The earliest days of LIV Golf, the divisive Saudi-backed series, focused on the biggest-name players in the world: who was in (Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau), who was out (Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy) and what they were getting paid (a lot.)
When the series returns this weekend with a tournament at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey, fans won’t be able to watch the action on American TV. But there is a growing expectation that LIV will eventually secure some sort of wider distribution in the United States, as it has in the rest of the world. When it does, it will still have at least two marquee golf broadcasters, David Feherty and Arlo White, to entice golf fans. Barkley told the New York Post on Friday that he was ending contract talks with LIV, but his public flirtations were good for plenty of publicity for the new tour.
“While it certainly won’t be the most popular move and is sure to continue their path of upheaval, they are likely to find a home,” Mark Shapiro, the president of media conglomerate Endeavor, wrote in an email.
There are a number of reasons for LIV’s absence from U.S. airwaves. Several leading sports networks have long-term partnerships with the PGA Tour, which is battling the new series and has banned defecting players from PGA events. NBC, CBS and ESPN’s streaming service all have long-term deals with the PGA, and any publicity for LIV could diminish those investments.
LIV’s schedule only recently has been finalized, too, and finding hours of weekend time on TV is difficult to do at the last minute. Then there is the controversial funding from Saudi Arabia. Ahead of this weekend’s tournament, a group of families of 9/11 victims put out a video slamming Bedminster’s partnership with Saudi Arabia. The National Press Club also released a statement criticizing the golf club for doing business with a country U.S. officials have blamed for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Will Staeger, LIV’s chief media officer and a longtime media executive in the United States, is leading its efforts to find U.S. broadcast and streaming partners. David Hill, a pioneering producer and executive who helped launch Fox Sports in the 1990s, is advising the series.
In an interview, Staeger said LIV has 27 deals in place around the world, including wider distribution across much of Europe. LIV has a deal with streaming service DAZN in the United States, but the network does not have a robust subscriber base here, leaving most fans to find the tournaments on YouTube, Facebook or the organization’s own website. (The YouTube broadcast averaged around 100,000 viewers for most of the first event, according to the Athletic.)
“It’s a very intentional strategic path with our introduction to audiences,” Staeger said. “We announced our invitationals quite late relative to when the first event was. Broadcast networks from a sports inventory perspective are all scheduled a year out if not more. So partially by virtue of that, but from an exposure and product display standpoint, it’s a proactive strategy to show our product to fans.”
LIV is geared to be a better TV golf product, both Hill and Staeger said. The shotgun start means more shots condensed into less time; the broadcast lasts for around four hours rather than a full day of traditional golf, which can drag on for double that. “Golf is something you go to sleep with,” Hill said. “The monotone of the announcers, the missing action. I tried to give them a blueprint that would be a golf enjoyed by 30-year-olds.”
LIV has hired White, who used to call the Premier League on NBC, and Feherty, also formerly of NBC; Barkley would have been a novelty that at the very least attracted huge buzz. LIV is also doing all of its own TV production, which would make it easier to find a home on a streaming platform such as Amazon Prime or Apple TV Plus, which don’t have the same experience producing live sports as TV networks.
Whether LIV’s format can bring any new fans to the sport or just speed up the game for its existing fans remains to be seen. And even with those tweaks, golf is not viewed necessarily as a ratings juggernaut. Several network executives said that anyone interested in putting LIV on TV must weigh whatever the rewards are with the headache of having to answer questions about Saudi Arabia and human rights.
Staeger said he has been keeping “top media platforms abreast of our progress” and that he plans to engage in more serious negotiations once LIV announces a full season of events for next year. He said questions about Saudi Arabia had not come up in any of his discussions. “We’re a golf league,” he said. “We’re not a government. Our conversations have been focused on the players and the format and the product.”
Given the PGA’s recent deals, Fox and Turner, which is part of Discovery Media, are LIV’s most likely TV partners, according to a number of media executives and other industry insiders. Spokesmen for both networks declined to comment on their interest in LIV; two people familiar with the matter said no substantive talks have occurred.
Considering the staggering amounts of money LIV has lavished on golfers, including reports of more than $100 million for some players, it could try to buy its way onto TV. One media executive said his company paid $300,000 for half an hour of weekend afternoon time in the last few years on CBS. Fox’s rate is also in that ballpark. That would mean eight hours over a weekend could cost around $5 million.
Even a LIV tournament is long, and networks may not be interested in displacing programming for a one-off event. But any network would have to listen if LIV offered an exorbitant fee.
Staeger, though, said LIV is not interested in such an arrangement. “It’s not necessary when you have the most compelling golf TV production and the coverage is being happily taken on 27 networks around the world,” he said. “We believe the product will command a premium in the marketplace.”
Former Fox executive turned industry consultant Patrick Crakes said LIV landing on Fox would surprise him because the network tried its hand at golf when it bought the rights to the U.S. Open and later sold them to NBC in the middle of the deal. Fox also doesn’t have a prominent streaming service to house hours of golf content. “It would seem to be counter to Fox’s strategy of going all-in on the biggest sports and not investing in streaming,” Crakes said.
Staeger said there were a number of strategies LIV could pursue, including negotiating directly with station groups instead of parent companies such as NBC, CBS and Fox. Sinclair Broadcast Group, for example, owns around 300 stations across the country, including dozens of network affiliates, as well as a tranche of regional sports networks. A Sinclair spokesman declined to comment on the company’s interest in LIV.
Staeger said LIV could split up its rights among several partners, but ultimately he would like it to follow the model of Formula One’s recent relationship with ESPN and the Premier League’s longtime partnership with NBC. Both networks offered distribution on broadcast and cable TV, as well as streaming, and they were able to promote a new product in the United States together with the organizations.
“When you’re new, you have to find your footing and your niche, and we’re highly optimistic about the fan response and the ratings we will deliver,” Staeger said. “We are excited to find a partner that sees the value from a rights fees standpoint but also will engage with us to grow the property.”
This story has been updated with news that Barkley was ending his contract talks with LIV.