The most important objectives for a sports league in modern times are, first, to get good players and, second, to get a lot of money to put those players on television in front of a lot of viewers. For LIV Golf, the startup golf tour backed by the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund, 2023 was supposed to be a big year in both departments. Greg Norman, the former world No. 1 who now leads LIV, said last November that LIV aimed to add seven new players out of the world top 20 before the new season started. On the TV front, Norman said LIV was in talks with “four different networks,” describing “live conversations where offers are being put on the table.” He called interest “enormous.”
LIV’s second season in existence starts this week with an event in Mexico. Instead of adding seven new top-20 players over the fall and winter, LIV added zero. It topped out with world No. 35 Thomas Pieters, a 31-year-old Belgian who’s won a handful of times in Europe but never on the PGA Tour. And on the TV front, the feeding frenzy Norman depicted resulted in an agreement not with ESPN or Fox or NBC or CBS or Turner but with the CW. That channel is in a lot of homes, but it does not get a lot of actual eyeballs. And though the parties didn’t disclose financials, the New York Times reported that LIV “is not receiving the kind of hefty rights fee that is usually the financial backbone of a major sports league.” At least two prominent executives have left the company. Everything, you can see, is going great.
In what is still less than a year since LIV started staging tournaments, the Saudi-backed circuit’s fortunes have gone up and down. This time in 2022, LIV looked poised to do immense damage to the PGA Tour, the tour that has dominated elite golf since the late 1960s. Phil Mickelson then gave one of the most destructive monologues in sport or business history, telling his biographer that, yes, the Saudis “execute people over there for being gay” and have “a horrible record on human rights,” but that he was engaging with LIV anyway in an attempt to strongarm the PGA Tour. The ensuing public-relations shitstorm sent Mickelson into exile for a few months and cooled speculation that LIV would soon poach a list of top players. But by June, LIV was back on the front foot, getting not just whatever is left of Mickelson but also more recently elite players like Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, and Brooks Koepka. At the end of the summer, it added reigning British Open winner and freakishly good current player Cameron Smith of Australia. It was easy, back then, to imagine LIV cutting much further into the PGA Tour’s grip on golf.
It hasn’t happened. More than striking out in its quest for more top talent and failing to land a marquee TV deal, LIV has spent the past few months in a grim place. The tour’s promos are so bad that you’d assume they were intentionally made that way—if the league’s organizers seemed that smart. (Here’s one, which has exactly 342 views on the CW’s YouTube channel as I write this.) After one player tried likening a LIV event last summer to the Ryder Cup, two-time Masters winner and current LIV old guy Bubba Watson compared the LIV “4 Aces” team to the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees, asserting that this recently made-up four-man golf team was similarly recognizable to his own child.
The PGA Tour has had a ripper of a few weeks, featuring the release of a glossy Netflix series about the tour, the return of Tiger Woods to competitive action, and Jon Rahm going on an all-time heater. LIV, by contrast, has had nothing, both because it’s backed itself into a corner and because the PGA Tour has finally started playing effective defense after years of making itself ripe for a challenger like the Saudis’ creation. Getting back on the course will help LIV, and it would be naive to write off a tour whose backers have essentially unlimited resources. But by a different token, LIV has problems that all the money in the world and its current crop of players can’t hope to fix.
The crack in the PGA Tour that LIV sought to widen was the one between the tour’s dozen or two best players and everyone else. Those mega-elite players have always been the tour’s real draw. CBS pays millions of dollars to show events featuring Rory McIlroy, not the No. 184 player who might make the cut and challenge the top of the leaderboard once a year. But the PGA Tour has a (maybe surprisingly) meritocratic structure. If that No. 184 player makes the cut and McIlroy doesn’t, then it’s the underdog who gets paid, while McIlroy gets nothing. The money doesn’t exactly mirror how many fans a player brings to the sport, as evidenced by Woods not being orders of magnitude ahead of everyone else in tour earnings. LIV has tried to exploit this dynamic by offering big, guaranteed contracts to players. Its tournaments are shorter than traditional tour events (54 holes, down from 72), and the lack of a 36-hole, no-pay cut means the best players are guaranteed something even as they generally work less.
