LIV Golf’s new TV deal with The CW explained: Will anyone watch? It may not matter

After months of speculation, the controversial LIV Golf tour finally has a US television home, alongside reboots of “Walker, Texas Ranger” and the latest edition of “World’s Funniest Animals.”

In 2023, you’ll be able to watch Year 2 of the Saudi-backed golf endeavor — but probably not footage of the families of Sept. 11 victims protesting outside the tour’s palatial private country clubs — on The CW Network, a money-losing over-the-air channel aimed mostly at teenagers and young adults who may not care about golf.

Now, let us navigate the thorny wicket of domestic media industry chaos, men’s professional golf’s internecine warfare, and the geopolitical aspects in play here to figure out what this means for sports fans who want to watch LIV this year.

What does the deal look like?

After striking out with other networks and tech giants, the multiyear CW-LIV deal was formally announced on Thursday. The number of years and the financial details were not disclosed, but the core Assumption is LIV will be paid for the rights to air its tournaments after previous speculation that it might have to pay a network such as FS1 to broadcast them. The deal may be shaped as a revenue-sharing agreement rather than a traditional lump sum rights payment, according to The New York Times.

The deal is for LIV’s 14-stop 2023 schedule (with only seven dates confirmed so far) that begins on Feb. 24 in Mexico, and The CW will broadcast the three-day tournaments on TV on the weekends while Friday coverage will be only via its ad-supported streaming app.

LIV already has a few Overseas TV and streaming deals, including with DAZN, and now it has an American television partner after streaming its eight 2022 tournaments to small audiences on YouTube, Facebook and its own social platforms.

The nascent golf tour, reportedly backed by $2 billion in Saudi oil money, couldn’t land a media rights deal with national networks with sports programming such as NBC, CBS, ESPN, or any traditional media giant with a hint of a business relationship with the Rival PGA Tour, which is battling LIV in court cases.

Will anyone watch this league?

Sure, but the challenges are considerable, starting with the geopolitical ramifications that stretch far beyond the golf links.

For those not familiar, LIV has been cast as part of a vast public relations “sportswashing” effort by oil-rich Saudi Arabia. The Gulf state is financing LIV via its $620 billion Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s Sovereign Wealth fund chaired by Mohammed bin Salman. He’s the powerful Saudi crown prince said by US Intelligence and other investigations to have ordered the gruesome 2018 Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and Saudi national who was a Dissident critic of Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian regime and abysmal human rights record.

Saudi Arabia, a major longtime US weapons industry client and a Gulf region ally, also was home to most of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers — something the kingdom has long denied any association with. Still, that connection has drawn protests at LIV events by 9/11 Survivors and families.

Beyond the human rights elements, LIV and The PGA Tour, and their players, have several ongoing lawsuits against each other, which isn’t particularly surprising but does gobble up headlines.

To be fair, other major sports endure Criticism for business deals with unsavory governments, such as the NBA and China’s totalitarian government, and their handling of social justice and other issues.

So, yeah, there’s a lot going on here. Many people don’t want their sports mixed with politics and will ignore anything but the action on TV, but in the case of LIV, it’s seemingly impossible to separate the sport from the politics.

How will this affect LIV’s ratings?

Many casual viewers may not know that The CW is one of the five major national TV networks (alongside ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) in just about every US television household, giving it greater reach than traditional cable channels.

But reach doesn’t automatically translate into eyeballs locked on the screen. Amid the ongoing Chaos of the domestic TV industry, with viewers having vast entertainment choices, every major network has a fraction of the audience it enjoyed years ago.

The CW averaged 574,000 daily overall viewers last year, per a report from Variety, and that ranked 25th among US channels. That was a 29 percent decline from 2021. Despite its reputation for youth-skewing programming, it ranked even lower (29th) for the adults aged 18-49 demo — and was down 45 percent in that category year over year.

By contrast, NBC sits at No. 1 with an average of 5.148 million daily viewers, with CBS a close second at 5.144 million viewers. Those are the PGA Tour’s primary media partners. Much Deeper into the sea of ​​cable channels, the Golf Channel averaged 94,000 viewers.

Even if The CW trails its major network rivals for viewership, it’s still a vastly larger platform for LIV.

LIV Golf opened in London last June with an average of 104,000 US viewers on YouTube and ended with 40,000 viewers for its Miami event in October. A Bangkok stop was the Nadir at 21,000, a tournament not helped by a vast time zone differential.

By contrast, The PGA Tour’s tournaments average a few million viewers, especially on Sundays and for majors — with The Masters getting about 10 million viewers on CBS these days.

Contrary to LIV criticism, The PGA Tour’s TV audience has remained Mostly stable for years, per Sports Business Journal analysis. It’s graying, but golf is a sport in which that seems to matter less than in others.

What will be a win for The CW and LIV?

LIV seems to want to channel more of the fun and irreverence of “Caddyshack” and “Tin Cup” than to appeal to Judge Smails — but it’s the wealthy Bushwood members, not the caddies, with the money that typical golf advertisers crave. Which sets up a new question: What Advertisers will buy airtime during LIV events on The CW? We don’t know yet.

