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1 May 2024

Golf’s wealth wars

The influx of cash that came with the breakaway LIV series exposed the fault lines that run through all professional sport.

By Ed Smith

 Who owns sport? No one knows. One reason is that sport initially became wealthy and global by explicitly claiming not to be about money. Guess what: the Victorian world-view hasn’t held. But it hasn’t completely died either, and that’s the root of the current messiness. Sport is business, but it’s not just business. And that grey area is part of the magic but it’s also the argument.

Which comes back to ownership. Players are the stars, but without fans to entertain they are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Administrators “run” sport and sometimes act like entrepreneurs, but are they really “bosses” or more akin to union representatives?

Broadcasters write huge cheques, wanting stories as well as constant entertainment in return. Which is why, from an investment perspective, sport is now a “media property” – a fact worth remembering when you see football managers railing (however understandably) at the television-led match schedules. They are pointing the finger at the sources of their own wealth.

And now nation states have got involved, especially the Gulf states. Manchester City’s majority owner is the UAE’s deputy prime minister, Sheikh Mansour, meaning that Abu Dhabi is only just out of view whenever we thrill to Pep Guardiola’s exquisite football.

The biggest beast of all is the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, which has been buying sports properties around the world in support of its government’s “Vision 2030”, which seeks to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil-based industries.

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Sport-washing? If you like, yes – according to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: “If ‘sport-washing’ is going to increase my GDP by way of 1 per cent, then I will continue to do sport-washing.”

The PIF’s effect has been like watching sport’s uncertain relationship with money play out at x30 speed. In particular, its entry into golf – a sport that possesses the incendiary mix of liking big money but also perceiving itself as “gentlemanly” – was always going to be an epic clash of styles. Golf Wars, by the respected BBC golf correspondent Iain Carter, takes us inside his sport just as it is being split down the middle.

Breakaway leagues are always noisy, and usually more morally complex than a “good guys vs bad guys” narrative. Kerry Packer, the brash Australian whose World Series Cricket revolutionised the game in the 1970s, is a case in point. He waltzed into the Australian Cricket Board saying, “Come gentlemen, there’s a little bit of the whore in all of us; name your price.” But Packer saw his motives as half-altruistic. In the old way of doing things, the players weren’t getting a fair deal. After Packer, basically they have.

The same seam has been mined by the golfer-turned-entrepreneur Greg Norman – another outspoken Australian – in his capacity as the CEO of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf, launched in 2022 as a rival to America’s long-standing PGA Tour. So one reading of this book is that golf has been turned upside down by Saudi money. Another is that sport is always splitting and reforming, with money – especially money from new sources – routinely acting as the wedge. It’s a new story; it’s an old story.

Carter is temperamentally a romantic who admires what Rory McIlroy describes as the “pure competition” of seeking glory rather than cash. Unsurprisingly, he loves the Ryder Cup – in which the US and Europe play against each other without prize money at stake. Indeed, Carter has provided BBC radio listeners with some of the Ryder Cup’s most dramatic moments. But he’s too good a reporter to allow his personal tastes to skew the book: it is full of quotes but without any cheap shots.

The result is as much a chronicle of a golf reporter’s life on the circuit as an exploration of money-induced “golf wars”. Several chapters are titled “Diaries”, pacy accounts of golf’s four major tournaments, where Carter is an established star commentator. Perhaps unintentionally, by candidly allowing the reader to see golf through a journalistic lens, Carter reveals as much about the media as he does about the sport.

Press releases land, jaws drop, quotes are hunted, players put up for interview, editors weigh newsyness, column inches are tussled over, scoops applauded. The imperative is now, immediate, today.

A key element here, of course, is the news cycle’s daily requirement for player quotes. Tournament player interview zones emerge as factories (or abattoirs) “from which most news lines are generated”. And the beast must be fed. “The reporters are hungry for stories,” Carter explains, “and with players ever more circumspect it seems a tougher and tougher task to generate headlines.” Over the short term, inevitably, there are friends to be made when players toss out some tasty morsels. “[Bryson] DeChambeau has been off mainstream media for too long,” Carter writes of one of the LIV rebels. “He is missed. Always whacky, he remains one of golf’s most quotable stars.” Later, Carter tips his hat to “a quote with which the press can run”.

