Why a potential rival league could ultimately benefit the PGA Tour
A global rival to the PGA Tour is a long-standing idea, albeit one that has lived in grill rooms rather than boardrooms. That changed last week, as commissioner Jay Monahan felt compelled to address the “Premier Golf League,” the latest proposal for a competing circuit, at a players meeting in San Diego and in a Tour-wide email Monday.
“If the Team Golf Concept [one of the other names used by the PGL] or another iteration of this structure becomes a reality in 2022 or at any time before or after, our members will have to decide whether they want to continue to be a member of the PGA Tour or play on a new series,” Monahan wrote. That kind of brimstone isn’t wasted on a half-baked pitch.
Despite its vague framework, or perhaps because of it, the PGL concept (more on this in a moment) has generated interest and curiosity. Naturally, its overall viability is a large part of the discussion right now, and a recurring theme with multiple players, agents and league liaisons Golf Digest spoke to on the subject. But equally compelling is identifying just what kind of threat it really is to golf’s current institutions.
Because while rogue leagues have proven disruptive, history shows they can also be beneficial to the incumbent.
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The graveyard of professional sports is filled with renegade outfits. Many challenged the establishment. Some dared to try and co-exist, and a few saw it as a path into said establishment. All of them, though, suffered the same fate.
And yet their spirits are very much alive. Each major operation in American sports—football, baseball, basketball and hockey—has been influenced by a rival league, albeit to varying degrees.
The ABA beget the three-point line, early draft eligibility, the slam dunk contest and a general flair that was painfully absent in the NBA of the 1970s. The AFL showed the power of television and high-powered offenses in the 1960s while the USFL, in just three seasons in the 1980s, brought the two-point conversion, replay review and bigger salaries to the NFL, with both building markets for future teams. Baseball’s independent and minor leagues broke the color barrier years before MLB, and shepherded the between-inning and in-game entertainment that is now standard at any ballpark. The WHA showed the NHL that hockey’s best didn’t have to come from Canada alone.
Not all “innovations” stick. Sadly, the XFL’s nickname-on-jersey novelty stayed just that. Still, competing leagues have a real ability to force the establishment to evolve. Which brings us to the Premier Golf League.
The idea of a world golf tour is old enough to order a drink. Greg Norman shared his vision for one in 1994, but it couldn’t gain enough traction. Other iterations have come and gone without much fanfare. The PGL itself is not new, tracing its roots to 2014, although it didn’t gain attention until last fall.
Its blueprint: A league with 48 players, divided into 12 teams, competing in 18 no-cut, 54-hole events. It boasts shotgun starts (so an entire round could be compacted into a five-hour broadcast) and a team-only finale, with 10 of the tournaments set for the United States.
And money. Lots of money—$240 million in prizes, to be exact.
In a press release that circulated last week, the PGL states each event would have a $10 million purse, with $2 million going to the winner. The top individual performer at the end of the season would receive a $10 million bonus, with other bonuses distributed through team results each week and the season finale. Theoretically, $50 million could be awarded to the best player. That is double the amount Rory McIlroy, the PGA Tour’s earnings leader last season, pulled in ($7.79 million, plus a $15 million FedEx Cup bonus and $1.5 million for finishing second in the season-long Wyndham Rewards competition).
“At the moment, the best—the true global stars—subsidize the rest,” read a press release. “The League will rebalance economics.”
Where’s the money coming from? According to Monahan’s email, the PGL is backed by “Saudi interests,” a notion seemingly corroborated by Phil Mickelson, who was serendipitously paired with some of the PGL’s reported backers at the Saudi International on Wednesday. Yet multiple sources tell Golf Digest there are more underwriters than Saudi interests alone.
