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Why the PGA Tour needs to regain control of the plot at The Players

With a massive new rights deal announced and the No. 1 player in the world defending it against a wealthy competitor, the PGA Tour tries to regain control of the plot at TPC Sawgrass.

THE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round Photo by Ben Jared/PGA TOUR

There may be no major sports league that better avoids powerful rogue waves of negative PR better than the PGA Tour. They keep a firm grip on the narrative as a league full of class acts with “miles of first row seats” where everyone can come and Live Under Par. There are occasional nuisances from inquiring golf media types and black eyes from one of their incorrigible independent contractors, but those heal quickly. There’s rarely a scandal or threat that consumes the league’s story for an extended period of time. They do not lose their hold on the routine.

The start of 2020 has been different. The Tour’s members are not on the same page on several significant issues, which collectively threaten the entire structure of the pro game. The most prominent threat was (and is) the Premier Golf League, still just a concept, but one that would poach the top players from the PGA Tour. The proposal would give those top stars some equity stake in the league as captains of a team playing in a series of worldwide events against other teams. The group is backed by Saudi money that has seemed intent on buying its way into the game by offering some of these marquee names, like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, millions of dollars to make the leap.

The PGL thinks it can compliment or co-exist with the established PGA Tour, but Tour commissioner Jay Monahan came out unequivocally after this upstart concept (six years in the making) went public, and said a pro could not be a member of the PGA Tour if he were to join the PGL. There have been different experiments or ideas that have come up over the years, but the PGL is a real threat backed by real cash and with preparations, down to minor operational details, already done. If successful, it would hollow out the PGA Tour in a dramatic way, maybe even ending its viability altogether, which is why some of the game’s top players have had their temperatures taken on it by the press since this became major public news in late January.

The existential threat of the PGL also added an element of apprehension to what was supposed to be a media rights deal victory lap. The Tour opened up the bidding for a new deal last year, almost two years before the current deals expire, in order to get ahead of NFL negotiations that would (allegedly) leave the networks destitute. Those deals were reportedly targeted for the end of 2019. The details have slowly trickled out this year, with news that the legacy TV networks would likely be involved again and that the PGA Tour might be taking control of on-site production. But with the possibility of top stars leaving for a PGL, what exactly would the networks be buying for billions of dollars? And setting aside the panicked cries of “state run media,” what exactly would a PGA Tour controlled production look like? Even if it was in pursuit of a guaranteed pot of billions at the end, these became big questions with a level of uncertainty and change we’re not used to with this operation.

And then there is the matter of the equipment that impacts the pro game. There’s been a belief for years that a day of reckoning was coming for the new generation of juiced golf equipment that’s obsoleting the game’s best courses and “dumbing down” the skills once required to be the best. The long-awaited Distance Insights Report from the governing bodies on both sides of the Atlantic, the USGA and the R&A, dropped in early February and came out with the strongest language to date that something must be done. The PGA Tour has been against any kind of rolling back of equipment in the past, but the report seemed to signal that’s now a likely course. At the Tour level, a rollback will become a bitter battle with equipment companies that pay the Tour’s players gobs of cash and spend plenty of ad dollars with the Tour itself arguing against it.

The Tour has not provided an official position on the latest distance report — it’s been a busy quarter — but its players have been all over the map responding to the report’s findings and insights. Some think any change to the status quo would be punitive to the new modern “athlete” hitting the ball 400 yards while others, including the No. 1 player in the world, have welcomed a bifurcation that would roll it back for the pros while letting amateurs hacking it around your local muni still have the metal-bat juiced stuff. Whatever the final course of action, the distance report has added another element of uncertainty on a subject that could dramatically change the game at the pro level.

These are a lot of significant movements under the foundations of the professional game, and it’s left the Tour with not only an existential threat but also internecine disagreement that it’s not used to wrangling with. The Players Championship this week is the Tour’s biggest event of the season. It’s their major, held at their headquarters, and with what feels like infinite resources and marketing dollars pumped into making it as “big” — this is the industry term now apparently used to talk about a tournament that is significant but not considered a major — as possible.