What also don’t know the internal success metrics, near- and long-term, for The CW and LIV Golf under this arrangement beyond basic anodyne press release statements.

We do know the decision to craft a major live golf media rights deal represents a major strategic shift for The CW, control of which was purchased last year by local TV station Giant Nexstar Media Group (with Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery retaining smaller equity stakes ). Created from the remnants of UPN and The WB in 2006, The CW is known primarily for airing syndicated shows, youth programming, and does not otherwise have live sports.

Nexstar is overhauling The CW’s lineup, cutting costs, canceling a handful of scripted shows, and now getting into bed with LIV. But it also reportedly is looking to appeal to older audiences, too, which is something LIV could help accomplish.

“This also marks the first time in The CW’s 17-year history that the network is the exclusive broadcast home for live mainstream sports,” CW president Dennis Miller said in a statement.

Expect the network to promote its other content and properties using LIV Golf as a major platform, which is common practice in the TV business and provides additional value beyond commercial airtime sales.

LIV’s executives say they want to grow the game of golf, and the new TV deal helps accomplish that. They certainly make no mention of Saudi Arabia’s financial backing.

“Our new multi-year partnership with The CW will unlock our ability to serve both core golf fans and to reach the casual sports and entertainment Viewer as part of our mission to grow the sport,” Will Staeger, LIV Golf’s chief media officer, said in a statement. “Our innovative product attracts a younger viewership demographic to the table than the traditional golf fan.”

What will a CW/LIV tournament look like?

The CW is leaving the golf tournament television production to LIV, meaning the network isn’t assuming that hefty cost on its balance sheet. The network isn’t profitable, and its new ownership has stated its goal to bring it into the black by 2025. Nexstar reportedly didn’t pay up-front cash or stock for The CW but did assume about $100 million in network debt.

LIV’s production will continue to use the same on-air Talent as last year: TV Booth play-by-play announcer Arlo White with analysts David Feherty and Jerry Foltz, with Dom Boulet, Su-Ann Heng, and Troy Mullins doing on-course and feature reporting.

To appeal to potential Younger fans (and the brands that want to peddle stuff to them in commercials) while trying not to alienate golf purists used to the PGA Tour’s long legacy, LIV uses a smaller field of players with no cuts, shotgun starts to compress playing time, a 54-hole three-day tournament format, rowdier atmospheres, player teams, and enormous prize pools to appeal to both pro golfers and to golf fans.

LIV also peeled away PGA Tour Talent thanks to a $225 million total Prize pool in 2022 that’s been increased to $405 million this year (along with six additional events). That money is in addition to massive contracts, some into nine figures, players reportedly signed with LIV. While the LIV fields are smaller and include many lesser-known names, some of the notable players include Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Cam Smith, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. Oh, and the litigation–happy Patrick Reed.

The Saudis spent nearly $790 million on LIV last year, according to Sports Illustrated, which includes prize money, player perks, parties, marketing, etc.

Such lavish, Gatsby-like splurging forced The PGA Tour to increase its player compensation structure and purses, including $500,000 minimum payouts and what Golfweek reports is nearly $460 million in total prize money across 38 events.

The bottom line

Will the TV deal and spending be enough for LIV to get bigger audiences than, say, the recent Critic’s Choice Awards that averaged just 910,000 viewers on The CW? Maybe that doesn’t even matter for now.

Whatever the LIV viewership, don’t expect to see much in the way of commercials and signage promoting Saudi Arabian government interests, expect perhaps basic tourism, during LIV events because, as Sports Illustrated noted, the US Department of Justice requires foreign agents to register and disclose things such as financial compensation and activities.

“How one perceives LIV’s deal with The CW is in the eye of the beholder,” said Patrick Rishe, a Professor and director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, via email on Friday.

“If one wishes to be cynical and downcutting, one will mock LIV for cutting a deal with a network whose young demographic viewers care little for golf. Or mock how The CW, television’s 25th most watched channel in 2022, has considerably lower viewership compared to LIV’s aspirationally-preferred media partners (Fox, as an example). Or mock that this is merely a revenue-share deal with no rights fees being paid by CW to LIV, not that LIV really needs it.

“All that being said, LIV now has something they didn’t have in 2022. They have a linear television partner. They have a linear TV partner whose ratings are among the top 25 watched channels with greater viewership than ESPN2, FX, Fox Sports 1, and others that have more history airing sports content. This now gives them a puncher’s chance to build a bigger audience than they were going to find on YouTube.”

If the LIV-CW relationship is successful, it potentially opens the door to a more traditional sports TV partner such as TNT or TBS, he added.

“Make no mistake, LIV Golf will never replace the PGA Tour,” Rishe said. “But make no mistake, LIV Golf’s disruption of the golf industry absolutely helped Accelerate the creation of greater financial opportunities for all golfers. The revamped PGA Tour schedule is proof positive of this.”

(Photo of Dustin Johnson: Eric Espada/Getty Images)

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