Where did the LIV Golf tournament go to die? Fox.
If that joke didn’t scan for you, it’s likely you haven’t been following the sporting news, which has teemed all summer with stories about Saudi Arabia’s new professional golf circuit. Even though LIV has bid away some of the PGA Tour’s top stars, it carries a taint for many because it’s backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund and because Donald Trump, a big LIV supporter and a course owner, is hosting some of its tournaments.
This guilt by association has made LIV a bit of a public relations disaster, with accusations flying that the tour is a Saudi attempt to “sportswash” their execrable human-rightsrecord with long, green drives and short, dramatic putts. LIV has proved to be such a bad idea that it has yet to win a major TV network contract. But that’s likely about to change. According to Golfweek, the tour seems close to a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports 1 cable channel, but the deal comes with a catch: Instead of Fox paying LIV to air tournaments, which is the sports entertainment norm, LIV will be paying Fox. (The last sports business that paid to have its events broadcast was the Alliance of American Football, and we know how that ended.) Plus, LIV will have to sell the ad slots, not Fox, and produce the shows.
What possessed the Saudis to start a tour, and why are they paying to air their product when the PGA Tour collects $700 million a year from broadcasters for a similar spectacle? And what’s in it for Murdoch? Why isn’t he worried about blowback from the 9/11 families who protested a LIV tournament at Trump’s Bedminster course as “another atrocity“? And what’s Trump’s deal in all of this? It’s all a matter of politics colliding with commerce.
For the Saudis, crashing professional golf accomplishes two ends. The first, of course, is political. In the short term, they hope, LIV will help dilute the image held by the West of an authoritarian country murdering Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. (The hit was reportedly commissioned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader.) In the long term, LIV thinking goes, the billions it spends establishing its tour will replace the lucrative PGA as the sport’s face and eventually become a moneymaker. With almost unlimited funds at their disposal, the Saudis believe they can’t be counted out.
But can the Saudis overcome the existing stigma that easily? TV golf viewership is niche compared with other sports, with only the final round of the Masters placing in the top 50viewed sporting events of 2021. Golf appeals to broadcasters because its wealthy audience responds to ads for luxury cars and other high-priced goods. But if protesters succeed in linking the LIV brand to the repressive regime, and there is a strong likelihood they will, luxury carmakers might decide to put the brakes on their ads. TV sports is supposed to make people happy. A protest campaign that drenches LIV in blood red will extinguish that happiness and replace it with frowns.
What the Saudis didn’t account for when starting their own tour was the fact that TV is the tail that wags the golf dog. The long-term contracts held by the networks that currently air golf — CBS, NBC, NBC’s Golf Channel, Disney’s ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery — essentially make them partners with the pro golf establishment. Without them, the PGA tour would flop. So while LIV Golf is an obvious attack on the PGA, it’s also an attack on the network’s grip on the golf TV audience, so it’s not in their interest to help a new entrant into the market.
Fox, which exited golf coverage in 2020, has no stake in the current golf TV business, so it was a natural fit for LIV. For Murdoch, everything is transactional, and he has no compunctions about taking Saudi money. At one point, a Saudi prince held a 6.6 percent stake in his enterprises. But in airing LIV Golf, Rupert stands ready to make an excellent deal. First, he will be guaranteed a profit, and second, in doing the Saudis a favor by taking their money, he will acquire a chit that he can presumably cash down the road. But what about the bad publicity? At this point in his career, the Murdoch reputation can’t fall much lower, so should protesters picket Fox headquarters, he will likely pay as much attention to them as he does Tucker Carlson protesters.
Trump’s participation is equally transactional. The PGA, which was going to play its 2022 championship at Trump’s Bedminster course, dumped the event from its schedule days after the Jan. 6 riots. Trump retaliated by imploring golfers to switch from the PGA to LIV. Why the Saudis would think an association with Trump, who helped sink the upstart USFL decades ago, would help their cause is anybody’s guess. Have they never heard of Trump University, Trump Water, Trump Mortgages or any of his other failed businesses? That LIV has tied up with Trump is a measurement of how desperate they are to crack the sport. Further evidence of their desperation can be found in the report from Sports Business Journal that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who received $2 billion of funding for his private equity firm from the same Saudi fund in 2021, went to work last month trying to secure LIV a TV deal.
Starting a new professional league is a tough business, even if you have a $600 billion sovereign fund backing you. With partners like Trump, advance men like Kushner, and a network like Murdoch’s collecting money to air it, does LIV have a chance? Is there really a national audience for a golf infomercial selling Saudi Arabia? And at what point will the Saudis become so desperate that they take the next step and pay viewers to watch?
LIV isn’t an acronym. It’s “54” in Roman numerals. It represents the number of holes its golfers play in a match (in contrast to the PGA’s 72). Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed has a five handicap. My RSS feed never saw a golf course it didn’t want to desecrate.