LIV Golf signed away some more top talent after the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship season finale, with world No. 2 Cam Smith the clear crown jewel of this round of player poaching.
With more and more recognizable names joining the Saudi-funded LIV venture, networks and outlets have had to make some choices about how to cover the sportswashing effort. LIV doesn’t have a network distribution partner (yet), which would be the ultimate test. But in the meantime, LIV tournaments are taking place with the kind of talent that would normally make a SportsCenter roundup.
To that end, this weekend LIV scores flashed on both the Fox and ESPN bottom line tickers.
ESPN also had it on their bottom line (at least a couple hours ago) so I wouldn't read into this as FOX being interested, necessarily
— Drew Lerner (@KindaDrewish) September 3, 2022
This is an interesting situation, because unlike a written piece where it’s possible to add the overall context of LIV and why there’s a wider backlash to the players involved, you can’t exactly slide that in as a disclaimer on a ticker.
To me, there’s a pretty simple answer here: they don’t need to worry about it. At a certain point, Dustin Johnson making an eagle putt to win a golf tournament is going to get mentioned on ESPN for what it is: an athletic achievement by a major player at the top of his sport.
There’s a huge debate to be had about the legitimacy of these events from a golf standpoint, of course. But then again, the Tour Championship itself got the same treatment without the bottom line mentioning that players start the week with scoreboard handicaps based on the FedEx Cup standings.
For networks, though, at this level of coverage? There’s no real point ignoring it, and it’s not ESPN or FS1’s mission to not report the results of professional sporting events. As much as I might personally dislike just about everything about LIV from both a product and a moral perspective, there’s still some level of interest in the outcomes.
If anything, this is just illustrative of why the Saudi government is willing to entrust Greg Norman (who always comes through!) with a massive amount of money and responsibility: the scheme works.
Once the big names are on board and events are happening, it’s sort of inevitable that it will work for a while. Long-term is harder to say; the entire business model so far seems very poorly-tailored for a total takeover of the sport, barring a massive upswing in fan interest. But in the near-term, it’s going to exist by virtue of that bottomless funding, and networks and golf outlets are always going to write about it, even just from a bland scoreboard perspective.
The entire thing is basically the Don Draper “if you don’t like what what’s being said, change the conversation” strategy, but for covering up widespread human rights violations with Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed grinning like idiots after playing 54 holes of weakly competitive golf on a boring course near Boston.
It’s that sort of context-free normalization that might help the most. Again, this isn’t ESPN’s (or any other network’s) fault. It’s just how it is, the same path we’ll follow for the Qatari World Cup this fall, alongside plenty of other examples.
It feels like the happiest medium here might be this approach: run the scores on the ticker, but also do actual journalism. It shouldn’t be hard to make that work.