For all of the LIV controversy, something not often considered was whether the innovators had actually innovated their way to something better
The league that blew up golf is having some challenges now that the smoke has cleared.
LIV Golf held its second tournament of its second season on the weekend, and you could be forgiven for not noticing at all. In the United States, where the Saudi-backed rebel league has a TV deal with The CW, a cable network not known for sports, the Tucson event reportedly earned a 0.14 rating, which means 0.1 percent of households with televisions were watching it.
In Canada, the situation was likely worse. LIV events are shown nationally here on the cable channel Game+, which like me you might be surprised to discover you pay for, and which for some reason aired the Friday-Saturday-Sunday rounds, which took place at 1 p.m. Eastern, on delay eight hours later. The eventual playoff aired in Canada sometime past 2 a.m. on Monday morning, for the LIV diehards who stuck around through a broadcast that included many ads, most of them for phone sex. (I admit to not knowing that this was a product that was still being sold in the internet age.)
LIV’s impact on the sport has been huge. In addition to wooing major winners and Ryder Cup stars with massive contracts and the promise of more easy money to come, the Greg Norman-fronted league has caused the PGA Tour to dramatically reshape its compensation and structure, the effects of which may not be evident for years.
But while LIV has been tremendously successful at disruption, and has generated a lot of heat due to its links to Saudi Arabia and, not least, Donald Trump, the actual product has mostly been an afterthought.
The question is whether it will ever get beyond that. And behind that is a related question: Has LIV Golf, in trying to be new and innovative, created a television product that is hard to watch?
LIV’s business case rests on a few pillars: 54 holes instead of 72, a shotgun start with groups on every hole to tighten up the coverage window, and a parallel team element for an extra layer of competition. (The small 48-man fields were supposed to be an advantage over the PGA Tour because LIV was conceived as a star-laden enterprise, but in practice it’s more like one-third stars, one-third Guys Familiar to Golf Nerds, and one-third who-dats.)
The concept behind the shotgun start is simple enough. Instead of normal tournament golf where it can take ages before the leaders even tee off on the weekend, this is the Everything, Everywhere All at Once strategy. But it can be as confusing and hard to follow as the Oscar-winning movie.
A televised golf tournament has certain rhythms. The early starters on a weekend have to shoot low scores to get themselves into contention, and coverage will focus on whoever has a good round going, plus popular players. (Plus Tiger, if he’s playing.) Then the late groups come around and must either chase down a posted score or fight among themselves. You know where the action is.
LIV’s format, with all golfers progressing through their rounds at the same time, gives the television producers an impossible job of trying to figure out which groups to follow and what shots to show. LIV’s Sunday broadcast focused a lot on early leaders Marc Leishman, Sergio Garcia and Charles Howell, only the last of whom came close to making the playoff. Danny Lee, who would go on to win the US$4-million prize, was barely shown at all over four-plus hours, until a birdie-birdie finish put him into the playoff. Lee, a 32-year-old New Zealander who hadn’t won a tournament in eight years, is the kind of player you could forgive producers for overlooking, and indeed they did.
The team competition, meanwhile, is even harder for viewers to follow. Only three scores on a four-man team count, which I had took to mean the worst score of the bunch at the end of the tournament was deleted. But, no. The three lowest scores of each day per team count, which means the team score is decoupled from the individual tournament leaderboard. The 4Aces shot 21-under in the team competition in Tucson to finish in second place, even though their three best scores totaled 16-under for the tournament. Did I mention it’s complicated? This means a player who has played himself out of the tournament over two days can still be a factor for his team on Sunday — and certainly the commentators don’t tire of stressing how So Much Can Happen over the closing stretch — but it also has a disorienting effect. There’s a flurry of shots, and then you find out afterward which shots mattered the most. They at least have team uniforms now, which is helpful.
For all of the LIV controversy, the spicy words and the lawsuits, the battle between the old guard and the new, something not often considered was whether the innovators had actually innovated their way to something better. It’s early days, to be sure. But leaving everything else aside about LIV, it is at the point now where the product is at least firmly established. They have created something. Have they devised a new way of staging golf that might attract more younger fans? Or, my guess: they will yet find that there was something about the way golf tournaments have long been conducted that didn’t entirely need disrupting.
Source: National Post