The controversial LIV Golf circuit wrapped up its inaugural season last week with its team championship at Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami.
The new circuit, which is being financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and fronted by two-time Open Championship winner Greg Norman, has plans to expand to a 14-tournament league in 2023.
LIV Golf had plenty of highs, including luring former major champions Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson away from the PGA Tour with guaranteed contracts reportedly worth more than $100 million.
There were also plenty of lows, including six-time major champion Phil Mickelson’s controversial comments about Saudi Arabians and the PGA Tour, and Norman’s own description of the Saudi monarchy’s alleged involvement in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Heading into its second year in 2023, LIV Golf is searching for a TV or streaming partner, corporate sponsors and a handful of additional players.
On Tuesday, Norman participated in a video teleconference with ESPN and a few other media outlets. Here’s what he had to say about LIV Golf’s future:
How would you assess LIV Golf’s inaugural season?
Norman: LIV has only just begun. From my perspective, it was one heck of a year. It was one heck of a beta season. It was one heck of a launch. And I don’t think there has ever been any new sports league that in its first year accomplished as much as what LIV Golf has accomplished.
I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished. Our long-held dream of creating a league that puts golfers and fans first has arrived. Professional golfers are finally getting paid the way they always should have been paid. Fans are getting new and more exciting golf. The experience at our events is [like] nothing else. It’s fun and that’s the way golf should be. I can’t wait for next year, to be honest with you. I’m already preparing for it with my entire team.
As you have mentioned, this was a beta-test season. How much do expectations for generating revenue rise in Year 2?
Norman: Number one, obviously, we are looking for broadcasting. We’re in those discussions right now with a handful of broadcasters. When that takes place, obviously, there’s gonna be an acceleration of revenue coming in. We have numerous sponsors sitting on the side waiting for this. We anticipate having a broadcast company before we start the 2022-23 season.
Quite honestly, a lot of the broadcasters looking at us are very bullish about what we’re delivering. When you look at the average audience that watches golf, the PGA Tour’s average [viewer] is like 65 ½ [years old]. We’ve got it down below 45 in basically eight events in one year. That was one of our targets and our goals in our business plan — to reach down to a younger audience to show them what we can do.
How was LIV Golf able to reach a younger audience?
Norman: That’s all part and parcel of what we’ve delivered through music and the players having more fun. LIV has a [much] lighter touch. We’ve got a lot lighter footprint out there for the players. I listened to the players. I was a player for 40-plus years. I tried to have my voice heard about my thoughts and concerns or opinions of where golf should go. I listen to the guys and I’m open to their thoughts and their opinions. And when I hear them ask me, ‘How about shorts? How about music? How about this? How about rangefinders?’ I listen to them. If it makes their world more fun and easier, then I’m going to entertain the idea. And I have, as those three things I have approved the players request over the year [show].
When you look at viewership on YouTube and the LIV Golf website, how does it compare to a garden-variety PGA Tour event in the U.S.?
Norman: We’re analyzing all that data right now as we speak. All I can say is from our perspective is we’re running over 1 million viewers, per competition day, from YouTube. When you look at [only] the YouTube numbers, they’re overlooking what the viewer streaming is on our website. They’re overlooking the numbers for people watching on TV and other platforms around the world. We’re on 180 channels, I believe, each week around the world. We’re pulling all that data because we need it as well too, right? Sponsors need it as well, too. But I do know other broadcasters are watching us and they’re very, very bullish because of the numbers that we’re seeing coming out.
Why hasn’t a TV deal happened yet, and why haven’t sponsors bought in yet?
Norman: I think that’s very simple. It’s a beta year, right? They wanted to see how this year played out. It’s understandable when you think we’ve only had 24 rounds of golf. That’s not a whole lot of rounds of golf, right? So [during] our beta season, they sat back. Look, to be honest with you, a couple of [TV networks] wanted to take Miami. They had seen enough, as the whole thing developed out. It all becomes part of the negotiation side of things.
The sponsors are the same way, right? And now we have more and more sponsors leaning in. I personally have taken calls from sponsors from non-elevated PGA Tour tournaments feeling like they’re wilting on the vine going into 2023.
Free agency is a big part of other sports, including the NFL and NBA. You said you’re bringing free agency to golf. What are your thoughts on free agency in LIV Golf?
Norman: That’s a priority for us. The franchise model, developing that and growing that, I think this year being the beta year was a validation from the players and fans that I spoke to about their team. I’ve had numerous conversations, even up to about an hour ago, about going forward into next year and expand on the team, team value and the franchise value from a fan’s perspective. We’re even talking about trades right now, to be honest with you, today, and how that structure is. We talk about the comparisons with the NBA and the NHL and what’s going on. … All these things are on our list.
I actually just called a three-day franchise summit down here in my office at West Palm Beach [Florida] for the first week of December to make sure we dot all of our Is and cross all our Ts going into 2023.
How important was it to LIV Golf to land Cameron Smith, the reigning Open Championship winner?
Norman: I spoke to him before he decided to come on board. He understood exactly what the circumstances were for him. He understood from his own personal and family opportunities to be able to spend more time at home, which is basically 100% of every other player’s thoughts and opinions on it, giving them the flexibility and the opportunity of playing as much or more golf that he wants outside of our 14 tournaments. He really grasped the opportunity of building a franchise in Australia. This really excited him, probably more than anything else, to be honest with you.
There has been speculation that other PGA Tour members might defect to LIV Golf before the 2023 season. What can you tell us about that?
Norman: There is open discussion going on as we speak. Quite honestly, the players on the outside looking in to see what’s happening with LIV today, these guys still talk to each other, right? It’s not like they do not speak to each other. They do speak to each other and the ones on LIV feel like they’re liberated. The players on the PGA Tour that we are speaking to today want to be liberated. Those conversations are ongoing.
