The LIV/PGA Golf Merger: Why Are We Always So Surprised That Sports Is A Business?

The sports world is apoplectic about one of the year’s biggest surprises. LIV Golf, which lured away PGA golfers with millions of Saudi Arabian money last year, has agreed to merge (or take over, depending on your perspective) the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) and end their litigation. All well and good, but there is so much more than sports to this story. 

First and foremost, the uproar over this deal and league has centered around human rights. When top players like Brooks Koepka (who recently won the PGA Championship), Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau took millions to go to the Saudi Public Investment Fund LIV league, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan equated this golf treason to supporting the country, which advocates mistreatment of women and was instrumental in the 9/11 bombings. 

Monahan, following the announcement of this deal, has to have enough self-awareness to know he’ll be brutally challenged for his hypocrisy with statements such as:  “After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love. This transformational partnership recognizes the immeasurable strength of the PGA TOUR’s history, legacy and pro-competitive model and combines with it the DP (European) World Tour and LIV – including the team golf concept – to create an organization that will benefit golf’s players, commercial and charitable partners and fans.” But for Monahan, an overwhelming amount of capital is what’s going to cleanse his double-tongued palate and erase his lawsuits against LIV. And did you know the PGA was a non-profit organization? 

We need to be mindful of human rights violations that are well documented and should have been relevant in this deal which was all about money and buying off litigation. The Saudi Public Investment Fund’s cash reserves are greater than some small countries’ GDP.  But what’s interesting is that the world has just now started paying attention to Saudi Arabia’s moves to take over some sports and entertainment industries. Did we forget that they just paid millions to lure Renaldo to spearhead their Saudi soccer league, soon to be followed, according to some reports, by Lionel Messi?  

A few years ago, the WWE cut a deal with the Saudis, to much human rights uproar in that industry, to bring pro wrasslin to Saudi Arabia at least two times a year. Initially, women weren’t allowed to participate, but now they can wrestle if they wear full jumpsuits to cover their skin. The WWE held a major event in Riyadh a few weeks ago featuring a Canadian wrestler of Syrian descent named Sami Zayn, who defended his tag team title. Zayn, for years, refused to go on the WWEs Saudi junkets but suddenly reversed course this year, supposedly because the country resumed negotiations with Syria after cutting diplomatic ties in 2011. Really? Like LIV and Renaldo, money again apparently erased all perceived sins.   

This whole golf debacle is not without international precedent. The latest soccer World Cup was played in oil-rich Qatar, which in hindsight, was another oil money buyout with FIFA. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported last year that at least 6,500 migrant workers died building World Cup structures. Again, no one seemed to care because Qatar, which was not on anyone’s World Cup destination list, paid off FIFA for the honor. Qatar also bought the Paris-St. Germain Football Club in 2011 and in recent years has paid astronomical fees to purchase Messi, Neymar and the world’s greatest soccer player, Kylian Mbappé. 

So let’s cut back a bit on the shock and awe being exhibited by some golfers and sports media pundits. Remember that the PGA/LIV merger is just another example of many that professional sports is, first and foremost, and always will be, a business. It should also be known that ESPN didn’t break the initial news of this merger; it was aired by business channel CNBC. 

Money has been king in this sport for decades. And golf has long been a business where all you have to do is show up to get a paycheck. In essence, the sport has become “Kardashianfied.” 

The merger also has a lot of internal dilemmas to solve, such as what in the world will PGA golfers like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who both refused millions by the Saudis, feel about LIV golfers like Koepka and Mickelson coming back after cashing their checks? What if current PGA golfers decide they don’t want Saudi money? Are we supposed to feel sorry for country club-weaned PGA golfers who were born with a silver putter in their mouths? Will there be a new golfing major located in Saudi Arabia? What will happen to small regional tournaments like the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit? 

If there’s a business lesson in all of this, here it is. While at first blush, you absolutely are entitled to feel cynical about the merger because it directly discourages behavior that responsible business owners with core principles should adhere to, the reality is money still talks. Loudly. Is this a good business decision? Is Monahan a hypocrite? The answers are, we’ll see, and yes, but the business world is full of hypocrites and he’s just one of many. 

Let’s hope that somehow good things and good actors will ultimately prevail. That’s the safeguard against cynicism. Business owners need to decide whether money-based decisions are worth the long-term risk of turning off customers and employees while diminishing their principles. Someone once said, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for everything.” The PGA is not standing. It’s falling for cash.