The PGA Tour has started to hit back in a few ways. It expanded a recently launched program to pay players based on how much media interest they generate. It cultivated a list of specially designated tournaments, where the best players on tour compete for enhanced prize money. Rahm, by winning three of his first six starts this season, has made $9.8 million before the season even really heats up. The record for a full season’s on-course earnings is $13.2 million, set last year by Scottie Scheffler. The elite of the elite have a clear path to making much more money than they ever could, but the tour’s reforms aren’t just for them. Every player with full exempt status to play on the PGA Tour (a bit more than 200 every year) is now guaranteed a $500,000 earnings minimum, which figures to raise the pay for a few dozen players. The tour also began paying stipends to cover tournament expenses for its fringier members who miss the cut and thus don’t share in a tournament’s purse.
The PGA Tour doesn’t want to lose more Brooks Koepkas to LIV, but it also wants to keep players like Chase Koepka, the brother you’ve almost certainly never heard of who joined Brooks in LIV last year. The reforms have so far looked effective at preventing more exits. The PGA Tour has also benefited from vocal leadership from McIlroy, Rahm, Scheffler, Justin Thomas, and a range of other young stars. Maybe most importantly, it has had Woods, who apparently disdains both Norman and the rival tour he now leads. When the PGA Tour needed them most, its best players decided to circle the wagons.
LIV, for its part, has no juice. Its first season streamed on its YouTube channel in front of paltry audiences. The entertainment value wasn’t terrible, and a few of LIV’s flagship concepts—team competitions in addition to individual play, plus “shotgun starts” with all players teeing off and finishing around the same time—are worth taking seriously. But a sports league can’t fake relevance. The crowds sometimes look nonexistent. A few of LIV’s differentiators are that music blares around the course and players can wear shorts. “Golf, but louder,” they call it, and nobody I have ever met in real life could possibly care less.
The opening slate of tournaments last year looked like exhibitions. They had no sporting glory at stake—an abstract concept that sounds corny but is critical to getting audiences to care about an event. On the PGA Tour this past weekend, Max Homa finished second at the Genesis Invitational and cried at his press conference about what the event meant to him and how disappointed he was not to catch Rahm at the hallowed Riviera Country Club, near where Homa grew up. Watching DeChambeau or Johnson or Reed win a few million bucks at one of the three Trump golf courses where LIV will hold 2023 events will not do anything for anyone other than the players winning the cash and the ex-president being enriched.
The structure of those tournaments was one of LIV’s big selling points to players: The competitions would be shorter than the ones on the PGA Tour, and nobody would get cut part of the way through. But now that format is a problem. LIV has lobbied aggressively for its events to count for Official World Golf Ranking points, the currency that makes a player a world No. 1 or, more importantly, qualifies him to play in major championships. LIV players and leaders like to whine about how the World Ranking has blackballed their tour unfairly. But LIV’s shortened, no-cut events and closed entry format run afoul of traditional World Ranking criteria. While LIV has a possible opening to put points on the table in its tournaments, its players will continue to sink like rocks in the ranking for the time being. Some LIV players have long-term exemptions into certain majors because they’ve won them in the past, but many will lose their pathway to golf’s most important tournaments. Those include the Ryder Cup, which PGA of America and European Tour put on together. For now, LIV players are banned. This sort of exclusion has made player acquisition difficult.
All of LIV’s problems circle back to the league’s desire to have its cake and eat it at the same time. The Saudi tour wants to present an easier, more appealing tournament structure for players, but it wants those competitors rewarded like players in more demanding competitions. It wants to “coexist” with the PGA Tour but is suing the PGA Tour. It talks of wanting to “grow the game” but has never articulated how it will do that. (When a reporter asked Mickelson what he did to grow the game at LIV’s first tournament, the left-hander paused and said growth of the game was not what “every day” was about.) What LIV really wants to be for the government that backs it is hard to pin down. But what it is right now, for the sports world, is much easier to see: a second-rate operation that is more a bleak sideshow than a golf league.
This article originally misstated that the Ryder Cup was administered in part by the PGA Tour. It features PGA Tour players under the administration of the PGA of America, a larger group of American golf professionals.