Internally we’ve just got to make the right decisions. There’s not too many spots left, I can tell you that. We’ve got a lot of happy campers who have signed one- or two-year contracts and want to stay on for longer.
What percentage of your current players do you anticipate coming back next season?
Norman: 85 to 90% of the players, I would say.
What happens to the players who aren’t welcomed back and are relegated off rosters?
Norman: To be honest with you, that goes down to the team captain. The team captain’s got to talk to them and find out whether they want to continue on with the team and negotiate. It’s really up to them. We get recommendations from a principal player who he’d like to have on his team and who he has spoken to. They come to us for that recommendation and then we’ve got to look at it from a league perspective and discuss it internally.
So if 85% to 90% of your current players are coming back, how many are you looking to add for 2023?
Norman: Basically, we are looking for maybe seven players, something like that.
What was the most difficult thing for you personally during LIV Golf’s inaugural season?
Norman: I’m going to give you one word: disappointment. That disappointment was from the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour. I do know the history. I do know the approaches that were made by myself personally and others to try and explain what LIV is all about and to try to create an ecosystem where we truly felt like we actually fit into it, and we do fit into it. You can see our model is completely different from the PGA Tour, but the Tour is now picking up on things that we were doing.
It was just disappointing from a player’s perspective who was so deeply involved with the development of the game of golf around the world for so long. We built our business model to work within the ecosystem. We didn’t build our business model to do what others have tried to do — to kill us off. We wanted to work within the ecosystem. We still have the capabilities and will always try to work within the ecosystems from scheduling to working and making sure the players are happy.
When was the last time you attempted to contact PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan?
Norman: I probably reached out to Jay sometime around mid-year. Quite honestly, you know, I think the ball’s in their court now. We’ve tried on many angles, many fronts through many institutions. We’ve sat down, and I’ve personally spoken to some of the highest institutions out there. Like I said, it’s very, very disappointing, this vitriol and this ill-will feeling.
I can tell you guys, with my hand on my heart, all the PGA Tour players and the DP World Tour players who play with LIV, they want to go back and play on the PGA Tour. Some of them are now saying, ‘No, no, no, no.’ But in the beginning, they all wanted to go back and play on the PGA Tour. It wasn’t like they said, ‘No, I’m never going to go back and play on the PGA Tour.’ The PGA Tour created this angst; we did not create the angst. Why does competition create heartburn? Why does competition create vitriol? Why does competition create this divisive nature? Competition is the best thing for all of us.
Have you spoken to any of the majors about whether LIV golfers will be allowed to participate in them going forward?
Norman: No, I have not had any conversations. I applaud [R&A CEO Martin Slumbers] for the statement that he made just recently that it would be open and LIV golfers are welcome [at The Open]. I’d be interested to see what new criteria or criteria adjustments that may take place. But you’ve got to look at it from the majors’ perspective too, right? If you are losing 13 of your top 50 players, do you really have a true major? Do you have the best of the best in the world? No, you don’t. And our guys want to go play the major championships. They want to play them, they love them.
The majors should be Switzerland. The majors should never have ever stepped into the ring of vitriol and divisiveness because the majors are a totally separate entity. So I was very pleased to see what Martin Slumbers had done, and I had not spoken to anybody else recently.
Where do you stand with LIV golfers receiving Official World Golf Ranking points? You were quoted as saying that OWGR chairman Peter Dawson told you that he wanted LIV golfers to receive points. Is that true?
Norman: Look, no question about it, it’s definitely a hurdle. We recognize that. I personally don’t think it’s right. I think from golf’s perspective, I don’t think it’s right. [LIV Golf has] 13 of the top 50 in the world and therefore the OWGR are missing 13 of the top 50. I have had conversations with Peter Dawson. I’ve been close with Peter Dawson for a long, long period of time, since he was head of the R&A. He understands what’s good for the game of golf, what LIV is and that’s what it is. We have to grow the game of golf, and we’re growing the game of golf through LIV. We’re growing the game of golf through other pathways. I’ve had personal conversations with him.
Just to clarify, did Peter Dawson tell you that he wanted LIV golfers to receive OWGR points?
Norman: I have had conversations with Peter along those lines, yes.
There are certain guidelines to get OWGR points. Even though all of them don’t have to be met, there are a couple of obvious ones that LIV Golf could meet by making a couple of changes, including having a cut or having better access from tournament to tournament. Is any of that possible?
Norman: We’re on a two-pronged approach: We applied through LIV back in July for OWGR points. We worked closely with the technical committee at OWGR. We felt like we ticked all the boxes that needed to be ticked, so we put in our application. Because of other opportunities that we recognized through the MENA Tour about helping a development tour that was stuck in the mud from the COVID days. Actually, they reached out to us and we studied it for quite a few months to see whether it was there. And when you look at that avenue or approach we’ve taken, we are very, very confident we’ve checked all the boxes to get OWGR points.
I understand OWGR’s got to go through a process with a technical committee, and they say there’s a time period to go through it. I get all that. But at the end of the day, when we have done a two-pronged approach in applying for points, and knowing that players who are sitting on the sideline are missing out on it, it is detrimental to other tournaments as well. It is detrimental to the PGA Tour and the majors. It shows you that the OWGR was never prepared for a new entity like LIV Golf. You’ve got to expect the unexpected sometimes. And when somebody comes along like we have with an incredible business model that actually is working and has been proven to work, as we’ve shown over the last eight tournaments this year, you’ve got to have the flexibility and adaptability to allow a new entity to come in.