An awful lot has happened since our last installment on LIV Golf and the Saudis. For starters, the PGA Tour has fired back with a new compensation package for its players, including a guaranteed half million dollars for all players. Cam Smith, the world’s number two-ranked player, jumped ship to the new league.
Official World Golf Ranking points is the new battleground. LIV Golf is trying to use the minor, and largely inoperative, MENA (Middle East North Africa) Tour as a proxy to score OWGR points for its players. We’ll see how that turns out. If it doesn’t, we have Golf Saudi’s Majed Al Sorour threatening to create his own “majors.”
Oh, and we can’t forget one boffo No Putts Given episode featuring the always candid Hank Haney.
In our first installment, we investigated behind-the-scenes connections between Saudi Golf, a high-powered Golf PR firm in the UK and some of the internet’s most successful influencers. In this installment, we talk with legendary sports agent Leigh Steinberg and examine just what Saudi Arabia is looking for from its LIV investment.
Leigh Steinberg – the Original Uber Agent
Leigh Steinberg’s very first client was his college classmate, Steve Bartkowski, who just so happened to be the number one pick in the 1975 NFL draft. Over the years, Steinberg has represented over 60 NFL first-round picks, including the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Steve Young and Troy Aikman. He’s represented athletes from all sports, negotiating contracts in excess of $4 billion for his clients.
He’s also considered to be the inspiration behind the Tom Cruise character in Jerry Maguire.
In an exclusive interview with MyGolfSpy, Steinberg says it’s important to separate LIV the rival golf league from LIV the Saudi-sponsored sports initiative.
“History is filled with examples of new sports leagues. Some survived, and some didn’t. But they all had the right to do it,” he says. “Every incumbent league acted in the way the PGA is acting towards its competition. ‘The new group is phony,’ or ‘It’s not professional,’ or ‘It’s not the same quality.’
“The new leagues were always denigrated.”
What makes LIV different from the original AFL, ABA, WFL or WHA, however, is the Saudi money.
“Every feeling person abhors the Khashoggi killing, the involvement of Saudi-educated terrorists in 9/11 and the human rights record of Saudi Arabia,” says Steinberg. “What gets difficult is when you see the president of the United States fist-bumping the prince to refresh diplomatic relationships.”
LIV Golf Money: Green or Red?
In MyGolfSpy’s recent No Putts Given podcast, Hank Haney made it very plain. Yes, it is about the money. After all, for most of them, golf is a job.
“They can tell you they play for titles, but I sure didn’t see that,” Haney said on No Putts Given. “I saw guys playing for money. That’s what they cared about.”
You’d think an agent who inspired a character who shouted, “Show me the money,” would be all about getting his client top dollar. But Steinberg says he wouldn’t present it quite that way.
“What you do is sit down with them and do a values check,” he tells MyGolfSpy. “How important are short-term economic gain and long-term economic security? And how important is making a difference in the world and being associated with businesses and causes that you believe in?
“For some golfers, they won’t want the association (with Saudi). But my guess is increasing numbers of golfers will succumb to the economic bonanza this league represents.”
A quick history check shows a couple of things about rival leagues. Looking back at the AFL, ABA. World Football League, USFL, and in particular the World Hockey Association, each new league opened up new opportunities for more players. And pay scales increased dramatically as the rival and established leagues would engage in bidding wars for top talent.
“Competition between leagues is always good for players,” says Steinberg. “It’s the only time they get their true value.”
A Different Point of View
At the LIV Golf event outside of Boston, I had the opportunity to chat with Anriban Lahiri who, along with Cam Smith, Harold Varner and others, jumped to LIV just that week. Lahiri is a talented, thoughtful and eloquent young man. And being from India, he has perhaps a slightly different view of Saudi than many Americans.
“India has a very different relationship with Saudi Arabia,” he tells MyGolfSpy. “As a country that has been plagued by wars, plagued by terrorism, we are very clear in understanding how some of these things work. It’s not black and white.
