Saudi-backed LIV Golf searches for US broadcaster

A new golf league that is funded by Saudi Arabia is attempting to find a top-tier broadcaster to air its games in the US as it tries to disrupt the sport’s established tour.

LIV Golf has been pitching itself to American television companies in a roadshow in recent weeks. But the process is clouded by scepticism over the upstart which has torn apart professional golf this year. LIV is financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and has been championed by former US president Donald Trump, who hosted a tournament at his New Jersey golf course this summer.

LIV has in the past few weeks held talks with many US broadcasters, including Warner Bros Discovery and Fox, according to people familiar with the matter. As discussions carry on, a handful of potential partners have emerged, including a start-up streaming service and a large owner of broadcast television stations, these people said.

However, some of the largest broadcasters — such as CBS, NBC and ABC — are not interested in LIV because they are already locked into long term contracts with the PGA Tour, the flagship American golf circuit that wants to defend its command of the sport, according to people familiar with the discussions.

“Obviously PGA is PGA, they’re not some weird Saudi thing”, said an executive at a large US broadcaster.

LIV has previously approached Apple, which recently flung itself deeper into sports with a $2.5bn deal to air Major League Soccer, but the tech giant did not respond, said a person familiar with the matter.

Former president Donald Trump hosted a LIV tournament at his New Jersey golf course this summer © Seth Wenig/AP

Finding broadcast partners is critical to establishing LIV as a competitor to the PGA Tour, as the two groups clash over the future of golf. LIV wants to disrupt the centuries-old sport, shortening the length of games and trying to appeal to younger viewers.

Since starting its inaugural season this summer, LIV has aired its events for free on YouTube and niche streaming sites like DAZN. But they are not available to watch on any leading television channels or streaming services in the US, the largest sports market in the world and home to millions of golf fans.

Fox has been rumoured as the most likely place to show the LIV league because it does not currently air any golf from the PGA Tour. LIV chief executive Greg Norman is a longtime friend of Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox.

However, the two sides have not advanced talks substantively since Fox initially heard LIV’s pitch three weeks ago, according to people familiar with the matter.

LIV has discussed paying Fox to air its tournaments, GolfWeek first reported, a reversal of standard deals in which TV channels pay sports leagues to show their events. A so-called “time-buy” is sometimes used by sports trying to establish themselves by buying airtime.

A time-buy was one of several options discussed and no deal has been agreed or is imminent, said people familiar with the matter. Fox declined to comment.

Many broadcasters are locked into long term contracts with the incumbent PGA Tour © Richard Washbrooke/News Images/Sipa USA via Reuters

LIV wants to secure its broadcast deal by the end of this year. It said that it is in “active discussions with several companies” to broadcast the league.

A person close to LIV says the group had always viewed this year’s inaugural season as a marketing opportunity to prove its worth to potential partners, so that it could lock in media rights deals for 2023. Time-buys are a “common practice” in such scenarios, the person said.

Critics of LIV allege that Saudi Arabia is using sports to try to soften its reputation for human rights violations. “I think you have to be living under a rock to not know that there are significant implications,” Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour, said in June. “Have you ever had to apologise for being a member of the PGA Tour?”. 

Nonetheless, golfers such as Phil Mickelson joined the LIV tour, lured by a reported $200mn payout.

A person close to LIV said the group is not seeing any backlash to its affiliation with Saudi Arabia. “We’re a golf league, we’re not a government”, the person said.

Golf has historically been a niche sport in the US, lacking the blockbuster television audiences that American football or basketball attract. The final round of this year’s PGA championship drew 5.3mn viewers — a tenth of that of the NFL’s Super Bowl and about half of the NBA finals.

But it punches above its weight with advertisers because they view it as a way to reach wealthier audiences. BMW and Rolex have been longtime sponsors for big golf series.

Trump has pressed players to defect from the PGA Tour and join LIV, urging golfers to “take the money now” on his social media network, Truth Social. The series is set to finish its inaugural season later this month at Trump’s Doral golf course in Florida, where the winning team will take home $16mn.

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