LIV Golf’s new TV deal with CW Network isn’t what it seems

Given his talent for recasting excruciating humiliations as bold victories, it’s surprising that Greg Norman doesn’t present himself annually at the gate of Augusta National wearing a green jacket and insisting that what happened in 1996 — or ’86, ’87, ’89 and ’99 — was actually a triumph worthy of a place setting at the Champions Dinner.

“A momentous day for LIV Golf,” is how Norman described his league’s just-announced broadcast deal with The CW, the nation’s 25th most-watched network, or 29th if you’re chasing the 18-49 demographic who might be drawn to “ golf, but louder.” (To be fair, the CW’s average viewer is 58, so they watch every show louder).

Alert to an opportunity to impress his boss, LIV’s chief media officer, Will Staeger, conjured a version of events that would have even George Santos calling for narrative restraint.

“Following a competitive bidding window with multiple US networks and streaming platforms, the sports story of 2022 has just moved into pole position for the top story of 2023,” he wrote in a social media post.

Staeger’s comment raises two questions for those among us predisposed to cynicism: did autocorrect change “begging” to “bidding,” and how does a competitive process among multiple parties result in giving away the product for free to the worst-case option?

Mute the marketing and the reality of this deal has to be dispiriting for LIV and its hookworm hangers-on. No money changed hands, no network (major or minor) was willing to pay a fee for the product, and not a single legitimate sponsor has been attached to it. And those are only the facts apparent right now.

The agreement has been described as a revenue-share, though LIV currently generates no revenue, at least not for itself (MBS’s checkbook has blessed many a washed-up player, executive and politician with revenue beyond their worth). It’s feasible that sympathetic sponsors might materialize, especially if the Saudi Public Investment Fund — which owns 93% of LIV and covers 100% of its costs, all while claiming it isn’t subject to US laws as it does business here — puts a squeeze on its partners.

Advertising could eventually provide a pay-off for The CW, but it won’t cover LIV’s production costs, much less the premium it has already paid to own Bryson’s tantrums and Brooks’ melancholy. It bears noting that The CW doesn’t submit to the standard Nielsen viewer ratings outside of weekday prime time hours, so actual audience figures for LIV broadcasts will be unavailable, or at least unvouched for. Advertisers will demand reporting metrics based on something more credible than Greg’s guff.

It’s also unclear just how many people will actually have access to LIV broadcasts. Friday rounds will only be available streaming on the CW app, which the press release boasted has been downloaded 90 million times (a cursor scan of your smartphone will illustrate the difference between downloading an app and actually using it). Saturday and Sunday rounds will be aired on CW stations. Perhaps.

Nexstar Media Group is The CW’s parent company and owns roughly one-third of its TV stations. The rest are affiliates and can choose whether or not to clear scheduled programming — be it teen drama reruns or local sports — to broadcast LIV’s tournaments. The announcement omitted mention of how many stations have committed to airing LIV. Pity the factotum who might one day be called upon to explain to MBS why some markets preferred repeats of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to his $2 billion folly of him.

Norman gamely pointed out that The CW is available in 120 million American households. YouTube streams of LIV events were available on every connected device globally, yet audience numbers were dismal, showing inexorable decline after the early curiosity sampling. There are many possible explanations for why LIV has failed to gain traction with fans — the format, the frat brats in the lineup, the insignificance of the competition, the garish theatrics, the source of the funding. Perhaps ease of access to tournament broadcasts was another factor, but it requires a grandiose optimism to believe that The CW will sustain better results than YouTube’s 2.6 billion active users.

For all the spin put forth by Norman and his team, LIV has simply found a lesser storefront for the very same product that was ignored when given the largest platform possible. What was announced this week is less a broadcast deal than a distress sale, which is not to imply that anyone was willing to pay for it.

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