“I understand the angst. I understand the emotional aspect, and I respect that. But for us, it’s a different perspective. We look at Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner and as a country that’s going to help in the development of our country.”
Lahiri says friends and family back home have been very supportive of his decision to join LIV Golf.
“Over the past few months, a lot of my friends and a lot of the golf community in India have been asking me if I was going to go,” he says. “One of the gripes I heard from back home is that even when I played well, they didn’t get to see me play or hit enough shots. I think they’re happy about that now.
“I also think they’re happy that one of their golfers, who’s homegrown and home-bred, is being recognized on this platform. And it’s an elite platform, let’s be honest.”
At this point in the LIV-PGA war, the battle lines are clear. The Saudi connection either bothers you or it doesn’t.
And if it doesn’t bother you, there are two additional sub-camps. One says since golfers chose LIV, they shouldn’t whine about not being able to play both tours. After all, you can’t play for the Yankees and the Red Sox at the same time. The other side basically says, “Screw the PGA. Let ‘em play wherever they want.”
I did ask Lahiri about “blood money.” He gave me an honest if somewhat inconsequential reply.
“It’s a very one-sided question and the less I get into it the better,” he says. “There are a lot of facts going around that I don’t want to talk about because if I do it becomes ‘whatabout-ism.’ But when it comes to what about blood money, that’s not whatabout-ism. So, it’s a bit hypocritical in my mind.”
“Whatabout-ism” is a catchy but often shallow way of pointing out the hypocrisy of any opposing viewpoint. You’re okay with Saudi oil but not LIV? What about Starbucks, Disney, Boeing, Uber and all the other companies that Saudi’s Public Investment Fund has invested in?
And what about China?
“Sportswashing is the term,” says Steinberg. “Saudi and LIV are no different than China using the Olympics while they’re killing Uighur Muslims. There’s a long tradition of countries and corporations using sports to present a more positive image. It’s why they invest in the first place. It’s a smart strategy by a cruel country.
“Let’s face it. If it was just up to the ratings, there wouldn’t be all that much golf on TV. But it’s there because wealthy people like the association. They put their corporations in that position so they can go hang out at the Masters.”
In 2019, Saudi Arabia hosted a heavyweight title bout between champion Andy Ruiz and challenger Anthony Joshua. This was only months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
“The plan is to make this (Saudi Arabia) the home of mega-boxing,” Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter said at the time. “All due respect to Las Vegas, but this place has the ability to bring any fight they want here.
“And I also believe that no one has the right to tell a fighter how and where they can earn their money.”
At the same time, Amnesty International called out the practice of sportswashing.
“All over the world, countries are using sport to promote a welcoming picture on the international stage, which often masks a very different reality for ordinary people living in those countries. And when the media circus rolls out of town, things go back to being as bad as they ever were.”
In regards to Saudi, the sportswashing message is to show that Saudi Arabia is no worse than China. Since everyone is “okay” with China, everyone should be “okay” with Saudi Arabia. When that equivalency is achieved, sportswashing has done its job.
Of course, that doesn’t fly with everyone. On No Putts Given, Hank Haney called it “selective outrage.”
“Saudi money is everywhere,” he says. “It’s even mingled with the sponsors of the PGA Tour.”
“I’m personally horrified by the behavior that country has shown,” says Steinberg. “I’d have a hard time in my own life aligning with that. But at the same time, I don’t think it plays that way in most of the decision-making that will happen.
“In other words, nobody looks into the background of NFL owners for the most egregious things they did. Are they all wonderful people? Maybe. But the point is are you not going to watch football because of whatever Daniel Snyder did?”
LIV Golf: Legacy, Schmegacy
To varying degrees, both Haney and Steinberg are in agreement over the issue of whether LIV will impact the legacy of any of the players. Haney believes players, for the most part, don’t care.
“People just make more out of it than it is,” he says. “(A player) is worried about paying his mortgage. He’s worried about making money for himself, for his family.
“Tiger – is he worried about his legacy? Well yeah, but it’s easier to say when you’re a billionaire.”
