appear to be perpetually embroiled in player scandals of some sort, golf has largely avoided this. That is, of course, if you exclude example’s like Phil Mickelson’s insider-trading, Tiger Woods’s dalliances, and Dustin Johnson’s affinity for nose candy. “Sometimes these scandals are directly related to what happens on the course and bring the game into disrepute.” But for the most part, these lifestyles of the rich and famous occur outside the sport. With golf’s sedate background resembling one of its picturesque courses. But this week will see one of the biggest shakeups in golf history, with the teeing off of the controversial LIV Golf International Series (“LIV”) on Thursday, June 9, 2022.


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An Attempt to EnLIVen the Sport


Jointly with the United States Golf Association (“USGA”), the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is the governing body for the sport of golf worldwide. The PGA Tour (the “PGA”) is the organizer of the main professional golf tours played by men in the United States and North America. The PGA is around 92 years old, but the roots of its existence can be traced back to 1916. For much of its existence, the PGA world’s premier membership organization for touring professional golfers and co-sanctioner of various tournaments. The interplay between the PGA and USGA is such that, “the PGA is a golf tour and the USGA is the governing body that oversees the PGA tour, ensuring that proper rules are in place to protect the integrity of the sport.” For much of golf’s history this has been the established hegemony. Until now.


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Stylizing itself after the Roman numeral for 54, the score for birdying every hole on a par-72 course, LIV is an upstart league seeking to offer golfers an alternative to participating on the PGA. It is led by Australia’s former golf star Greg Norman, who is CEO of LIV’s investment arm, LIV Golf Investments. A total of $255 million in prize money is up for grabs across eight tournaments. Crucially, every participant will receive a check, with the last-place finisher at any tournament set to receive $120,000.


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The eight-tournament circuit includes some of the world’s most scenic cities: Portland (Oregon), New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, Bangkok, Miami, and Saudi Arabia.


If that last name caught your eye because it is a country and not a city, good. Because Saudi Arabia’s involvement in LIV is one of the reasons behind why there has been so much uproar.


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Riling by Riyadh


The Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund, is worth $620 billion. It is the majority owner of LIV Golf Investments, and poured an estimated $2 billion into LIV. The idea was to lure enough top PGA golfers to create a “Saudi-backed super league.” And for the most part, it appeared to work.


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On Tuesday, May 31, LIV published its initial participants list of 42. Some of the top names include: Branden Grace, Matt Jones, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford. And, Dustin Johnson. On Monday, June 6, the biggest headliner arrived in the form of Phil MickelsonSportico indicated that the contractual fees for Mickelson and Johnson were $200 million and $125 million, respectively.


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Despite the mass execution of 81 people in one day in 2022, and a litany of other human rights violations, the lure of the purse was simply too great for some of the world’s top golfer. Aside from Tiger Woods, who allegedly turned down a $1 billion offer to join LIV.  But could these participants, who are members of the PGA, play in LIV?


What Did They Say?


The PGA issued a statement on June 1 reiterating that its members have not been authorized to participate in the breakaway series, and that "members who violate the Tournament Regulations are subject to disciplinary action."


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Rather than face possible sanctions, some golfers resigned from the PGA altogether, these included: Johnson, Oosthuizen, Na, Garcia, Schwartzel and Brandon Grace.


The USGA released a clarification around golfers who participate in LIV and their ability to play in the 2022 U.S. Open: "We pride ourselves in being the most open championship in the world and the players who have earned the right to compete in this year's championship, both via exemption and qualifying, will have the opportunity to do so.  Our field criteria were set prior to entries opening earlier this year and it's not appropriate, nor fair to competitors, to change criteria once established."


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"Regarding players who may choose to play in London this week, we simply asked ourselves this question should a player who had earned his way into the 2022 U.S. Open, via our published field criteria, be pulled out of the field as a result of his decision to play in another event? And we ultimately decided that they should not."


This decision was clarified to mean that "[it] should not be construed as the USGA supporting an alternative organizing entity, nor supportive of any individual player actions or comments. . .."


What’s Next?


LIV is set to conclude with a team championship at the, equally controversial, Trump National Doral Miami course.


From there, Norman has indicated that the intent is to increase the event to 14. As the number of events increases, so too will the possibility for scheduling conflicts with events on the PGA.


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The viability of any upstart looking to upset an established hegemony rests on two things: financial sustainability and ability to attract star names. The former will not seem to be an issue, with the PIC’s seemingly endless pool of money. It was this aspect which famously derailed the initial version of the United States Football League. A lengthy and expensive antitrust suit against the NFL culminated in a damages of $3.76 (including interest) and the collapse of the league.  


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Player attraction will center around not only cash incentives, but also player eligibility concerns and the channels of distribution for delivering LIV to consumers. The traditional networks will likely shy away, given their long-standing partnerships with the PGA. However, with the rise in over-the-top media services like YouTube, Facebook and Amazon Video, LIV may be able to forgo conventional broadcasting avenues.


Hugh Kellenberger posits that there will “inevitably be lawsuits that will determine a professional golfer’s ability to play on both tours.” Such a suit, much like the USFL before it, could be grounded in an antitrust (competition law) suit, focusing on the existence of a possible monopoly market for elite-level golfers. Despite this position, “[t]he [PGA]’s own eligibility rules have also withstood legal scrutiny. In Toscano v. PGA Tour, the [PGA] defeated a $9 million antitrust lawsuit brought by a golfer who insisted the senior tournament cut was too restrictive.”


For now it is merely a waiting game to see how LIV is received, and how many more top golfers decide to come on board.


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In an era of pervasive sportswashing practices by state-owned entities, LIV will merely join a long list of other examples. Romanticism, in the form of a green jacket, will always exist for professional golfers, but money also talks. The U.S. Open has the biggest purse of the four majors standing at $12.5 million, for comparison LIV’s stands at $20 million for each event. There exists the very real possibility that LIV can stand to increase that. Barney Stinson famously gave four words to live by: “New is always better.” In this case, LIV may not necessarily be better, but it can be bigger. And that just may be enough to render its existence in the golfing landscape as par for the course.


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- By Shane Wafer And Nick Flowers