How Phil and Professional Golf Forgot About the Fan

Phil Mickelson has taken a beating the past month for his reckless and foolish comments about the Saudi-backed “Super Golf League.”  The responses from other players, sponsors and the media are understandable – you can’t ignore or whitewash the things he said.

The PGA Tour also came down hard on Phil.  The officials at the Tour clearly viewed the SGL as an existential threat and fought back hard.  Not only did they unleash their fury on Phil, but they also made clear to any player the severe consequences of participating in the SGL. 

As readers of this blog know I’m a big fan of Phil’s so this has been sad to watch.  However, beyond the impact on Mickelson, I think there is an unsettling irony to the entire episode which should be worrisome for any golf fan.

Golf has long had a reputation of being the sport of the c-suite.  Belonging to the most exclusive clubs, playing in pro-ams and entertaining clients on swanky golf trips are among the perks that the global “captains of industry” enjoy.  The sport’s elite reputation is somewhat exaggerated in my view.  There are plenty of people who love and play golf who aren’t in the c-suite and don’t belong to private clubs, but it is an undeniable element of the sport’s culture.

Yet somehow the leaders of golf, the sport of the business elite, revealed a shocking disregard for some of the fundamental principles of capitalism throughout this entire debate.

One of the core tenets of every successful business is nothing comes before the consumer.  Yet none of the central actors in this drama – the PGA, Phil Mickelson, the SGL – seemed to be looking out for the fans.

The narrative surrounding the entire issue was about money.  Phil talked about how the PGA Tour cheated him out of millions because he didn’t own his “media rights.”  The SGL leaked indiscriminately to the press about the hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed money they were offering the top players.  The PGA talked about creating bonus pools and increasing tournament prize money.

Money, money, money.  Listening to all of it made me wonder if Gordon Gekko, Mr. “Greed is Good” from the movie Wall Street, was writing everyone’s public statements.

Obviously, the golf fan, just like fans of other sports, understands that Tour players make obscene amounts of money.  Yet the last thing fans, the core golf consumer, want to hear about is insanely rich people fighting over money when there’s plenty to go around.

Mickelson is often compared to the late Arnold Palmer in that his engaging personality and go-for-broke style of play appeal to the average fan.  For all of Palmer’s incredible success, he died a very wealthy man, I don’t recall him ever complaining publicly about how much money he was making or how the Tour was ripping him off.  Phil clearly would’ve benefited from asking himself how Arnie would’ve handled this situation. 

However, I don’t think the PGA Tour behaved much better when they threatened to ban for life any player who signed up for the SGL.  Capitalism is about maintaining free and open markets.  History proves that creativity and innovation flourish when there’s competition.  The danger of monopolies is they stifle innovation and creativity by greedily smothering any challenge to their dominance.  Consumers are the ones who suffer.

Telling the players, who are independent contractors of the PGA, that they could never compete on the Tour for the rest of their lives if they played for the SGL was not a legitimate business response to competition but the shocking, desperate act of a monopolistic bully.  I read that the PGA Tour also tried to convince the USGA to ban players from competing in the US Open if they played on the SGL.  Think about that for a moment, the PGA wanted to exclude participation in our nation’s championship that is by definition “open” to anyone.  Is the PGA Tour really so bereft of ideas that it needed to resort to such blatantly anti-competitive tactics?  I don’t think so.  They can do better.  They owe it to golf fans. 

The history of sports shows how competitive leagues, like the ABA in basketball and the AFL in football, improved the game for all stakeholders.  The new leagues introduced innovative rules and compelling energy to sports that had become complacent.  More players had an opportunity to compete.  The fans got to see more action.

The SGL plans to experiment with new competitive formats, smaller fields, shorter events, and different venues.  Maybe these ideas will work, or maybe not.  Regardless, who is the PGA Tour to say that such innovations should not see the light of day?  I’d much rather see an open competition in which players have the right to ply their trade where they wish, ideally on both tours. Let the fan’s vote for their preferences with their attention.  In the end fans win because they get what they want – more opportunities to see their favorite players compete.

One final note:  much of the subtext of this entire issue surrounded the moral and ethical concerns raised by the Saudi government being the financial backer for the PGL.  Mickelson obviously blundered badly when he tried to rationalize the Saudi involvement.  He should keep his political views to himself in the future.

In no way am I here to defend the Saudi government, but I think it’s fair to say there is a more than a healthy amount of sanctimony in the sports world around the involvement of authoritarian, brutally anti-democratic regimes.  There are countless examples of athletes and leagues that selfishly inject business considerations into their public moralizing about global politics.  The verbal contortions of athletes, leagues, and sponsors when questioned about doing business in China is case and point.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this issue. The SGL doesn’t appear to be giving up.  Hopefully the next time it rears itself everyone involved in the sport of the world’s capitalists will spare us their financial woes, not shy away from healthy competition and remember in the end it’s all about better serving the fans.

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