Tony Finau reacts to a putt on his way to winning last month’s Rocket Mortgage Classic.getty images
Nearly every interview with a LIV official or LIV player these days features the same media talking point: The PGA Tour’s viewership is sinking, and its audience is dying.
LIV officials have been relentless in pounding this narrative, using it as a main reason why the Saudi-backed league launched this year in the first place. Its officials and its players want to grow the sport, right?
When asked about TV golf, legendary producer David Hill, who consults with LIV, simply says, “The audience is dying.”
It’s understandable why LIV keeps using these talking points. Golf’s TV audience is among the oldest in all of sports, after all.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Instead of running away from the age of its audience, PGA Tour officials, TV network executives and advertisers run to it because that old audience is also affluent, educated and serves as business decision makers. Multiple interviews with media and advertising sales executives say that the age of the PGA Tour’s audience is not the albatross LIV makes it out to be.
It’s become clear that the golf business needs to do a better job defending the PGA Tour’s numbers.
In sports television, younger audiences almost always mean better audiences. Since the dawn of television, network executives have made programming decisions based on the truism that younger-skewing shows attract more advertisers and bring bigger audiences.
Sponsors continue to be drawn to golf’s core older fans given their level of wealth, education and business influence.getty images
That’s why LIV events use a shotgun start, compressing a full day’s worth of matches into a four-or-five-hour TV package. Younger fans demand shorter sports.
It’s also why LIV events are set up as mini music festivals, with rock-and-roll blaring across the course as golfers line up their putts. Hushed tones are for senior citizens. Rock music is for the kids.
Several executives who are closely involved with golf’s media business pushed back on that narrative. Yes, network executives want a younger audience. But golf media has long embraced the advanced age of its viewers.
Ad buyers referenced Golf Channel’s sales pitch that has turned its age — it has the highest median age of any sports network (over 65 years for total day) — into an attribute. That’s because, as Golf Channel’s sales pitch goes, its audience also has the highest income level and counts more C-suite level executives than other channels.
Another point LIV folks try to hammer home suggests that it is an antidote to golf’s sagging ratings. LIV executives often point to decreased PGA Tour numbers as an area where it can build a business.
But an analysis of PGA Tour viewership since 2013-14 shows that the audience on CBS, NBC and Golf Channel has remained relatively steady.
For example, the TV audience for PGA Tour events across those three networks increased by 7% from five years earlier. During that same time period, the overall number of sports hours consumed on television dropped by 6%, sources said.
So far this year, however, all four rounds for events across those three networks have averaged 781,000 viewers, an audience that is down 14% from the previous season.
PGA Tour television numbers have been inconsistent since LIV Golf’s first tournament in early June. CBS started out with a bang at the RBC Canadian Open, which posted the biggest final round viewership in 22 years. CBS’s coverage of the John Deere Classic over the July 4 weekend posted a 25% jump that included the best final round since 2015.
Sandwiched in between those two events, however, was the Travelers Championship that was won by Xander Schauffele, which posted a 36% drop on CBS.
While LIV Golf is generating a lot of headlines so far, it has yet to secure a media deal in the United States and its online numbers have been tiny.
Take the end of July, for example, when it held its third tournament outside New York City. Its YouTube feed on Sunday had an average concurrent feed of just 74,000. CBS’s coverage of the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic on the same day averaged 2.5 million viewers.
LIV Golf is forced to stream its events via YouTube, Facebook and its own website.
LIV executives have said they expect to have a US media deal in place by the end of the year. The problem is that most of the big media companies — CBS, ESPN, NBC and Warner Bros. Discovery — have deep relationships with the PGA Tour and are unlikely to cut a LIV deal anytime soon.
Fox Sports is an outlier, given that Hill was a top Fox executive for more than two decades and LIV CEO Greg Norman has a personal relationship with Rupert Murdoch. But sources said it has not had substantive conversations about a deal.
It’s clear that networks and advertisers still see the PGA Tour as a good business. It was just a couple of years ago that CBS, ESPN and NBC signed media deals with the tour worth close to $700 million per year combined. Those deals run through 2030.
Those deals are structured in such a way that the broadcast networks are not dependent as much on ratings. The PGA Tour sells 75% of the ad sales inventory, leaving network ad sales groups to sell the remaining 25%.
That means 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 it has ever been.
Similarly, ad sales executives don’t view PGA Tour telecasts through a ratings lens. Of course, they all want Tiger Woods playing in the final group on Sunday, but they buy time in the PGA Tour to reach a unique audience.
“We’ve found that people who watch golf don’t typically watch other sports,” one ad buyer said.
Right now, that’s just the PGA Tour. Two ad buyers said their clients are not asking about LIV — at least not yet. They also said they wouldn’t recommend LIV right now based on the uproar over the human rights abuses from the Saudi government that funds it.
The other key is distribution. LIV will not gain much advertiser interest if it continues to stream its events on YouTube and Facebook, the ad buying executives said.
Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.