LIV Golf struggles with ratings as business model changes

In Year 2, LIV Golf is finding that keeping attention is more difficult than getting it.

Danny Lee won the last LIV event. Do you remember him? (Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports)
Danny Lee won the last LIV event. Do you remember him? (Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports)

It always seemed a bit too good to be true, didn’t it? Get paid untold millions to play less golf! But now, as LIV Golf enters its next phase, reality is apparently dawning on LIV’s players and management, and reality is a whole lot colder and harsher than the dream. A damning report and low ratings from the league’s second event of the season are showing the challenges LIV Golf faces as it seeks to go from disruptor to standalone, self-sustaining league.

LIV Golf’s first season comprised 10 no-cut, high-purse events. The result was so successful — from an attention-grabbing standpoint, at least — that LIV executed its 2024 plans in 2023, upping the schedule from 10 to 14 events. At the same time, LIV has been increasing the focus and emphasis on its four-man teams.

Combined, those two forces have LIV’s players a bit concerned, as the Fire Pit Collective reported from the tour’s second event in Tucson. Players have expressed some concern that their contracts were for 10 events and they’re now expected to play 14, and that money won by the team goes back into the team, rather than directly to the players themselves.

Although LIV is backed by the virtually limitless resources of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the stream of those resources to LIV apparently isn’t limitless. The Fire Pit noted the newly cost-conscious approaches to daily tour life, from travel expense cutbacks to small amenities like snacks.

None of this is a sign that LIV is anywhere close to failure; indeed, the team concept has real merit and could be — along with increased purses across the board — LIV’s lasting contribution to the game of golf. But it’s a sign that what got LIV to this point won’t get them any farther.

You can start a business based on disruption, but you can’t build one on it. The sharp-elbowed “Golf, But Louder” ethos of LIV earned it plenty of headlines in 2022, and deservedly so — LIV brought much-needed change to the sport. But shock value only goes so far, and the dual shocks of “wait, who signed with LIV?” and “Greg Norman said what?” lost their effectiveness over time.

LIV’s primary problem now is that many of its biggest draws — Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Cam Smith, Patrick Reed — have struggled so far this season. Johnson and Koepka won events last year, but are currently ranked 11th and 36th, respectively, on LIV’s points list. DeChambeau is 18th, Mickelson 39th.

With all due respect to the LIV season’s two winners, Charles Howell III and Danny Lee, LIV is suffering from a severe lack of star power at the top of the leaderboard. Through the year’s first two events, for instance, exactly one major winner ranks among LIV’s top 10 — Sergio Garcia at 10th. That’s good news for the Peter Uihleins and Carlos Ortizes of the tour, who are banking literal millions every week, but bad news for LIV’s attempts to break through to a wider audience.

LIV’s television numbers bear that out. The league’s tournaments are only shown on The CW through a revenue-sharing arrangement, and not even on certain major-market CW channels. As a result, according to Sports Business Journal, last week’s Tucson event averaged 284,000 viewers for Saturday and 274,000 viewers for Sunday. (Friday events are streamed online.) That’s down slightly from the first event at Mayakoba, which averaged 286,000 and 291,000 viewers respectively. Sports Business Journal also indicated that 24 percent of CW’s homes — a total of 29 million potential viewers — don’t even show the LIV broadcast during the 1-6 p.m. ET window.

However, LIV takes a very different view of the ratings. While LIV has not yet released its assessment of the Tucson ratings, the league reported a total audience of 3.2 million — 1.6 million on Saturday and 1.3 million on Sunday — for the Mayakoba event. LIV indicated that it used a combination of iSpot analytics, CW data and internal metrics to arrive at those numbers, which included an average viewership of 537,000 per day. Those numbers would put it ahead of MLS and the NHL, among other events, for that weekend.

LIV’s next event tees off next weekend in Orlando. After that, 18 LIV players will head to Augusta for the Masters. What happens there — particularly at the Champions Dinner, where LIV and PGA Tour players will share a dining room — will be a fascinating new chapter in golf’s ongoing civil war.