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Out of the Shadows: New Golf Organization Taking Shape

29 Nov, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

It’s coming. It’s not. It’s the Premier Golf League. It’s the Super Golf League. It’s something else. It launches in 2022, 2023… well, you get the picture.

But maybe that picture just got a little clearer. One of the alternative golf leagues that has existed in rumors, on social media and in publicity campaigns took a big step forward in recent weeks with Greg Norman being announced as the new CEO of a newly formed company, LIV Golf Investments, which is backed by the Private Investment Fund, which operates on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia.

According to GolfWRX, the new group has released information on its plans for a series of 10 new events to be staged annually on the Asian Tour over the next 10 years, representing a total commitment of over $200 million to “support playing opportunities and prize funds.” The new league hopes to get underway in 2022, with new events planned to take place across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Does it have players? Well, not yet – and as ESPN notes, “There have been plenty of players whose names have been rumored, but so far nothing is official. And that will be the crucial answer to where this is headed.”

In the meantime, though, it appears the new league’s back office roster is filling up; in November, LIV Golf said that two high-profile names in the business had joined the effort. ESPN points out that Ron Cross used to work at Augusta National and for the PGA Tour and for a time was commissioner Jay Monahan's top adviser. Sean Bratches is a former ESPN marketing executive who most recently worked for Formula One.

And that’s not all. GolfWeek and USA TODAY say that other big names are working on the league: Will Staeger, who has worked with sports brands like ESPN and WWE, is the group’s new Chief Media Officer. Former PGA TOUR rules official Slugger White joins as Vice President of Rules & Competition Management with Jane MacNeille, who most recently spent seven years as head of communications for the Greg Norman Company, as Vice President of Communications.

But it’s still, let’s face it, so confusing. Here are the answers (as best we can see) to the questions that remain.

Is this the Super Golf League? Or is it the Premier Golf League?

For this answer (which is actually more of an explanation because it’s so complicated), we turned to golf architect Geoff Shackelford’s blog, Quadrilateral Substack. Here is his answer:

The Saudi Golf League (SGL) - Now working under the name LIV Golf Investments after initially floating the Super Golf League name, the organization was founded in 2020 on one fundamental principle: lifting most of the Premier Golf League ideas and using them to sportwash and drive tourism to Saudi Arabia. Backed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, the current group is now fronted by Greg Norman and searching for another name. A newly announced partnership with the Asian Tour has created a feeder and relegation tour option along with the potential to give out Official World Golf Ranking points if or when a schedule is announced.

The Premier Golf League (PGL) was kicking up so much dust before all this happened. Is that another name for the SGL/LIV? Or has it folded?

Nope and Nope. While Shackelford believes, as noted above, that many of the concepts for the new league (called LIV here for the sake of simplicity) were copied from the PGL, they are not the same organization. According to an open letter from the PGL that was released back in May, the organizations are entirely separate.

So the PGL is still alive and well?

Yes – its website is very firm on that fact. It also notes: “We are not connected to the SGL and the SGL are not associated with us. We have no Saudi backing.”

The PGL presents itself as operating for the good of the sport and in the interest of bringing new players into the game. It also recently announced it would host a juniors tour as well, something LIV has not yet mentioned.

The PGA TOUR earlier said that players joining the PGL would lose their PGA TOUR membership. Will LIV’s players face the same sanctions that PGL players would?

PGA TOUR commissioner Jay Monahan has made it abundantly clear that he will not hesitate to ban any players from the Tour if they sign on with any of the so-called splinter groups. Of course, in the interim, a number of top players have stated they'd be playing in the Saudi International, and the PGA TOUR has noted that it would not grant any players releases to play in "unsanctioned tournaments," and the Saudi is a prime example of that. This means the litmus test is coming sooner, rather than later.

What else is the PGA TOUR doing?

According to GolfWeek, who interviewed a top PGA TOUR official on the basis of anonymity, the PGA TOUR plans to try to counter any events the Saudi group will host by offering The PGA Tour “a series of lucrative, international tournaments that will offer guaranteed money to the world’s best players.”

More details: The PGA TOUR has plans to stage between four and six events annually outside of the United States, in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The series is expected to begin in the fall of 2023 at the earliest, though it may not launch until 2024. And while no format has been nailed down, it is said that among those being considered is a team format (something the Saudi group has said it will use). The PGA TOUR also created, says GolfWeek, a $40 million Player Impact Program, to award bonuses to PGA TOUR members recognized as having the ability to create the best fan engagement. The annual program began measuring players’ impact based on a range of criteria in January. The player found to be most impactful at year’s end will receive $8 million, with decreasing amounts awarded to another nine stars.

