15 April 2024
The LIV Golf TV presenters

PGA & LIV Golf has a crisis communications issue – could this also be an opportunity for Nike?

On June 6 2023 the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf agreed to unite under one common banner. It has been one of the biggest shocks to ever happen in sport. It took the world by surprise, not least because of the historically acrimonious comments made by all parties, towards each other.

So why is this now a crisis communications situation?

The History of PGA v LIV Golf

If you have landed on this page because of your interest in golf, you will know far more about the history of the war between the two parties. It started in 2022 when Greg Normal and the Saudi Government backed Public Investment Fund (PIF) joined together to launch LIV Golf. It was billed as a more modern and high-paying rival golf league than the PGA, which had a somewhat stuffy reputation.

The key players for both teams were. For LIV Golf, Greg Norman (boss of LIV), Phil Mickelson (one of the first big name signings and the guy who took the lead in the legal challenges against the PGA blocking LIV players from its tournaments) and Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the guy in charge of the PIF.

For the PGA, the tour commissioner, Jay Monahan was the most vocal against LIV. His attack on LIV was (in the main) supported by probably the PGAs two most high profile players, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

It is worth nothing that PIF is rumoured to have earmarked $2bn in funding for the launch and ensuring the on-going success of LIV Golf, as reported by The Athletic.

The media war between PGA and LIV Golf

Straight from the off, the PGA focussed heavily on the sportswashing accusations of the PIF funding the launch of LIV Golf. It is not for me to pass judgement on the accusations being made about the Saudi Government but it would be fair to say their approach to Human Rights, for example, are very different to Governments in the western world. Areas like this are what the PGA highlighted and went after, straight away.

From a tactical communications campaign, I would argue that the PGA was very successful in getting its message to land. Some players who made the switch to LIV Golf lost sponsors, media like The Athletic were saying its tournaments were attended by large numbers of spectators being given free tickets, and its tour was not able to sign a high profile TV rights deal.

In fact, in the months leading up to the merger being announced, there was a feeling amongst golf journalists that the PGA was winning the hearts and minds battle against LIV Golf.

It is too early to know the real reasons behind the merger, but a common opinion given by many sports analysts is that it was because of all the legal challenges between the two bodies. LIV Golf, and a number of its players pressed legal action against the PGA.

The PGA counter challenged and it looked like an acrimonious, lengthy, and potentially embarrassing (especially for the PGA) legal case could be on the way. The PGA will have been more than aware that LIV Golf had wealthy backers and could afford to drag this out. It is worth remembering at this point, the earlier mentioned $2bn, rumoured to have been earmarked by PIF for ensuring LIV Golf was a success. That will have included legal fees!

The crisis communications challenge now faced by the new merged golf brand

Time to put my head above the parapet and make some predictions and suggestions on the crisis communications situation faced by the LIV Golf and PGA merger. Here we go!

A big name or two will lose their jobs

First and foremost, Jay Monahan will struggle to keep his job. He has lost the confidence of a significant number of existing PGA players. Not only that, his personal attacks on LIV Golf, its backers and its players will mean he will be universally unpopular.

From a crisis communications point of view, I expect him to bed in the newly merged brand, and then, if the media and player unrest continues, he will be the high profile scapegoat. In this situation, I can’t see any point in the usual crisis communications tactics to be used, such as an apology and announcing an independent third party investigation. There is nothing really to investigate.

Monahan could come out via a big-ticket interview and admit that a merger was the only way to save the PGA, because of the financial risk of the legal actions. This is a risky strategy though, and I am not sure the Chairperson of the new entity, who is from the PIF, would be comfortable with this.

The second person in the firing line could be Greg Norman. It is hard to see how he can be folded back into the new brand mix. He was extremely critical of The PGA, its players and its leadership. It bordered on mockery.

The PGA tour players won’t want him involved and I think, if they were honest, quite a few of the LIV Golf players would not miss the drama that he brings.