There’s no doubt the PGA Tour is a celebrity-driven product, and yet the comparative salaries between marquee names and rank-and-file players aren’t aligned with that sentiment. Jon Rahm made just shy of $5 million last year, ninth on the money list. That was $3.7 million more than Wyndham Clark, who was 90th in earnings at $1.29 million. For context, in the NBA—another star-powered vehicle—Blake Griffin has the ninth-highest salary in 2020 at $34.5 million ... $20 million more than Rudy Gay ($14.5 million), 90th on the NBA’s payroll. From that perspective, in the disparity and aggregate, it’s understandable why the PGL and its financial incentives have the attention of both the game’s highest profile players and Ponte Vedra.
What’s not clear, at the moment, is the incentive for fans.
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Inherent to every fledgling business is a mission statement. What is it providing that the current market is not, what antiquated notions or deficiencies will it correct? So far, the PGL hasn’t justified its (potential) existence; the marketing story seems to be, “We have money, so players will come.” But the response from in-their-prime stars has been lukewarm, at best, sources tell Golf Digest. Meanwhile, Brinks trucks have never served as a bellwether for bigger galleries.
In fairness, sources also tell Golf Digest the PGL wasn’t ready to go public just yet with its strategy, the group’s hand forced by Monahan’s Torrey Pines visit and reports that didn’t properly paint its story. The plan is also more developed than previous accounts suggest, Golf Digest is told. So what could the PGL offer that the PGA Tour does not?
The ABA and AFL—two of the more successful breakaway leagues in American sports—pitched offensive-friendly tempos and player autonomy, maintaining they would instill color in an increasingly bland product. For the PGL, does that mean taking on slow play, an issue that resonates with fans and a host of players but that the Tour has been hesitant to police? How about beefing up broadcast presentations, which the PGA Tour’s own broadcast partners have identified as needing improvement? Could it blow up how the game is scored? One former major winner relayed a 2019 conversation to Golf Digest about a PGL system where all strokes are not worth the same.
We’d be remiss in forgetting the gambling element to golf. It’s worth noting one of the early partners is the Raine Group, which was integral in funding venture capital rounds for daily fantasy site DraftKings. It’s not a matter of if betting will be involved, an agent told Golf Digest, but to what extent, and how much of the cut will go in the players’ direction. Raine also has a history of facilitating media rights agreements, the Pac-12 Conference one of its more recent clients.
In short, this is an entity capable of creating legitimate subversions to the PGA Tour’s way of life.
Conversely, the PGL’s road map is far from set. Because of its fledgling status, a source said the PGL is "all ears" from players, media and fans on what its tour could ultimately look like. That’s a blessing and curse, as the PGL won’t be the only one listening. And the players know it.
“You know, it’s a hard one. … I love the PGA Tour, but these guys [the PGL] have exploited a couple of holes in the system, the way golf at the highest level is nowadays and how it’s sort of transitioned from a competition tour to entertainment,” Rory McIlroy said last week, one of the few players to go on-the-record on the subject. “Right? It’s on TV, it’s people coming out to watch. It’s definitely a different time than what it was before.
“But I love the PGA Tour, I love the way golf is set up right now. So it might be the catalyst for something a little bit different out here as well, who knows.”
But will that catalyst only serve the players, or can it help the game at large?
The PGA Tour’s equity, in the U.S. and around the world, is hard to overstate, to say nothing of its infrastructure and sponsorship might. Yet the threat of a legitimate competitor, as a major winner told Golf Digest, “can make the smallest fissure a portal.” Odds are the PGA Tour can weather a rival. What matters is its ability to be open to alternative approaches, a notion Monahan seems open to, according to a report from Golf Digest’s Brian Wacker. With new broadcast deals and the PGL opportunity, the players and the PGA Tour’s other stakeholders can make their voices heard. What they say could shape the game for decades to come.
It’s important to note innovations are not viewed in the same light. What fans and players call inspiration, owners call concessions. NFL franchises weren’t thrilled with higher paydays to their employees. The NBA continues to wrestle with its draft policy. Still, no matter the impetus, these changes shaped their respective established leagues, almost all in a positive fashion for their long-term viability. Evolution is the product of competition, and to the victor go the spoils.