A month ago, as the Tour wrapped up its West Coast swing, it felt like this Players week could be an awkward, even, morose return to the PGA Tour’s home. Now it feels like a massive opportunity to wipe out some of that uncertainty and regain control of a plot that felt like it was getting lost.

If you’re a Live Under Par loyalist, here are a few developments to have you feeling better about things.

The deal is done

The rights deal is done and announced. Given current events and the day’s news climate, the big reveal and rollout maybe (probably ... definitely) should have been canceled. Commissioner Jay Monahan was in an exceedingly awkward and tough spot on CNBC Monday morning trying to crowbar the news in between markets crumbling and coronavirus spreading. It was probably not the rollout he expected, but that will be forgotten while the cash coming in from the deal won’t. The new arrangement is reportedly a 70 percent increase over the last contract, more than $700 million annually over a nine-year deal. Woods is not at The Players this week, but networks went through negotiations under no illusion that he’ll be a fixture on Tour for this full decade. There were also almost certainly protections added should the Tour’s stars flee to a PGL. And the money still rushed in at a 70-percent increase. The deal is done and the players have it settled there will be a massive influx of cash coming to its member-run tour.

Shiny new tech to show the future

This week will be a look into the future with every shot by every player in the field shown via TV and streaming on PGA Tour Live. The Tour has been aggressive in pursuing this capability, which Augusta National rolled out at last year’s Masters. There will be some hiccups, but in working with NBC’, it will be a nice show of force and display potential future plans to chop up and sell specific player feeds to different constituencies around the world (and gambling outfits) from one main, massive Tour-controlled media hub at the Tour’s HQ. It’s an impressive undertaking and something to celebrate and feel good about if you’re the Tour and NBC.

An anti-PGL gladiator

Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world and maybe the most marketable non-Woods star, has come out strongly against the Premier Golf League when others refused to do so. Woods gave a non-answer at Riviera, Phil Mickelson seems like he’s ready to jump for an end-of-career windfall and Adam Scott called the proposed concept “fantastic.” Many other stars are or have been rumored to be interested in the proposal.

Then there’s McIlroy, who took his initial “I’m out” critique from two weeks ago even further last week at Bay Hill. McIlroy said of the PGL that he “didn’t like where the money was coming from,” a direct reference to the Saudi backing.

His other critiques about being required to play 18 events per year or losing his independent contractor status could be negotiated with this PGL group, in theory. More money and greater equity stake could be thrown at McIlroy, in theory. Even McIlroy said two weeks ago that he was against it until he couldn’t be, invoking a hypothetical in which all of his peers at the top of the world rankings had defected and so he too had to join. Much of the proposal could be malleable as they attempt to push it across the goal line. The money, and where it “comes from,” is the least flexible. This will almost certainly be a Saudi-backed venture. And with that comes the wave of derision and critique that has flowed ever since the Saudis debuted on the world golf stage with a Euro Tour event last year while daily headlines focused on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s butchering on KSA orders.

Despite McIlroy’s opposition, the PGL is not dead. But no one, either for or against the PGL, has spoken in the strong terms that McIlroy has so far. And he comes to The Players as the defending champion, its marquee star, No. 1 in the world, and having just denounced the most inflexible, least negotiable aspect of the PGL. That has to have commissioner Monahan feeling slightly less terrified than a month ago on the West Coast swing.

A good place to show its core product

The Tour is not close to solving the distance problem, and it’s not necessarily their problem to address. But TPC Sawgrass can inhibit some of those outrageous distances that make other courses feel obsolete. There are different styles of winners hitting all manner of entertaining shots at this championship. The obscene amounts of marketing lard around The Players can be a turnoff, but at the core, it produces a great golf product for TV. So forget about all the brand slogans and just watch the actual golf, which is something the Tour can lose sight of in its rush to slather us in some new marketing narrative about itself.

Maybe the PGA Tour has felt like they’ve had this all the way. The rights deal was always going to get done. An upstart challenger, no matter how much cash they have, is not going to easily overthrow decades of the established order. This can all change rapidly — maybe a group of would-be PGL players decides to even start a fire from inside the HQ tent this week. But there was a fear that The Players could be a morose homecoming. As the week starts, it feels more like the league regaining control of its story.