The golf business retreats from LIV’s novel to viewers

Tony Finau reacts with a shot en route to winning last month’s Rocket Mortgage Classic.Getty Images

Almost every interview with a LIV official or LIV player these days features the same media talking point: Watching the PGA Tour is sinking, its audience is dying.

LIV officials have been relentless in squashing this narrative, using it as the main reason for launching the Saudi-backed league this year in the first place. Its officials and players want to grow the sport, right?

When legendary producer David Hale, who consults with LIV, was asked about television golf, he simply said, “The audience is dying.”

It is understandable why LIV continues to use these talking points. Golf’s television audience is among the oldest in all of sports, after all.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Instead of escaping the age of its audience, PGA Tour officials, TV network directors, and advertisers are rushing to it because this old audience is also rich, educated, and serves as business decision makers. Multiple interviews with media and advertising sales executives say that the age of the PGA Tour audience is not the LIV albatross.

It’s becoming clear that the golf industry needs to do a better job of defending the PGA Tour numbers.

In sports television, a younger audience always means a better audience. Since the dawn of television, network executives have made programming decisions based on the truism that young knitting programs attract more advertisers and bring in larger audiences.

Sponsors are still attracted to older fans of golf due to the level of wealth, education, and business influence.Getty Images

That’s why LIV events use the start of the gun, compressing an entire day of matches into a four- or five-hour television package. Younger fans are demanding shorter sports.

It’s also the reason why LIV events are held as mini music festivals, with rock and roll banging across the course as golfers line up. Calm tones are for the elderly. Rock music for children.

Several CEOs closely involved in golf media have pushed that narrative back. Yes, network executives want a younger audience. But the golf media has long embraced the advanced age of its viewers.

Ad buyers pointed to the Golf Channel’s sales pitch that turned its age – it has the highest average lifespan of any sports network (over 65 years for today’s total) – into a trait. This is because, as Golf Channel’s sales offering progresses, its audience also enjoys the highest income level and counts more C-suite-level executives than other channels.

Another point LIV folks are trying to make is that it’s an antidote to golf’s decline rates. LIV executives often refer to the low number of PGA rounds as an area in which to build a business.

But an analysis of PGA Tour viewers since 2013-2014 shows audiences on CBS, NBC, and Golf Channel have remained relatively flat.

For example, the television audience for PGA Tour events across those three networks increased 7% compared to five years prior. The sources said that during the same time period, the total number of sports hours consumed on television decreased by 6%.

So far this year, all four rounds of events across those three networks have averaged 781,000 viewers, an audience down 14% from the previous season.

PGA Tour TV numbers have been inconsistent since the first LIV Golf Championship in early June. CBS kicked off with great fanfare the RBC Canadian Open, which posted the final most viewership in 22 years. CBS’ coverage of the John Deere Classic over the weekend of July 4 posted a 25% jump that included the best final round since 2015.

But between those two events, it was the Travelers Championship won by Xander Schauffele, which posted a 36% drop on CBS.

While LIV Golf has been making a lot of headlines so far, it has yet to secure a media deal in the US and its online numbers have been slim.

Take the end of July, for example, when she held her third tournament outside of New York City. Its YouTube broadcast on Sunday was only 74,000. CBS’ coverage of the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic on the same day averaged 2.5 million viewers.

LIV Golf is forced to broadcast its events via YouTube, Facebook and its own website.

LIV executives said they expect to seal a US media deal by the end of the year. The problem is that most of the major media companies – CBS, ESPN, NBC, Warner Bros. Discovery – She has deep ties to the PGA Tour and is unlikely to make a LIV deal any time soon.

Fox Sports is an exceptional case, given that Hill has been a senior Fox executive for more than two decades, and that LIV CEO Greg Norman has a personal relationship with Rupert Murdoch. But the sources said they had not held substantive talks about the deal.

It’s clear that networks and advertisers still view the PGA Tour as a good business. Just two years ago, CBS, ESPN, and NBC signed media deals with the tour approaching $700 million annually. These deals will run until 2030.

These deals are structured in such a way that broadcast networks don’t rely too much on ratings. The PGA Round sells 75% of the ad sales inventory, leaving network ad sales groups to sell the remaining 25%.

This means that every PGA Tour event is profitable for CBS and NBC. The Networks economic model, when it comes to the PGA Tour, is as strong as ever.

Similarly, advertising sales managers do not view the TV broadcast of the PGA Tour through the lens of ratings. Of course, they all want to play Tiger Woods in the last group on Sunday, but they’re buying time on the PGA Tour to reach a unique audience.

“We’ve found that people who watch golf don’t usually watch other sports,” said one ad buyer.

Now, this is just a PGA Tour. Two ad buyers said their customers don’t ask for LIV — at least not yet. They also said they would not recommend LIV for the time being based on the uproar about human rights abuses by the Saudi government, which is funding it.

The other key is distribution. Ad buying executives said LIV wouldn’t get much attention from advertisers if it continued to stream its events on YouTube and Facebook.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised from the print edition.

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