Pay Attention, Golf: Divided Sports Don’t Work | Golf News and Tour Information

Let’s start with a question: can you name the current men’s heavyweight boxing world champion?

The best answer I could find was Wladimir Klitschko, a man who retired from the sport five years ago. It turns out that there are several correct answers. The WBA recognizes Oleksandr Usyk as a “super champion” and Trevor Bryan as a “regular champion”. The WBC lists Tyson Fury, with Dillian Whyte as the “interim champion”. The IBF and WBO recognize Usyk. And Ring Magazine opts for Fury. Usyk and Fury are both undefeated, but depending on satisfaction of various clauses, delays caused by mandatory defenses, and the outcome of tough negotiations, they may never even fight (and if that happens, it may happen long after everyone has stopped caring). More recently, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao were the two best boxers on the planet for many years, and due to divided divisions in boxing and disagreements between the two camps, they never fought until that it was about seven years too late, and Pacquiao’s star had already faded.

As difficult as it may seem today, boxing was once one of the two or three most popular sports in America, and it would have been unheard of for a sports fan not to know the name of the champion. The reasons for his decline are manifold, but he has remained in the shadows as mixed martial arts threatens to take off due to the fact that it is so difficult to get the best boxers in the world to actually box. Too many competing divisions and competing financial interests present huge obstacles that make it harder than ever for fans to get what they want.

The truth is that a schism in any major sport is a nightmare scenario for the popularity of that sport. In the 1970s and 1980s, CART Indy-Car racing was the most popular form of auto racing in the United States. Then it had its own major schism in 1996 due to various disagreements, and the years passed with the best open-wheel riders in the country. (and the world) don’t compete, including at the sport’s biggest race, the Indianapolis 500. Private sponsors plummeted and NASCAR surged ahead. There was a reunification in 2008, but NASCAR remains completely dominant – once a split occurs, it’s hard to get over it. Today, if you’re not a die-hard motor racing fan, open-wheel racing in America doesn’t become national news until the Indy 500, and just like we started with a question about boxing , ask yourself this: how many of the last five winners of this race can you name?

You see where this leads. We’re still too early to know what schisms will develop in professional golf, but we’ve just come out of a truly dismal week in which the Saudi-backed and still-developing ‘Super Golf League’ reportedly offered exorbitant sums. to players like Ian Poulter, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson to potentially leave the PGA Tour and join them. Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson continues to throw verbal grenades at the PGA Tour in what looks very much like a public relations strafing campaign designed to lay the groundwork for a potential move. You start to feel the tremors of a schism, and it gets worse all the time.

As it becomes more and more possible that Something will happen, the broader debate tends to focus on a few burning questions, such as whether it is a moral failure for players to support a Saudi government-sponsored company, or whether the PGA Tour should indeed allocate more of its income to tournament purses. Ultimately, the moral implications don’t seem to be heavy enough to stop players chasing huge paychecks, and while it’s certainly important to discuss this element of this situation, expect zero defections. of a group of mostly politically conservative athletes. purely because of political concerns is naïve. If golf’s current governing bodies are successful in delaying even a partial exodus, it will likely be due to a combination of financial concessions (see: Player Impact Program, or increased scholarships and FedEx Cup bonus payments), veiled threats and the belief among players that a split will generally be bad for the sport.

On this last subject, it is not really a debate. Boxing and Indy-Car racing show what can happen when a sport is divided against itself. In fact, golf itself proves the theory in the opposite way – the game is stronger than ever because, unlike some times in the recent past, we can see the best players in the world whether they come from the United States , Europe, Asia and elsewhere. , compete regularly, even outside the majors. We never have to wonder, say, how Ernie Els might have fared against Tiger Woods, or how Rory McIlroy might have fared against Brooks Koepka. But imagine a scenario where 10 of the top 20 golfers in the world join the Super Golf League. Imagine then that a union of the PGA Tour, the DP World Tour, the Augusta National, the USGA, the R&A and the PGA of America limits them, if not prohibits them, from playing in the majors, or without any doubt the Players Championship and the BMW PGA Championship. . What would happen to the prestige of these events? The answer is that he would dive precipitously; there’s a lot less value in winning a major championship when 10 of the best players in the world can’t compete, and the fans understand that.

Let’s say the SGL happens, but players who skip can still play in the majors, given that it would be in the majors’ interest to let that happen. That would be much better for golf and lessen the effects of a split, but there would still be the frustrating case where the best players in the world play each other less frequently. Say what you will about the World Golf Championships, but they’ve brought together the best players more consistently than before they were created in the late 1990s. Same with the FedEx Cup.

And what then of the viability of the PGA Tour itself? In 2021, 124 tour players won $1 million or more in tournament prize money alone, and that number continues to grow every year. In an era when weekly courses are better than ever, and if 10 of the best golfers in the world weren’t competing on the tour never? This leads to a host of extremely worrying assumptions: would corporate sponsors be just as eager to come on board? What would happen to national rankings and attendance when US rankings were getting less and less impressive all the time, and the other option was to hold tournaments in the middle of the night thousands of miles away? When the current PGA Tour television contract expires in 2030, will the terms be as favorable? Would players who stayed at the start of the schism, for whatever reason, be so eager to stay the course when their slice of the pie in tournament purses and endorsements dwindles, while their peers cash out? (And of course, all of these same questions would also apply to the DP World Tour in Europe.)

Professional golf is booming today, and recreational golf itself is booming thanks to the pandemic. On paper, the ingredients are ripe for continued growth. And yet, it is very easy to underestimate how quickly an individual sport can lose status. Professional golf will never die, but like boxing and Indy-Car racing, it could fade into the shadows of American sporting consciousness, losing money and status in a steady stream. And all of this could happen faster than expected, especially when so much of the audience is made up of older viewers. Even in a time of unprecedented stability, nothing is ever as stable as it seems.

A cleavage introduces fragility. It inhibits the development of superstars, lowers the status of top-tier events, and costs money due to lower viewership and advertising revenue. The situation in golf is particularly perilous, because unlike other failed schisms – see the USFL in football or the ABA in basketball – the backers of the Super Golf League don’t seem particularly concerned about a return on investment, if their initial offers to players are any indication. This may be a classic example of “sportswashing” – running a sports business to improve a government’s image – and if the people behind it are just wasting millions of dollars for any boost they think it will give them gives away, then they may just be happy to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars with no return. In other words, it may not collapse when it should.

What happens then? Is golf becoming like F1 racing, with only a limited number of players able to compete at the highest level? Is US domestic golf becoming a glorified minor league? Is the money flowing out of development systems and touring, so that the growth of the past decades falls into stagnation, like American men’s tennis? We don’t know exactly, but the fact is that everything is on the table. History tells us that schisms in sport are disastrous, and while we can’t pinpoint what that would do to golf, it’s not hard to predict the general trajectory. Ask boxing or ask Indy-Car: These are dangerous times, and no sport is so strong that a schism can’t knock it out.

Michael C. Ford