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ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg on LIV Golf Tournament Coverage

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As drama swirls around the PGA and the new LIV golf tournament, ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg joins in London to bring Bryan Curtis in on all the action. They discuss the creation of the LIV Golf Tournament, the importance of this history, why the PGA faces an “existential threat” and why LIV Golf is funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.


In the following excerpt, Curtis asks Van Valkenburg to frame the threat LIV poses to the PGA.

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Brian Curtis: You called LIV on ESPN a serious threat to the PGA Tour. How serious do you think it is?

Kevin Van Valkenburg: Well, if you think about: if every week the top 50 players in the world weren’t playing on the PGA Tour and every week was basically the Sanderson Farms or the 3M or the John Deere, what would that product be worth in as a television product? That would probably be quite difficult, right? Some of the most watched tournaments of the year are when all the good players are there. The Genesis, which takes place at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, and that’s because all the best players are there. The Memorial, almost all the players are there. If you turn Memorial and Genesis into what minor league tournaments are now, I don’t know how the product survives in many ways, do you? ‘Cause if the things that get a 2.1 rating now get a 0.8 rating, man, what kind of commercial enterprise – what companies want to broadcast on that?

And so I think the PGA Tour faces a huge existential threat right now. And I don’t know how I would advise Jay Monahan to fix it. His letter basically said, “Well, everyone who left did so for money, money, money. We are more than that. I don’t know if that’s the right point to make, because if I’m Justin Thomas or Rory McIlroy, I’d love to—Rory McIlroy is one of my favorite athletes and he was candid about it saying “Morality matters more than money. How much more can it – how much more money can you need? I don’t know if that argument will play with people who aren’t Rory McIlroy, because ultimately $200 million sounds like a lot. Tiger has only earned $121 million in his entire PGA career. Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, just got way more than that in one day. More factually, I would say that by agreeing to play the whole two years, that’s why they won so much money.

Curtis: Sure. I mean, you say top 50, but what’s interesting is how much, what percentage of the top 50 would have to defect before someone even goes into a big tournament and says, ‘I don’t don’t feel like the best players in the world are here, or most of the best players in the world”?

Van Valkenburg: Yeah. Golf has always been a weird place because the main thing we have every week in our lives has always been the PGA Tour. But the PGA Tour doesn’t control any of the Majors, which is the only thing that really matters historically and the only reason we really watch. No one cares so much how many regular season tournaments you’ve won. I bet most people couldn’t tell you how many regular season tournaments Jack Nicklaus won, but they could tell you in a second that he won 18 majors. And so if the majors kind of continue with their belief of like, “Yeah, you know what, it’s a problem with you, not a problem with us. We don’t need to worry about that,” so I’m not sure about the future of the tour. How do they make themselves more attractive?

And I tweeted a long thread about it, but the PGA Tour when it was started was a for-profit entity, and Deane Beman, who’s the second commissioner, came along and turned it into an organization non-profit. And he did it because he realized – like he had a background in insurance, because back then professional golfers didn’t just have golf jobs, they also had to have other jobs – that circuit could pay far less taxes if they were a 501(c)(6). OK, so that was a stroke of genius for the tour’s 40-year history because their tax burden was reduced significantly. Anyone who sponsored a tournament like Farmers or Genesis or anyone could suffer a huge loss saying, “I’m going to put in $20 million to sponsor this tournament and I’m reducing my tax burden by $20 million.”

Well, there are laws that say what a nonprofit can and cannot do with its money. So the PGA Tour found itself a little crippled when it came to simply handing out money to top players, based on what is essentially appearance fees. LIV was sitting here saying, “Hey, we’ll give you $10 million to show up.” And the PGA Tour said, “We’ll give you a million based on a player impact program that’s partly determined by how many Google hits you get” because that’s how they had to somehow frame it legally. And then LIV was like, “You know what, we’ll make 50 million”, and the PGA Tour just – how do you respond to an organization that has so much money that legitimately loses $2 billion or never makes a profit on that which is a wink for them, it’s almost a rounding error? And that’s why this is such a potential divide for the future of professional golf in America, at least.

Host: Brian Curtis
Producer: Troy Farkas

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