Will the PGA Tour’s decision to merge with Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf scare off its sponsors? Don’t bet on it, say sports marketing experts.
Following the merger announcement on Tuesday, BetMGM, an official betting operator of the PGA Tour, described the deal as exciting for the future of professional golf. PGA Tour marketing partners including Aon, Citi, Morgan Stanley, Kingmade Jerky, fitness band company Whoop and United Airlines declined to comment on the news, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The involvement by the Saudis should give every corporate partner with an ounce of corporate responsibility pause for thought, says French/West/Vaughan chairman and CEO Rick French, citing the country’s human rights record. Families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have long accused the kingdom of having connections to the hijackers that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Until the launch of LIV divided the golf world, the sport had maintained a “fairly pristine reputation,” says French.
“The stunning announcement…certainly influenced my opinion of the sport and I’m sure the opinion of many others,” he says.
Representatives from the PGA Tour and LIV Golf could not be reached for comment.
With the Saudi investment arm underwriting pro golf, French says corporate partners will need to decide whether they want to be in business with an entity that has “a less than sterling human rights record and, by most accounts, played a complicit role in our nation’s darkest hour.”
Because LIV Golf is backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, an entity ultimately controlled by the country’s crown prince, sponsors will indeed watch closely and evaluate the impact on their investments, says Shane Winn, MD of Allison+Partners’ sports marketing arm, Allison+Sports.
Some may reevaluate their sponsorships, but Winn says he does not expect major partners to “shy away too much given the merger may ultimately make many of these deals sweeter from an eyeball and value standpoint.”
Axia Public Relations CEO and managing partner Jason Mudd adds that while each sponsor will have to make an informed decision based on its own core values, he has a “gut feeling” that most people just won’t care about the merger that much — especially in the long term.
“This will bring more energy, enthusiasm and excitement to the game of golf,” says Mudd.
As for how the combined tour should market itself, Winn says that the PGA Tour is underscoring both the global appeal of golf and its commitment to driving growth of the sport by leveraging the combined strength of both tours.
“Golf’s core product, like many other sports, is built on the backs of its athletes,” Winn says. “So the biggest challenge will be managing the public comments, via social media and traditional media, of its core players.”
The next step the PGA Tour should take, advises Winn, is to over-communicate via its players on how the deal positively affects them and the future of golf.
“Anytime a company is considered to be a rival, enemy or opponent of the U.S., you have to be careful about how you market and align yourself and partner,” says Mudd.
He compares the deal to the concerns China-owned social media app TikTok is facing about whether the Chinese government could influence its content and harvest user data.
“Just like [that], you will have a lot of people concerned about the Saudis investing in LIV and the PGA and a partnership like that,” says Mudd. “Anytime you have a polarizing topic, you are going to alienate potentially half of your base.”
Mudd says the PGA Tour must listen to its audience and be truthful, honest and ethical in its actions.
“If they are not, those things tend to find their way into the public eye anyway,” says Mudd. “You have one chance. If they do it wrong and betray the trust of the American public, they will be backpedaling and apologizing for a long time.”
Winn says that while other sports boast a diversified roster of investors and business partners, golf tends to be more traditionalist.
“The PGA Tour has seemingly balanced that perception as it seeks to grow the game with a younger, more diverse audience of golfers,” he says. “It remains to be seen whether this merger will accomplish that given it’s early in the game and many questions remain unanswered.”