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LIV PGA Tour merger talks delayed: What does 2024 hold for the future of golf?

Jon Rahm announcing he signed with LIV Golf shocked the golfing world and disrupted LIV PGA Tour merger talks

In a move widely expected, given the imminent arrival of the self-imposed 31 December deadline, The Telegraph is now reporting that merger talks between LIV and PGA Tour will be extended. Obviously, this is no surprise for many. The 6 June shock announcement from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund and the PGA Tour to lay down their weapons and move towards a reunification of golf was surprisingly light on any detail. With rumours that meetings were still to occur all through December, including a “final” meeting on the D-Day of 31 December itself, an outcome in time for 2024 seemed unlikely.

Further, contributing to the delay were antitrust investigations into the deal by the U.S. Justice Department and the emergence of the Strategic Sports Group as another potential investor. And, of course, the shock announcement that Jon Rahm had decided to sign with LIV Golf rocking the golf world. Make no bones about it; securing the scalp of Jon Rahm was a major boon for LIV Golf. It was his Masters victory which likely made the defection easier to stomach for Rahm. It granted him multiple years with guaranteed entry to all four majors. With LIV denied OWGR points, due a lack of clear pathways for earning (or losing) a card other than answering the phone, certainty of major entries was essential for Rahm. Further, it is speculated Rahm had become disillusioned with leadership from the negotiating team and, particularly, Patrick Cantlay’s emergence as a supposed leading voice in those talks.

It’s fair that golf fans have grown restless, frustrated, and despondent for the continual disruptions. So fans find themselves once again asking the question: what now for the future of professional golf?

Scenario 1: LIV PGA Tour merger confirmed in 2024

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that at some point in early 2024 the LIV PGA Tour merger is finally confirmed. Speculation is that the new deadline will be moved to end of March, before the latest LIV defector Jon Rahm defends his green jacket at the 2024 Masters.

What the Rahm move means is the onus is now on the PGA Tour to find a solution. Losing one of the four biggest names in the sport is a golf ball sized pill to swallow. The thought of two of their flagship events, the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, being without their defending champion is a bad look. Rahm is one of the few names in golf that actually move the needle in viewership.

The exact shape of that deal remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, team golf would form an element. Several LIV contracts have included equity in their respective teams for their key signings. The best scenario for fans would likely see LIV move to a team only format, drawing on players from both the PGA and DP World Tours. The current LIV format is messy, confusing, and the viewership numbers show it has simply not connected with fans in the way they hoped. Separating team golf and individual golf would provide clarity.

Most importantly for fans, it would see the best golfers play together more often. Otherwise, the sport risks becoming tennis where the major championships are the only time the best all compete. Or worse, boxing where fans are left to contemplate what title really matters. The merger remains a very possible resolution. And one which could see Jon Rahm get his $USD500m cake and be able to eat it too.

Scenario 2: PGA Tour and Strategic Sports Group form a new deal

Another possibility is that the PGA Tour utilise the expiration of the 31 December deadline and the DOJ investigation to back out of the LIV PGA Tour merger. The emergence of another potential investor was not expected. However, it became clear this was a preference for the PGA Tour when players gained further voices on the board and Tiger Woods made obvious his sentiments on the matter.

This comes with some problems. First, let’s be very clear. There is no viable business case for the current deals being signed for players. Yes: Jon Rahm is a very, very good golfer. But, he is simply not worth $US500m for a deal rumoured to be for 3-5 years. To put the number in perspective, the PGA Tour generates about 10% of the revenue of the NBA. Rahm’s deal alone is worth about a third of all revenue generated by golf in a year from all sources. It is roughly double the highest paid NBA player.

Unlike PIF, other entities expect and need a return on their investment. The Saudi PIF have already demonstrated they don’t necessarily care about a direct financial return from buying professional golf. More, they may benefit indirectly through sports washing and non-linear business deals made adjacent to LIV tournaments.

Therefore, it’s a reasonable assumption any money invested by Fenway will not be to the exorbitant extents PIF are offering. It could provide a temporary solution. But it is unlikely sustainable for more than a few years to compete with LIV. Whether LIV agree to allow SSG a seat at the table in a triangular agreement remains to be seen.

Scenario 3: LIV PGA Tour talks dissolve

This possibility likely sends a shiver down the spines of golf fans. The status quo would be a huge blow to golf fans. Perhaps we were blissfully naive as fans to be able to watch all the best players regularly compete against one another. But there is a real chance we don’t see those times again for the foreseeable future.

Further, the move of Jon Rahm is likely to see others follow. It provides real legitimacy to the LIV Tour; a feather in their cap that we can expect them to roll-out frequently. It could result in a further fracturing of the best players in the game. For a somewhat niche sport that lacks global appeal, it means spreading to little butter over too much bread. The resulting reduction in viewership and subsequently revenue would be devastating to the game as we know it.

It is already the case that many arm-chair golf fans tune in only for the majors and that’s about it. The continued fractured tours would only amplify that phenomenon.

The death of the journeyman golfer

Irrespective of what deal (or lack thereof) is struck, one thing does seem certain. The concentration of funding is all pointing towards the elite of the game. That is unsustainable for the sport, resulting in less funding for those who have previously made a comfortable living from golf without setting the world alight. If you are ranked outside the top 100 in the world, the life as a professional golfer will inevitably look quite different.

In many ways, that is a real shame. The beauty of golf is that any player can win on their day. The David and Goliath stories of Rocco Mediate going against the G.O.A.T. will be all that more infrequent. Fields of 140+ players and even having a cut could well be a thing of the past. For many players, making that cut can mean the difference between keeping their tour card or returning to the lower ranks for another attempt. All of that makes for compelling storylines; the types of tales that keep bringing us back to the sport.

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