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Six questions I’d ask the PGA Tour about the LIV Golf merger if I was a sponsor

After a blockbuster couple of weeks in the world of golf, SportsPro explores some of the possible implications for existing and potential partners.

16 June 2023 Sam Carp

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There’s the odd occasion when I curse that my sponsorship and marketing newsletter is only bi-weekly and last Tuesday was one of those days.  

Everyone will have their own story of how they heard of the PGA Tour’s decision to merge its commercial assets with those of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series and the DP World Tour. I learned of the peace pact via an email that slipped into my inbox no differently to a PGA Tour press release about a tournament title partnership renewal or new broadcast agreement. The only difference was that I read this one all the way to the editor’s notes at the bottom.

The announcement caught everyone off guard, be it players, fans or the media, all of whom are trying to piece together what happens next. But it also blindsided sponsors, who might be asking some of the following questions…

What will the calendar look like? 

Right now, nobody knows. But the impact for sponsors could be significant. The PGA Tour schedule rarely changes and many of the events have owned their place in the calendar for several years, which delivers certainty to – in many cases long-running – title partners. 

If the schedule is drastically altered to accommodate new events in new territories then some sponsors may be forced to reconsider or renegotiate their agreements. That won’t be straightforward when several partners are tied into multi-year deals. 

Tournaments like the Waste Management Open have long-running title sponsors and have come to own their place on the calendar

Does the new entity still align with our values?

LIV Golf notoriously struggled to secure broadcasters and sponsors. Some didn’t get involved in a show of loyalty to the PGA Tour. Others simply didn’t want to be associated with a series funded by Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of investing in sport to sportswash its human rights record. 

With the Public Investment Fund (PIF) now the exclusive investor in the PGA Tour, both existing and potential sponsors might be forced to do some soul-searching. 

“For big brands, corporate reputation is everything,” Steve Martin, the global CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, told me this week. “If you get it right, the rewards are huge. If you get it wrong, there can be a spectacular fall from grace.

“I would say in this instance, because of the new parties that are coming together, particularly the Saudi fund, which has been up there to be pulled apart and critiqued, a lot of brands won’t want to be part of that from a reputational point of view.” 

Others that stood by the PGA Tour in its toughest hour may also have been left unimpressed by its surprising U-turn after the organisation spent months claiming it wouldn’t do business with the Saudis.  

Is this an opportunity to reach more people?

On the other hand, the prospect of a “world tour”, as Martin puts it, might appeal to sponsors who believe the combined entity can help them expand into new markets. It’s also worth pointing out that a number of PGA Tour partners, including FedEx, John Deere and BMW, already do business in Saudi Arabia, so it might look disingenuous to walk away now.

Plus, the move could help globalise the PGA Tour’s partnership portfolio, which currently has a very American feel to it.

Is sponsoring the PGA Tour now a political statement?

Brands have historically steered clear of aligning with political causes to avoid alienating part of their customer base.

Golf has traditionally been a safe haven from that perspective but sponsors may not be able to shed the idea that partnering with the new entity means they are partnering with Saudi Arabia by association. It’s even stickier ground for American corporations after the PGA Tour previously invoked the Gulf state’s role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks

“Golf has always been apolitical, in a way, and I think it’s been one of its real strengths,” Martin says. “It’s been incredibly powerful commercially. It’s one of the best sports in the world for attracting high-end, corporate partners. And they’ll want to maintain that success.

“But I would say that there’s going to be some that will reconsider, and then others will see it as an opportunity. It just depends what brands believe in.”

LIV Golf struggled to secure sponsors under Greg Norman’s leadership

What am I actually sponsoring? 

Three organisations have essentially become one and it wouldn’t be a surprise if some sponsors are wondering what their rights are going to count for moving forward. 

Will the new entity introduce a ‘global partner’ category covering all its assets and introduce lower-tier opportunities to associate with specific tours? There’s lots of theorising that’s going to happen until the combined organisation offers some clarity.

“They’ve put their big marker down,” says Martin. “The next thing is what does this actually mean and what does it look like? Then you can have more sensible conversations around the commercial model. Because it could be good for the commercial model or it could completely reframe it.”

What happens to EasyPost’s partnership with LIV?

OK, I’m probably the only one asking this, but lest we forget the only sponsor that LIV Golf managed to secure during its brief existence.

The future of athlete marketing?

Everyone’s being told that artificial intelligence (AI) is coming for their jobs and it was only a matter of time before it made its way into sports marketing.

This week saw Canadian sports marketing startup Millions.co launch what it describes as the first AI-powered sports marketing campaign builder. The platform essentially allows brands to enter prompts into ChatGPT, which then coughs up various versions of a campaign that meets their requirements. 

The campaigns can be built for as little as US$500, which certainly presents a more affordable and efficient way for brands to engage athlete influencers to promote their products. 

Still, like everything produced using AI, I’d question the authenticity of a marketing campaign built with ChatGPT. But then again, when has authenticity not been a challenge for this industry? 

Top dealers

There appears to be a lot happening at SailGP, which since we last spoke has expanded and extended its technology partnership with Oracle, upgraded its relationship with Abu Dhabi investment group Mubadala, and agreed a new three-year deal with financial services provider Apex Group.

That’s in addition to new broadcast deals in the UK and New Zealand, as well as onboarding former F1 driver Sebastian Vettel as a team investor

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