“If this is the difference between complete economic security or not, playing the sport they love to play, they’re going to make that choice,” adds Steinberg. “Tiger Woods is an anomaly. The PGA stood by Tiger through all his problems, and he already has a billion dollars.”
The thing about legacy is that it’s a moving target. Kobe Bryant is a prime example. In July 2003, he was arrested and charged with raping a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. It was a sordid case that was eventually dismissed when Bryant’s accuser chose not to testify. The tarnish eventually wore off. At the time of his death, Bryant was an icon and a proud #girldad.
“I don’t think any of these athletes will be permanently tarnished,” says Steinberg. “Forget how it looks right now because it’s all heated up. I think over time people forgive and forget.
“Do these younger golfers view it as a moral/ethical issue? Have they chosen to forsake their ideals for more money? I guarantee you for many they’re not even sensitive to the issue.”
A Bottomless Barrel of Cash
The AFL ultimately merged with the NFL, but at the time of the merger, the AFL was a healthy entity. The merger was a rare case of both sides agreeing that a single league would be stronger than two rivals. Both the ABA and WHA, however, were teetering on collapse when the NBA and NHL made peace. In both cases, the merger was on the established league’s terms. Only four teams from each league were brought into the fold and each team had to pay an expansion fee. The USFL and WFL, however, didn’t make it that far.
“What killed those leagues was they ran out of money,” says Steinberg. “The Saudis will never run out of money.”
Does LIV have to make money for the Saudis to keep funding it? It’s easy to say yes. PIF is in the business of investing money and expecting a return. So far, LIV has earned virtually no income to offset the more than $2 billion invested. Aside from the cash paid to its players, LIV is also making hefty charitable donations in the communities that have hosted their tournaments. Ticket sales and Pro-Am fees, which we’ve learned are in the $10,000 to $15,000 range, are a drop in the bucket.
And despite what Norman has said, no big TV deal appears imminent. Whether the whole team idea becomes something the wealthy will invest in remains to be seen, but it’s possible. After all, Tom Brady just bought a pickleball team.
However, consider LIV as one small cog in Saudi Arabia’s grand Vision 2030 plan. Vision 2020 is a long-range plan to modernize and diversify the Saudi economy away from being solely oil-based. It includes promoting industry, manufacturing, service and tourism in the Kingdom. The goal is for PIF to have more than $2 trillion in assets by 2030.
If you need money for something, you’d go to the Saudis.
LIV Golf = Overhead?
When viewed through the Vision 2030 lens, one can make a case that LIV Golf is, quite simply, overhead. No doubt the Saudis would love for LIV to make money. But if LIV furthers the goals of Vision 2030, the money invested will have an indirect return but will have done its job.
LIV Golf puts Saudi Arabia front and center on a very prestigious global stage. As mentioned in our previous article, the Kingdom, with help from Performance54, hosted a Golf Saudi Summit. More than 350 delegates from 24 countries attended, each described as “captains of industry and national leaders.”
Golf and business go hand-in-hand. If you want outside interests to build factories or other businesses in your country, they’re going to want things to do. The Saudis have built several destination cities in the desert, with modern sports arenas, shopping and historical districts, and even a Formula 1 racetrack.
The pièce de resistance, however, is Neom, a futuristic megacity project which will be roughly the size of Massachusetts. Central to Neom will be something called the Mirror Line – two parallel 1,600-foot-tall skyscrapers that will be 75 miles long each. The project is expected to cost upwards of $1 trillion.
LIV, by comparison, is pocket change.
Against that backdrop, it’s easy to envision that LIV is part of the larger plan to make Saudi Arabia more attractive to investors. Golf, sports arenas, entertainment, modern cities and attractions are all part of the package. LIV simply has to remain viable long enough to follow in the footsteps of the AFL.
“Golfers want to play golf,” says Steinberg. “If they can do it for an incredible premium, I would say it’s inevitable. There will be an accommodation between the LIV and the PGA.