LIV Golf risks becoming an irrelevance in Saudi sportswashing portfolio | Ewan Murray

LIV Golf risks becoming an irrelevance in Saudi sportswashing portfolio | Ewan Murray

It is telling that discussion around Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to the Saudi Arabian league focuses on the player’s inexorable slide towards footballing oblivion. Ronaldo was unveiled at the end of a year in which at least 147 people had been executed in Saudi Arabia, according to the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights. Ronaldo’s 526 million Instagram and 106 million Twitter followers will now be afforded updates from Al Nassr as football obsessives debate his on-field decline. The Saudis have bought one of the game’s iconic figures, meaning goals and assists barely matter. Neither does the source of Ronaldo’s weekly wage. Sportswashing works.

Newcastle United’s charge into the upper echelons of the Premier League and the hero worship afforded to Eddie Howe as a direct consequence will be regarded in the Kingdom as another success story. The Saudi Arabian grand prix is normalised. If Tyson Fury fights Oleksandr Usyk in Saudi Arabia in March, a boxing world will shrug its shoulders.

Golf has rapidly emerged as the Saudi sporting outlier. Anybody involved with LIV, which has already been backed to the tune of $2bn by the Public Investment Fund, speaks with absolute certainty about a prosperous future but this entity enters 2023 with questions and doubts swirling. The response, if there is to be one, from Greg Norman and chums will prove fascinating. LIV is suddenly in need of a jump start. During this window when mainstream golf has essentially shut down, LIV been unable to garner momentum.

In late October, LIV’s chief operating officer and president, Atul Khosla, spoke in a composed manner to assembled journalists at Doral. Khosla acknowledged LIV’s need for a broadcast deal. He said a 2023 schedule would appear by the end of the following month. Khosla said teams would be set for this calendar year by the end of 2022.

Shortly before Christmas, it was announced that Khosla – to many the acceptable face of LIV – had left the organisation after just a year. “We respect AK and his personal decision,” said Norman. Sean Bratches lasted six months as chief commercial officer before walking out last May. LIV’s inability to retain experienced, externally hired sporting executives is intriguing.

Much of the void is filled by Performance54, a sports marketing group which Companies House shows has three Saudi Arabians on their board including Majed al-Sorour – also a director of Newcastle and the long-time front man for Saudi’s golf operation. Khosla, meanwhile, is due to appear as a witness when the case between LIV members and the European Tour Group is called for sporting arbitration in February. There is no suggestion Khosla, who is due to speak in defence of LIV players, will not give evidence but his attitude will be interesting given the sudden and thus far opaque nature of his exit from the rebel tour.

Dustin Johnson (left) and Cameron Smith.
Dustin Johnson (left) and Cameron Smith are two of the biggest names to have defected from the PGA Tour to LIV but the talent drain has stalled recently. Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

There remains no television contract for LIV in either the US or the UK. A full schedule for this year is yet to appear, with only seven tournaments listed on the LIV website. Rumoured signings – Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele were the most high profile – have opted to remain within the PGA Tour. If the PIF is content to bestow millions of dollars on Pat Perez and Peter Uilhein, fair enough, but otherwise they are going to have to throw even more exorbitant sums to coax big name golfers to LIV. With every such deal, return on investment potential is impacted. And contrary to widespread belief, ROI targets do exist.

In LIV’s defence, it can claim the arrival of Cameron Smith, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson in their ranks was a victory against golf’s establishment but the talent drain from the PGA Tour has subsequently stalled. If LIV remains with the cast list that exists now and without a broadcast platform, it risks irrelevance. The LIV story of 2022 was fascinating on account of the ‘Will he, won’t he’ narrative of players tempted by their blank cheques. Without such a narrative in 2023, will anybody care?

LIV completed its 2022 campaign without implementation of an anti-doping programme, which is curious for an entity so many years and so many dollars in the making. Insiders insist that will change this year. Failure to gain recognition from the official world rankings in one sense suits LIV, given it can depict the closing of ranks by golf’s crusty status quo. Yet it negatively impacts upon golfers. Paul Casey, something of an Augusta National specialist, is not eligible for the Masters after sliding outside of the world’s top 50. Only seven LIV members qualified for Augusta thanks to a top 50 berth and, of those, the average ranking was 40. It is highly possible there will be no LIV golfers at the Paris Olympics in 2024. Legal disputes, including in the US federal court, are ongoing.

A coalition of families and survivors of the 9/11 atrocity has said it will protest outside the gates of Augusta National due to the involvement of LIV golfers in April’s Masters. The custodians of the tournament will not like that.

Perhaps complaints about human rights abuses washes over Saudi’s sporting wing, just as it apparently does the golfers it employs on such lucrative terms. At some point, one has to assume all the heat, hassle and expense has to become worth it. LIV used 2022 to disrupt golf and change the complexion of the sport forever. Nothing that has transpired in the off season suggests Saudi Arabia’s dalliances on the fairways will prove as fruitful as elsewhere. So long as that risk lingers, golfers inside the LIV bubble face an uncertain future.

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