LIV Golf, at last, has a television deal.
The new circuit, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and the catalyst for a year of turmoil in men’s professional golf, said Thursday that its 54-hole, no-cut tournaments would air on the CW Network and its app beginning next month.
Although the arrangement is a milestone for LIV Golf, whose tournaments last year were relegated to internet streams even as it showcased stars like Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Cameron Smith, the deal also underscores the circuit’s short-term limitations and the challenges any alternative league faces in gaining entry into the American sports market.
America’s top broadcasters were unlikely candidates for LIV Golf. CBS and NBC appeared unwilling to consider airing its events because of their close ties to the PGA Tour, and Disney-owned ABC was seen as a seemingly improbable landing spot because ESPN, which Disney also controls, streams many tour events. Another potential suitor, Fox, has stepped back from golf coverage in recent years.
LIV Golf and CW officials did not immediately disclose the financial terms of the agreement, but a person familiar with the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contract’s details were confidential, said LIV had not purchased airtime from the network. Instead, the person said, the terms offered both sides mutual financial benefits.
“Our new partnership between the CW and LIV Golf will deliver a whole new audience and add to the growing worldwide excitement for the league,” Dennis Miller, the network’s president, said in a statement. “With CW’s broadcasts and streams, more fans across the country and around the globe can partake in the LIV Golf energy and view its innovative competition that has reimagined the sport for players, fans and the game of golf.”
A Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The debut of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Who is playing it? Several top players and former major champions have joined LIV Golf, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Cameron Smith. But many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded? The PGA Tour suspended several members among the LIV Golf players after it denied them releases to participate in other events. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior. Meanwhile, the rival tours have engaged in a winding legal battle.
The agreement is a reprieve for LIV, which has spent recent months staring down its skeptics who have criticized the new tour’s absence of a television deal, its limited attendance at tournaments and the PGA Tour’s retention of many of the world’s top players. LIV Golf is hoping that its second season, which will begin with a tournament in Mexico in late February, will lead to fan and financial breakthroughs, especially as it more fully embraces a model that emphasizes franchises.
In December, when The New York Times disclosed a confidential McKinsey & Company analysis from 2021 that suggested that a Saudi-backed, franchise-filled golf league would face a tricky path to profitability and relevancy, a spokesman for the circuit said LIV was “confident that over the next few seasons, the remaining pieces of our business model will come to fruition as planned.”
The McKinsey analysis considered a television deal a vital ingredient for a league’s success and suggested that the concept that became LIV could earn as much as $410 million from broadcast rights in 2028, if it settled into what it called a “coexistence” with the PGA Tour. But if the league remained mired in “start-up” status, the consultants wrote, it could expect no more than $90 million a year for its broadcast rights in 2028.
In its antitrust case against the PGA Tour, which is not scheduled to go to trial before next January, LIV Golf has used its struggles to secure a television deal as evidence of what it sees as the long-dominant tour’s monopolistic behavior.
The tour, which has television deals that will pay it billions of dollars in the coming years, has denied wrongdoing. But in a filing in August, LIV Golf’s lawyers asserted that the tour had “compromised” the new league’s prospects to reach a rights agreement and said that the tour had “threatened sponsors and broadcasters that they must sever their relationships with players who join LIV Golf, or be cut off from having any opportunities with the PGA Tour.”
LIV also said that CBS officials had said “they cannot touch LIV Golf even for consideration” because of the network’s ties to the PGA Tour. (Paramount Global, which controls CBS, holds a minority stake in the CW. The tour also has a contract with Warner Bros. Discovery, another minority stakeholder in the CW.)
LIV’s pursuit of a television deal proved more turbulent — or at least more public — than the last time its chief executive, Greg Norman, tried to build a rival to the PGA Tour. In 1994, when Norman rolled out plans for a new tour, he had buy-in from Fox, which had extended a 10-year commitment. The uprising ended quickly anyway.
Despite the headwinds this time, Norman had projected confidence for months that LIV would secure some kind of contract. In November, he called a television deal “a priority” and predicted that one would be locked down “very, very soon.”