Plenty of sports are not fan driven. Virtually all of the Olympic sports. They are primarily for pure competition. Who is best? Competition and the satisfaction of victory are the primary reasons for these sports. Every four years they are in a two week spotlight, but otherwise, they compete in relative obscurity.
And then there are sports that catch the eye of people and have evolved into the “spectator sports”. These are the lucky ones and the most demanding. Demanding in that not only must you be the best to win, but also you must perform in front of thousands. Failure is not only loss but also subject to public scrutiny. Lucky in that fame and fortune comes with success. Lucky in that the participants make an impact on society as entertainment. The fans so enjoy the entertainment they bring dollars to the sport. Fans buy tickets to the events. Fans watch televised events on which advertisers will spend dollars to reach on TV. Companies will pay to connect their brand to the participants so the fans see the connection. The fans enable the athletes to become fabulously wealthy.
Golf is one of the lucky ones.
Then comes the LIV Tour. This is not a tour that is based on revenue from the fans. It is based on revenue from billionaires. That single fact fundamentally changes everything. Many object to the source of the money. I have no love for the Saudis, I know what Saudi nationals did on 9-11, and I give no margin to their human rights record and their treatment of women. But that is not my objection. I object to any billionaire buying golf. It does not matter if their money comes from oil or retailing. It does not matter if they have good or poor ethics. It matters that the sport is not responding to the fans. It is responding to the excess of a billionaire.
Many justify LIV by indicating the Saudi’s are involved in other sports such as formula one racing and soccer. Others indicate that sporting leagues like the NBA do deals with China. I have no objections to either of these examples. These examples are Saudi Arabia or China participating in an existing sports league, within the confines of that league’s rules and organization. If the Saudi’s wanted to participate in golf and fund golfers who play on the PGA or DP tours, I have no objection. Nike, Under Armor, and many others do exactly that.
But to create a league that has no relationship to the fans and uses great wealth to buy the golfers…then I object. This is not sport for the fans. What this is, I do not know. Is it sportswashing? For who? Is world opinion of the Saudis improving? Are the citizens of Saudi Arabia proud? I do not know. From where I sit, it looks more like vanity and raw display of the power of money.
This is not the highest level of competition. It feels more like an exhibition match. I cannot blame the golfers for taking the money. I do blame them for acting like it is better for golf. I understand that the PGA Tour needs to modernize and clearly this threat will expedite changes. But the PGA Tour is not evil. It does not mistreat the players. It has created a structure where fans across the country can watch the best golfers on a weekly basis. It has created great visibility for the players and dramatically increased their earning power. And most importantly, it has created a venue for the greatest golf competition in the world. And the fans pay for it all, one way or another.
So, what happens? I wish I knew. The Saudis have the money to do this as long as they want. They can start to buy the best young talent coming out of college. Everyone has their price, and if the Saudis want, they can probably buy all of the best players in the world. This is not a good outcome. Then golf is subject to the whims of the billionaire. When the fans supply the money, then golf (players and tours) must respond to the fans. When a billionaire supplies the money, golf responds to the billionaire. Over time, golf erodes and becomes a shell of the current game. Spectator sports that do not respond to fans wither. Look to boxing for a relevant example. Boxing was one of the most popular spectator sports from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Then the sport took its show off of public venues such as radio and broadcast television and moved it to a pay-per-view model. Only the hard core fans remained…the casual fans left the sport. Eventually the sport lost its fan base and is a shell of its former self. There is no Joe Lewis or Muhammad Ali in boxing now. In their day, they were the most famous athletes in the world. Who is the heavyweight champion of the world today? Spectator sports that chase short term money rather than maintain their fan base are doomed to this fate.
So do not pretend this is normal. Do not pretend this is healthy competition. This is an existential threat to the soul of the game and its foundational connection to the fans. I hope the Saudis decide it is bad PR and decide to take their billions and spend them elsewhere. But hope is not a strategy, so the fans must act. Recognize that this is bad for golf and respond accordingly. Do not attend LIV events. Do not watch LIV events. Let the players, advertisers, and all affiliated parties know that the fans will not stand for this unwanted intrusion between the fans and the game. If the players and Saudis want to play private games of golf for millions of dollars, let them, but do not participate nor celebrate these games. The stewards of the game (R&A, USGA, Augusta National, PGA, and the World Golf Rankings) must stand together and say no. They must stand up and say our game cannot be bought, regardless of the price. Only then will golf remain standing on its foundations of great competition, engaging fans, and providing a venue for the best golfers in the world to thrive in their sport.
Matt Bown, Edmond
Send your letters on LIV or any golf topic to Ken@golfoklahoma.org or comment below.