Greg Norman during a LIV Golf tournament
BEDMINSTER,NJ-JULY 31,2022: Greg Norman throws hats to the golf fans at the 1st Tee during the LIV golf Tournament held at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster,NJ.

PGA/LIV Golf need a feel good story to come from the first tournament under the new brand name

The new entity needs to get tournaments going as fast as possible and use this as the distraction away from the behind the scenes drama. The beauty of sport is that an amazing story can come along at any point and soothe away the pain of the carnage going on behind the scenes. Something the PGA successfully achieved with the promotion of its most recent underdog success story of Michael Block.

The new brand needs their key stakeholder talent to come out and publicly support them

The new entity needs Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy from the PGA and Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson from LIV Golf to do a joint press conference. They need to be briefed to stay as on script as elite sporting professionals ever can.

That script needs to say something like “we are excited for the future of the sport, we think it is important we all pull together for the future of the sport and put the past behind us”.

They will need to face tough questions about the PIF/Saudi backing, but half of the suggested squad are used to doing this and the messaging does not need anything new. Will the new entity be able to get Woods and McIlroy to do this? That is the $2bn dollar question.

Tiger Woods hitting a T shot
Tiger Woods hitting a T shot

A big new TV rights, commercial or sponsorship deal needs to be announced – The Nike Comeback?

Right now, this is an opportunity for an emerging sports brand wanting to make a statement of intention in the world of golf, or for a brand wanting to reestablish its golf credentials. The merged LIV/PGA golf brand will be looking for a big commercial announcement to show it still has the backing of its business community.

Brands like Castore and NoBull are fast emerging golf brands, but do they have enough money for this level of investment? UnderArmour has a hugely reputable name in golf, but does its long-term sports brand ambitions lay elsewhere.

One brand who I think could use this opportunity is Nike. Nike famously pulled out of the golf clubs market in 2016. They said they could not make the clubs and equipment section of its business profitable enough. That was seven years ago though.

The market has changed and I would suggest Nike has grown its golf brand since then, thanks partially to the success of the Jordan golf range. In addition to this, golf is one of the few businesses that has really benefitted from COVID.

The sport’s popularity amongst muggles wanting to play (badly) is now at an all time high. Could this be the perfect time for Nike to return to the fray? I would suggest so and I also think Nike would get big bang for its buck (as the Americans say) because the merged brands would be wanting the deal to success and be more likely to put everything behind it.

What leadership and crisis communications lessons are there from the LIV Golf / PGA situation?

I would say that the key takeaway from this whole, near two year long, war is that The PGA pressed the “go nuclear” button too soon. It needed to protect itself so it went big on the attacks. It maybe didn’t get a team together at the start to consider “ok, how could this play out in the long term”.

This shows a lack of strategic communications, or maybe it just means the communications team was ignored. Some brands, e.g. McDonalds, are masters of strategic and long-term communications (more on that in a future article). The PGA clearly wasn’t.

LIV Golf had nothing to lose. The reputation of its backers meant it was always going to be on the back foot. The PGA had everything to lose, and it went to early on the attack. It should have (in my opinion) feigned negotiations at the very start to try and get an understanding of what LIV Golf actually wanted and if they could work together.

I come away with the feeling that LIV Golf and PIF played this whole situation out very well. The Saudi government wanted a seat at the top table of golf for its prestige, and they bought it, for a rumoured $2bn investment.

Commentary in the media

Here is a comment I gave to Forbes magazine. I was asked to comment as a Crisis Communications expert by the author (Edward Segal) on the subject of the longer term LIV Golf & PGA reputation battle.

Andy Barr from 10 Yetis Digital, crisis communications expert, was asked to comment by Forbes magazine on the LIV Golf and PGA reputation issues

Here is a podcast I recorded with the Federal News Network over in America. The podcast was all about the crisis communications aspect of the LIV and PGA golf merger. It is a 25 minute interview and was really good fun to talk about my two favourite areas, Golf and Crisis Communications.

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