Is the player’s quest for cash preventing them from making the big bucks?
I’m sure that if you’re anything like me, you’ve been inundated with all of the drama surrounding the PGA Tour and LIV Golf over the past few months. It seems like rabid golf fans can’t go anywhere without hearing about it these days. Most of us probably aren’t affected by the back-and-forth haymakers these two organizations have been throwing at each other, but it has certainly raised some interesting questions.
The last few months.
For those who have miraculously slipped through the cracks, and skated through the last few months obliviously, here’s a quick recap. LIV golf announced eight events and has lured away some of the most well known professional golfers on the planet with millions of dollars, billions in total. The PGA Tour has responded by barring anyone who plays in a LIV event from playing in one of their own events, preventing those players from gaining world ranking points needed to be eligible for entry into the majors, golf’s most prestigious championships. Most likely, it will be years spent in court before we know how this will all play out and what it means for the professional golf landscape at large.
Many people in the golf world have asked a number of intriguing questions, most of which have yet to be answered. This has led me to many of my own questions, one looming larger than all. What’s the point of professional golf?
How did we get here?
Over the past 50-something years professional golf has remained essentially the same. In 1968, touring professionals, golfers who play tournaments week after week, broke away from the PGA of America, and created the Tournament Players Division, intending to separate themselves from club professionals, or the guys folding shirts in pro shops. Eventually, this breakaway league would become the PGA Tour as we know it today.
By grabbing the reins, players gained control over decisions about how this new tour would run. They were in charge of creating the rules and regulations that governed them. While they created a structure that allowed for executives to run day-to-day operations, players held a majority of the power to make decisions about the direction the PGA Tour would ultimately go. A power that they still hold today.
What’s the focus?
This leads me back to my impending question. Over time, professional golfers have used their power and control to create a landscape dedicated to putting more money in their pockets. They’ve retained the ability to choose when and where they play, and how they can maximize their efforts to build as much wealth and stability as possible while playing a sport full of uncertainties. But is the objective of professional golf just about making more money? And are professional golfers leaving money on the table by making this their primary focus?
Taking a look around the professional sports landscape, golf has always seemed to be grossly underpaid, in dollars and attention. Just turn on Sportscenter any day of the week. For an entire hour, you’ll hear about every detail going on in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Even the NHL and NASCAR seem to get more airtime than golf. Only when something considerable is happening in the golf world, such as the LIV drama or a major championship, does golf show up on your TV screen.
What are they doing right?
From my point of view, these other sports leagues have seemingly embraced something that the PGA Tour has not. Entertainment value. The NFL, NBA, and MLB have all leaned into creating a product that is primarily driven around creating fandom, rather than focusing on making their players more money. For 27 weeks a year, the NFL slurps attention like a five-year-old with a slushie and a sweet tooth. Four games to warm up, 17 games to get your team into the playoffs, and four must-win games for all the marbles.
They rake in cash and that attention spills over into the rest of the year, further fueling the hype machine and driving profits through the roof year over year. Records for contract size, the amount of money players make, are consistently broken. Last year, the NFL reportedly generated a record $11 billion dollars in revenue, and fans appear completely content with the return on their investment.
The PGA Tour, based on projections, will pull in $1.5 billion. Granted, the PGA Tour is a non-profit organization and its sponsors donate a lot of potential profits to charity, but it seems they could be leaving a lot of meat on the bone. By becoming an organization that seems to be chiefly intent on being the funnel that distributes wealth to their players, are they missing the potential to pour even more cash into players’ pockets?
For years, major golf institutions have made it their mission to “grow the game,” but I can’t help feeling like they’ve gone in the opposite direction. While technological advancements have made most of the world’s best courses obsolete, the majority of the blame lies at the Tour’s feet. The PGA Tour has stifled competition by allowing below-average players to remain on tour and bloated their schedule with less than appealing tournaments at unbefitting golf courses. Formats have become stale and TV coverage has been unable to contextualize the drama that makes golf interesting. Players, most importantly, have held steady to the notion that they deserve more money.
Where do we go now?
Conclusively, the Tour needs to decide what its principal purpose is if they have any hope of staving off LIV golf and remaining the preeminent professional golf tour. Players need to determine what means more to them, large sums of money, or a quality experience for fans. LIV has the financial backing to bury the PGA Tour under the Public Investment Fund’s swimming pool full of cash, but fans could hold the key to opening the spigot of cash flow the Tour so desperately seems to need to keep the world’s top players.
At the end of the day, I’m not rooting for one golf league or another, I’m just a golf fan. I want to see the game get better. With any luck, the product that professional golf produces can become the riveting and compelling commodity that does actually grow the game, and allows us obsessed golf fans the ability to share our love of the game with everyone around us. If it makes professional golfers more money, then it’s a win-win.