Triangulation is an indispensable strategy in politics and commerce, deftly positioning oneself as an alternative both above and between the stale, established options. Just such an approach is evident in Premier Golf League, which aspires to be a new global tour for golf’s superstars.
Every promise of what this hypothetical tour will deliver — elite fields, colossal prize money, fresh formats, elevated viewing options, even tax revenue — carries a none-too-subtle subtext that both players and fans are ill-served in these areas by existing Tours and their broadcast partners. There’s an element of truth in this, but a different triangulated analysis lays bare a troublesome reality for any new tour: without players, there is no money; without money, there are no players; without both, there is no broadcast deal. And six years after the idea for this new tour first emerged, all it has produced is more name changes than Zsa Zsa Gabor’s wedding registry.
However, the fact that Premier Golf League hasn’t gained traction is precisely why the PGA Tour should seriously consider the motivations behind it, because the next group to propose a splinter circuit may be better organized and find a more receptive audience in the world’s top golfers.
The sentiment underpinning the proposed League is straightforward —superstars are subsidizing too many also-rans, and fans want to see more of the former and less of the latter. That’s not a popular opinion among either the also-rans themselves or PGA Tour executives incentivized to maximize playing opportunities for their members. But it’s not entirely without merit.
The League concept can be distilled to this: tournaments with guaranteed money that pit stars against each other without the inconvenience of having to navigate challengers from the lower orders whose unexpected good form threatens to ruin the ratings with a win. Limited-field events with large purses already exist for elite players in the World Golf Championships, and the bounty on offer will only increase with the PGA Tour’s next broadcast rights renewal. Where the League and the Tour part ways philosophically is on how far down the wealth should trickle.
The 100th-ranked player on last season’s PGA Tour money list, Carlos Ortiz, earned almost $1.2 million on the course, roughly twice what tennis player Thomas Fabbiano made for finishing 100th in ATP Tour earnings. That’s a healthy reward for a season noteworthy only for three top-10 finishes. Mediocrity pays well on the PGA Tour. The League has no place for a Carlos Ortiz.
Leaving aside all the marketing piffle about delivering a more enjoyable product to fans, Premier Golf League is about delivering guaranteed money to top players, in addition to sizable purses. Guarantees have never existed on the PGA Tour, where players get paid only when they perform. But should performance be measured differently in the modern business of professional golf?
Rickie Fowler can be said to have performed at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open. He sold tickets, drew fan interest and did his duty at the pro-am. But Fowler likely lost tens of thousands of dollars by the time his jet landed back home after a missed cut. Superstar economics would assure Fowler and others who drive business a share of the spoils, but try selling that theory to players who moved no tickets and engaged no fans, but did make the cut. The votes of those guys count just the same as Fowler’s, and there are a lot more of them.
The PGA Tour is mandated to provide playing opportunities for all its members, which explains the prevalence of 156-man fields, even if most fans can identify only a fraction of competitors. Plus, so much of the texture of sport is found in the underdogs who emerge from the crowd and for all its flaws the PGA Tour at least enables such storylines. A de facto exhibition tour designed to enrich a recurring cast of stars still risks becoming an insipid wheelbarrow race to the bank vault.
Star players have various reasons to entertain conjecture about a rival tour, whether they are no longer competitive and see an opportunity to cash in on past glories or simply want to spook the Tour into rethinking how its ample pie is sliced, and how many people it should feed every week. If the rumbling about a breakaway effort persists, the Tour might just have to consider that the cost of appeasing its antsy thoroughbreds is thinning the herd of workhorses also cluttering the track each week.
Golfweek.com, January 26, 2020.