It’s already apparent that LIV Golf poses an existential threat to the PGA Tour.
The Saudi-backed sportswashing effort which can spend billions without worrying about a profit, has already poached some recognizable names, including Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, and of course Phil Mickelson.
But while a lot of the debate centers around whether the PGA Tour can succeed in the long-term with stars leaving (and potentially more leaving at any point, once it becomes more morally normalized and they see lesser players earning exponentially more money), there’s actually a tandem effect that could possibly mean sooner danger.
That’s because the Tour’s new TV deals, which just kicked in this year having been negotiated a few years back, could include language that protects the networks in the face of a talent drain. “Could” is a key word there, though; no one seems to know for sure whether that language exists, or if it does how it would be enforced.
It’s been a hot topic in golf media, of course, because if there could be some sort of financial hit as top players leave, it would make those player losses even more immediately painful, and threaten the already shaky ground underneath PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. (And the PGA Tour is located in the swamps of Florida, the ground was unstable enough already.)
Ethan Strauss and Chuck Culpepper broke down the situation in The Washington Post, finding mixed opinion about whether that contract language is likely to exist or how realistic it would be for networks to pull any money back.
The impact on those deals if golfers abandon the tour is unclear. Several current and former media executives, who were not involved in the PGA Tour’s recent negotiations, disagreed on what kind of protection the networks could have. Two suggested the networks probably would have a “strength of field” clause, which could mandate a certain percentage of the top-100-ranked golfers make a certain number of appearances in PGA Tour events.
But two others, who have been involved in TV rights discussions with the PGA Tour and have seen previous tour broadcast contracts, said that often in media deals there will be general language that holds a TV property to past standards of quality but that it would be unusual to have specific metrics.
One former TV executive added that any remedy to such a clause, such as voiding the contract, would be difficult to achieve absent a lawsuit.
NBC, CBS and ESPN declined to comment.
Again, multiple people in golf media are chasing this particular bit of information. It’s hard to know exactly how serious any of it is, and obviously networks attempting to enforce potential language like this would be disastrous to the PGA Tour, and potentially set up an expensive legal battle that both sides would presumably rather not deal with.
To that end, it’s hard to see any of this coming to fruition unless there is a mass exodus of all the biggest stars, which so far seems unlikely. Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, and others have all come out forcefully against LIV. That can certainly change; Bryson DeChambeau voiced his support for the PGA Tour a few months ago and he’s now headed to LIV, but Bryson has zero integrity, so that’s a special case.
This feels more like a possible scenario where, even in a worst-case scenario, the Tour could quietly go to their media partners and find a solution that keeps everyone happy (and keeps the lights on in Ponte Vedra.)
But it’s the exact kind of dangling sword that Jay Monahan doesn’t want to think about right now. Not when there are so many other dangling swords to focus on.