As more of golf’s top athletes defect from the PGA Tour in favor of the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, the case for maintaining sponsors despite public backlash is only growing stronger, according to one sports lawyer.
“There's definitely safety in numbers — there's no question about that,” Irwin Kishner, co-chairman of the Sports Law Group at Herrick Feinstein, told Yahoo Finance. “And the more developed they get, the more established they get, the more likely you're going to have willingness to step up.”
On Wednesday, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed became the latest professional golfers to play in the LIV Golf International Series, which kicked off the rival tour on Thursday with a tournament at the Centurion Club north of London. The pair are slated to play in future events alongside prominent golfers including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, and Louis Oosthuizen.
The PGA Tour responded swiftly to the start of the new tour, suspending all PGA golfers participating in the LIV Golf events due to a violation of competitive events and media rights regulations.
Corporate actors are also taking a stand: As of opening weekend, LIV Golf doesn’t have a major broadcasting partner. The tournaments can be streamed on YouTube, Facebook, or LivGolf.com but won’t be shown on normal golf staples like ESPN and CBS.
But as the PGA Tour bleeds out some of its best talent to a new league paying salaries that the PGA can’t match, Kishner argued, broadcasting companies may follow the big names.
“I don't think there's going to be a negative taint on a broadcasting company taking on that necessarily,” he said. “The only thing that you're weighing is perhaps angering the PGA Tour and promoting it. I don't think there's a negative connotation simply because a broadcaster is broadcasting a live event with 20 of the best golfers in the world.”
Some sponsors have also denounced any involvement with Saudi money. The Royal Bank of Canada pulled its sponsorship with McDowell and Johnson while UPS pulled its sponsorship with Westwood. Callaway, Workday, KPMG, and Heineken have all ended or paused relationships with Mickelson.
Kishner argued there likely won’t be a long list of sponsors to follow from the newly added players.
“It’s not as if it's Russian-backed or North Korean-backed,” he said, adding that "he fact that it's Saudi ownership — I don't think in it of itself is going to create as much of a disruption on sponsorship as one might assume that would happen. I don't see a mass exodus frankly. But look, time will tell.”
LIV Golf is backed by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund which has raised questions about the humanitarian crimes committed by the Saudi Arabian government, including brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government-directed operatives in 2018.
Monetary incentives have helped golfers overlook human rights concerns. The Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund has pledged $255 million in prize money across the eight events, with a $25 million total purse per tournament and guaranteed payouts for all 48 participants.
“I chose what’s best for me and my family,” Johnson, who ranked No.13 in the world on the PGA Tour as of last week, told reporters at the press conference on Tuesday where he resigned from the tour "for now."
Johnson reportedly signed a roughly $125 million deal, not including prize money, for his participation in the eight-event LIV series. That haul dwarfs the $74 million in prize money that Johnson made through his 15-year career on the PGA Tour.
This post has been updated with clarifying details/
Josh is a producer for Yahoo Finance.