This industrialisation of the news cycle is not the fault of anyone in particular – it’s an uneasy compromise between players, agents, tournament organisers, broadcasters, newspapers and, of course, viewers and readers.

But once something has been industrialised, it’s also inevitably dehumanised. So it is intriguing, reflecting on the annual dinner of the Association of Golf Writers, to read Carter lament: “We don’t seem to attract many players these days. It feels as though they become more isolated from us with every year that passes.” How can that be a surprise?

One of the fascinating threads of the book is watching players struggle with how much to say on the record. Rory McIlroy, who is highly articulate and quotable, initially relishes being the frontman for the loyalist anti-LIV cause. But even McIlroy is overwhelmed by the leading role in which he cast himself, and withdraws to recover his mental equilibrium. What looked like an opportunity to speak from the heart turned into a quagmire of misunderstandings. So speak less and play better? Not a bad default position for an athlete, in times of both war and peace.

There is another subliminal theme, which may land more clearly for readers who live mostly outside the golfing world (like me). The salaries inside golf are increasing exponentially, but the name-recognition of the protagonists is probably travelling in the opposite direction. I learned this while reading Golf Wars: I am almost embarrassed to admit how many “big names” in modern golf were relatively unknown to me. I’m not comparing today’s top players with Tiger Woods, because Woods is a true outlier. But one notch down from the super-elite, and golf is now played by extremely wealthy players who are relatively little known outside their own sport.

Here, golf chimes with cricket (in this country), which is richer and in some respects more successful than ever, but fears being pushed to the margins. In terms of matches and tournaments won, England men’s cricket has enjoyed far more playing success over the past 15 years than during the 1980s and 1990s. And yet 1980s cricketers were probably better known and understood as popular heroes. Overall, English cricket has become wealthier, but also narrower. Carter’s book implies the same has happened to golf.

There are many reasons for this (including the never-ending ascent of football), but it’s hard to deny that satellite television is part of the equation. Once your game is mostly hidden behind a paywall, a major trade-off takes place: the game gets the cash, but a lot of people are left outside the gates.

Having fewer fans who are effectively funding ever more riches also creates a paradox: the game has to work harder to sweat its “stakeholders” (viewers), which in turn adds urgency to the need for stories that “cut through” into the mainstream, hence exacerbating the industrialisation of player access and the factory-line production of quotes and storylines. Yet this media-corporate complex induces weariness and cynicism among the very people it purports to serve: the fans who love the sport in the first place. Sport is addicted to constant refinancing, just to service its self-induced interest payments. And this “necessity” to make people pay more and more may lead them to love sport less and less.

Which introduces another theme that emerges between the lines of Carter’s book. No one is having a particularly good time. The top American administrator, Jay Monahan, has a health collapse due to the burden of triangulating the various parties at war. And the poster boys on each side of the golf wars (Phil Mickelson for LIV, McIlroy for the old-fashioned “Tour”) both suffer from acute and debilitating stress. All prompted by reconciling how to manage the influx of a few billion dollars. Put differently: in today’s highly mature sporting economy, what does winning really look like? Not like this, I would suggest.

That is connected to my final rejoinder, which is not aimed against LIV Golf per se, though it does put a question mark against one of its mantras. “Grow the game,” they say. But in sport (excepting football), we are increasingly learning that “growth” and “wealth” are far from synonyms. Just as often, they push in opposite directions. So, readers from other sports inclined to mock golf’s travails should think again: it is everyone’s issue now.

Ed Smith is director of the Institute of Sports Humanities

Golf Wars: LIV and Golf’s Bitter Battle for Power and Identity
Iain Carter
Bloomsbury Sport, 272pp, £20

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[See also: The football club that data built]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March