The PGA TOUR also established what is known by GolfWeek as “a strategic alliance with the European Tour (since rebranded as the DP World Tour) as they sought to unify their product against potential rivals.”

There has been talk of a lawsuit alleging unfair competition. Is it likely we’d see that? Who would win?

If the PGA TOUR does indeed sanction players, Golf.com says, there could well be legal repercussions. It interviewed various attorneys who specialize in that area of law, including Craig Seebald, a partner and antitrust specialist with Vinson & Elkins, an international law firm. And according to Seebald, the question “gets into the area of antitrust law, which, though no small subject, essentially comes down “only two rules.”

Those two rules are monopolization (when an entity uses unfair practices to gain or maintain a stranglehold on a market) and conspiracy, when two or more entities work together to thwart competition.

The article itself is a fascinating read and gets into a variety of scenarios. An antitrust claim could be filed by an individual player, a group of players or the rival tour itself. It could also come from the U.S. government itself – and in fact, the PGA TOUR is no stranger to the latter scenario. (In the early 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission examined two PGA TOUR rules, one that required players to get permission from the commissioner to participate in non-TOUR events, and another that places the same condition on appearances on televised golf programs. The PGA TOUR lost on both counts (but nothing ever came of that).

Whether a claim will arise – well, who knows? Golf.com says we’ll all have to wait and see.

“The plot could thicken in all sorts of ways. But Seebald is quick to note that it’s impossible to say whether or when any legal challenges might emerge, much less which side would come out on top. Marc Edelman, a law professor and expert in sports business at the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, at City University of New York, agrees, noting that “At this stage, it seems very early to presume the outcome of any such case, especially given that a complaint has not been filed,” Edelman says.

Like Seebald, though, Edelman believes that aggressive action by the Tour to keep players off the rival circuit could bring the risk of an antitrust claim.”

But that still leaves us with more questions.

Where will the LIV group play?

Again, from Shackleford: “Donald Trump’s various golf properties are believed to be under consideration as venues.

And some pundits have noted that since the PGA TOUR pulled at least one championship event from Trump’s venue, it is possible his courses could be of particular interest to the new organization. But no schedule has been confirmed and at this point, it is purely speculation as to which direction the matter will take.

Greg Norman tried once to create a new league and was shut down. Is this his revenge?

Backstory: In the mid-1990s (more or less around the same time the FTC was engaged in consideration of the business practices of the PGA TOUR), Norman attempted to create his own “breakaway league” and argued that golf’s biggest stars weren’t getting their fair share of Tour earnings. However, star players weren’t willing to join it (sound familiar?), so it never got off the ground. But as Golf.com notes, “Given the money and apparent momentum behind it, (LIV) does not seem like the sort of venture destined to fade quietly into the night.”

GolfWRX say Norman has been quoted as telling Golf Digest Australia that revenge is not his intent.

“No, it’s not that way at all. I can categorically say this is not a direct attack on the PGA TOUR. It’s for the betterment of the game of golf, pure and simple. There’s been a lot of commentary about this being all about me getting even with the tour. This idea has been around for a long time.”

There’s a lot of money involved here. Will people be swayed by it?

That remains to be seen but as Geoff Shackelford notes (and what follows is a direct quote from his blog because Shackelford is so witty and amusing), it’s essential to consider the input of Seth Waugh of the PGA:

Waugh’s the most intriguing figure since he makes clear the PGA Of America will fight for the PGA TOUR. Waugh has long been close with (PGA TOUR chief Jay) Monahan and to show his organization’s support, has already declared an end to Ryder Cup eligibility for American and (probably) European defectors.

Is that any way to treat an independent contractor?

Waugh presumes today’s players will care two-hoots about the Ryder Cup when a life-changing advance is wired into their accounts, even if it’s blood and oil-covered money. To his credit, Waugh also sensed this situation was inevitable long before Greg Norman signed on and a rankings loophole was located.

“I think, look, I come from a world of disruption, and I think it's inevitable,” Waugh said of upstart leagues when asked during May’s PGA Championship. “I actually think it's healthy. You either disrupt or you get disrupted. That's what this is.”

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