In the Year of the Sportswash it should be no surprise that Saudi Arabia is at the centre of the struggle for control of pro golf. But would the beefed-up Asian Tour arouse such a frenzy if it had a different backer?
The PGA Tour has been accused of greed that is “beyond obnoxious” by Phil Mickelson. Suspend perspective now or be repulsed.
Forbes lists only three golfers in its latest ranking of the world’s 50 highest paid sports stars: Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Mickelson himself. While Johnson made 55 per cent of his $44.5m earnings on the course in 2020-21, Mickelson earned only $1m of his $41m from competition.
No wonder he’s aerated about the value of his image rights, and is open to the lure of the riches on offer from a Saudi-bankrolled disruptor fronted by Greg Norman.
A journalist last week expressed surprise to me that the Saudi venture might want to pay tens of millions of dollars to secure the services of Ian Poulter, currently ranked only 62nd in the world.
But that’s to miss the point – it’s the world’s greatest celebrity golfers who have commercial value, not necessarily those most capable from tee to green. Mickelson himself is 38th ranked at present.
Golf is of course a quintessentially individual game, and the financial existence of professionals struggling to make the halfway cut at tournaments each week is notoriously perilous.
The two leading golf tours, the PGA and DP World (formerly the European Tour), are structured as membership organisations, or co-operatives, with an imperative to promote the interests of those in the lower reaches of their competitions as well as the superstars.
Forget the co-operative though, blank out the memory of his years rising up the rankings, and there will always be more money for a star to shoot for if he wants it badly enough. Golf tournaments with 156 entrants can only work if the best help to subsidise the also-rans.
Sporting jeopardy is such that the winners and also-rans are only known when the final putt is holed. How tempting, then, for those whose past success has created personal commercial value to remove the jeopardy and commit to a venture guaranteeing a substantial income?
Comparisons are being drawn with Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket vehicle in the late 1970s which changed the face of the game.
Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin is currently trying something similar with his International Swimming League – although in this instance the objective is for the world’s best swimmers to make some money, any money, rather than drive them onto the Forbes rich list.
Threats to excommunicate golfers who sign up to Norman’s tournaments are likely to backfire. What are the four majors without the box office names?
What is the Ryder Cup without the psychodrama between (and within) teams whose players resonate with a wider public tuning into the sport only once every two years for this unique fix of golfing intensity? Name recognition is all.
Once Norman and the Saudis have signed up the leading golfers, spare a thought for those outside the gilded cage. They will wonder what they have to do to gain admittance in future.
If the PGA and DP World Tour lose their commercial lustre, it will be that much harder for anyone on those circuits to gain the publicity necessary to secure superstar status, however successful they are on the golf course. Today’s roster of celebrity golfers might just be bagging themselves a lengthy, lucrative sinecure.
It’s just snow fun
Is it only me who finds watching these Winter Olympics a joyless experience?
In the Year of the Sportswash, I get that it’s hard to tune out the politics. But a bit of snow on a mountainous backdrop wouldn’t go amiss to take my mind off human rights abuses.
Hard to thrill to the big air freestyle final against the backdrop of those defunct steelwork’s cooling towers plastered with the Beijing 2022 logo.
Ten days to go and already an Olympics to forget. Roll on Milano Cortina 2026!
Early for dinner, I strolled Ashley Road in Hale, a small town in footballer-land, home to the stars of the North West’s top clubs.
I counted a dozen estate agents within a hundred yards or so, many featuring grandiose homes conforming to the cliched view of the footballer lifestyle. Tales abound of players leaving their super cars parked on double yellow lines, happy to take the ticket as if it were a soft yellow card.
This is United and City territory, the Manchester clubs each beset by problems with a high-profile star accused of sexual offences – United’s Mason Greenwood under police investigation and City’s Benjamin Mendy charged with multiple rapes.
It is no crime to live in close proximity to your clubmates and agents. A thoughtless parking offence doesn’t lead to sexual violence. But the challenge for top football clubs is clear.
Their brands are shaped by all the behaviours – good and bad – of the players they employ at great expense at a very young age. And a closed environment can breed norms out of kilter with wider society.
Time was when Alex Ferguson’s answer was to encourage his players to marry early. This now appears like leadership from the Stone Age.
Someone has described the culture at one leading team to me as “rancid”. Conversely, I see so much societal good done by players either on their own initiatives or through their clubs.
The problem is that it takes a plethora of positive actions to counter the media impact of one toxic one. If football’s underbelly is to be exposed through the courts, the need for countervailing positivity will only intensify.
Cup on the up
Covid has been kind to the FA Cup – that and Manchester City running away with the Premier League this season.
Grounds are full, big clubs are fielding near full-strength sides, lack of replays (at least for the past two rounds) is increasing jeopardy. And there’s blanket free-to-air coverage from both major broadcasters too.
Great that the FA and TV moguls have remembered that the public loves this competition, and always has done.
Birmingham 2022 featuring e-sports alongside conventional sports could be the big breakthrough into the sporting mainstream that the gaming movement has been craving.
Credit to the Commonwealth Games Federation under new CEO Katie Sadleir for embracing the new. The e-Olympics is surely only a matter of time. I’ll be boarding the train from Euston in the summer for this one.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com