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Brooks Koepka won the LIV Golf Jeddah event over the weekend, which few people watched and even fewer attended. In a vacuum, this was strange moment in the sport: Koepka, a four-time major champion, led a terrific leaderboard — Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Peter Uihlein, Matthew Wolff, Paul Casey and Joaquin Niemann — that nevertheless lacked any buzz, even when Koepka got emotional about how difficult golf has been for him over the last two years.
That’s not to say LIV Golf Jeddah didn’t matter. It was clearly meaningful to its participants and those running the upstart league. However, something Phil Mickelson said earlier in the week kept reverberating as most of the sports world ignored the better story: Four-time major winner nearly cries after beating other major winners in $20 million golf tournament because he didn’t know if he was ever going to play again.
Koepka’s triumph was not the focus, though. Why is that?
Well, there are a thousand reasons, perhaps the foremost of which is that LIV Golf is not played in a vacuum. Among those factors is that the event was played in Saudi Arabia, which has accumulated a reputation for running this league with one eye on normalizing its human rights issues. So, that’s part of it.
Golf fanatics have thus far refused to see it as a legitimate league given that LIV relies on a shotgun start, plays 54 holes without a cut and doesn’t exactly boast a great roster of golfers beyond its top 10.
Mickelson, not in that top 10, disagrees. He spent the week in Jeddah touting LIV as the future of the sport.
“As I said earlier, for a long, long time, my 30 years on the PGA Tour, pretty much all the best players played on the PGA Tour, at least for the last 20 years,” said Mickelson. “That will never be the case again. I think going forward you have to pick a side. You have to pick what side do you think is going to be successful.
“And I firmly believe that I’m on the winning side of how things are going to evolve and shape in the coming years for professional golf. We play against a lot of the best players in the world on LIV, and there are a lot of the best players in the world on the PGA Tour. And until some of the — well, until both sides sit down and have a conversation and work something out, both sides are going to continue to change and evolve.
“And I see LIV Golf trending upwards, I see the PGA Tour trending downwards, and I love the side that I’m on. And I love how I feel. I love how I’m reinvigorated and excited to play golf and compete. I love the experience. I love the way they treat us.”
It’s certainly interesting that Mickelson claimed LIV Golf is trending upwards. To date, many have posited that the primary drive of traffic or viewership to LIV Golf has been its splashy signings, including that of Mickelson. It has also added Johnson, Koepka, Niemann, Garcia as well as reigning Open champion and Players champion Cameron Smith.
The way LIV has gone about these signings has been smart, too. It spaced them out such that there was a steady stream of intrigue and interest in the acquisitions. However, those signings are only serving as flash points for the league.
In fact, interest in LIV is waning rather than increasing. Research conducted by Golfdatatech obtained by CBS Sports shows that only 23% of respondents believe LIV Golf is a “good” idea, down from 27% in a previous iteration of its polling. Additionally, 58% believe LIV is a “bad” or “very bad” idea, up from 50%. (Four versions of research have been conducted since LIV started.)
Contrary to Mickelson’s claims, this shows LIV Golf is not trending upwards — at least when it comes to buy in from fans.
The majority of folks polled by Golf Datatech (66%) agree that they “don’t like that Saudi money is funding” LIV Golf. This figure has been consistent throughout the last several months.
Even more interesting are the YouTube numbers. Across the five events before Jeddah (for which data was not yet available), Boston did the best viewership by far. That event coincided with Smith’s signing. Chicago, the event directly after Boston, did the second-worst with Bangkok coming in last by a wide margin.
LIV Golf is broadcast on other platforms globally; YouTube is not the only place you can watch worldwide. However, the YouTube-only data seems to back up what others have posited about how big-time signings are the only primary catalyst driving interest in the league.
Perhaps that changes in the months and years to come, but the data doesn’t seem to support Mickelson’s theory. That doesn’t mean it won’t in the future, just that it doesn’t right now.
Mickelson is paid handsomely — like many others — to spout LIV Golf’s talking points for the purpose of turning the tide on the PGA Tour. That is their best interest, of course, but it doesn’t make those statements true. LIV is hardly the only organization that touts itself in that manner, though it does stand out given the circumstances.
One day, Mickelson may indeed wind up on the “winning side” of all this. We won’t know that for several years, maybe even longer than that. As it stands now, though, one cannot objectively make that claim. LIV Golf is simply not flexing all over the PGA Tour as some would like you to believe.
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