PEBBLE BEACH — If you step back and look at the last several years, you can make a fairly convincing case that no sport has thumbed its nose at its own fanbase more so than professional golf.

To be clear, there are a handful of contenders: Baseball had a work stoppage for the first time in nearly 30 years; football bungled the tension between players and owners over social justice protests; the richest soccer clubs in Europe announced they were breaking away from their current leagues to form a European Super League, then abandoned that plan when the backlash was even more severe than they had anticipated.

Yet golf, somehow, still managed to win the crown of dishonor by allowing the conversation around an already elitist sport to be dominated by warring factions of squabbling millionaires.

I am not a Bruce Springsteen guy (a rarity in my profession, I know), but a verse from his song Badlands frequently ran through my head during the past two years as I watched the sport light nearly all of its goodwill on fire.

Poor men want to be rich

Rich men want to be king

And king ain’t satisfied

Till he rules everything.

It almost doesn’t matter which side of the divide you planted your flag — the PGA Tour or LIV Golf — there was enough evidence to suggest nearly everyone played at least a small part in the professional game losing the plot.

Fans do not care about the size of purses, and they don’t give a damn about who got themselves a guaranteed bag. They might have rooted for disruption or delighted in pointing out various levels of hypocrisy, but in the end, nearly all of it was performative. When golfers talked about growing the game, fans knew deep down it was really just a smokescreen they could toss-up as they further enriched themselves.

When the PGA Tour announced on Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with the Strategic Sports Group to inject $1.5 billion into a new business model dubbed PGA Tour Enterprises, it felt like more of the same. Sure, it was welcome news for all the guys who didn’t join LIV Golf. The new model, which will create equity for as many as 200 players in the new venture, might even pave the way for an eventual agreement with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, and the reunification of the sport’s top players.

But none of it appeared to benefit golf fans in any tangible way. Even if the PIF and PGA Tour Enterprises can come to an agreement quickly on what investment the Saudis might make into the new venture, it might be a year before it could gain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. If golf doesn’t do something with all this cash to improve the experience of the viewer, it’s hard to imagine anyone under the age of 50 following this sport within a decade.

Thankfully there is at least some evidence professional golfers are starting to realize how tone deaf they seem, and how things have to change going forward. Collin Morikawa and Max Homa had a conversation about it on the way to the range Wednesday morning, shortly after the partnership with Strategic Sports Group was announced to the public.

“This doesn’t work unless golf keeps growing, unless golf gets more eyeballs,” Morikawa said. “I get it, we all want more money, and that’s going to be phenomenal. In the players’ interests, it’s going to be great. But at some point, we have to adapt. Enough of the complaining. I’ve done my share of complaining too, and I finally just threw myself to the side and said ‘What am I doing?’ … Everyone can still have an opinion, but I think when we look at the old model, it’s kind of stagnant.”

Homa echoed some of those feelings on Twitter.

I know everyone is sick of hearing about how much more money golfers are getting. My optimism lies in the main point of this which is we now have very savvy and experienced stakeholders who have a lot of incentive to improve the product creatively and make it better for the fans.

None of this is going to be easy. But it’s going to be essential. It was at least nice to hear a handful of players acknowledge that the television product — the way that 98 percent of us consume the sport — has to improve. It’s unthinkable to imagine a world in which Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson might play one another, and you wouldn’t be able to watch it live until deep into the second quarter, but that happens regularly in golf. The Pebble Beach Pro-Am is a great example. For years, hardly anyone at home knew what Spyglass looked like because rounds there received almost no live television coverage.

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“We need to make golf more intriguing to the viewers,” Morikawa said. “How do we make broadcasting more approachable, how do we see more golf shots at the end of the day, right? I turn on golf on a Thursday if I play early, I turn it on and I see three golf shots and I question why. The reason why other sports are -- people pay attention is because people see more, you can probably bet more. People like betting when you can watch it live, not watch it on ShotTracer.”

Few people in golf media have been as dismissive of LIV Golf as I have over the last two years. My moral objections to the product and the reasons for its existence remain what they are. There is no need to rehash them. But I will give the organization credit for grasping that the current broadcast model is broken, and someone needs to fix it. LIV Golf announced on Thursday that they will be launching an “Any Shot, Any Time” feature this summer that will allow viewers to see any golfer in the field. If you’re a fan of LIV Golf, you can tune in to watch — and eventually, I suspect, bet on — every one of Dustin Johnson’s shots, even if he isn’t in contention. LIV has its faults, but I’m willing to praise them for realizing what has to happen.

The Masters has worked with IBM to deploy this technology in the past, and been greeted with rave reviews, but the PGA Tour has struggled to implement it in its own tournaments. They claimed they were going to have it for The Players in 2021, but after two years, it quietly went away. One of the reasons? Players and their agents seemed to complain any time a little personality emerged.

Remember Keith Mitchell’s wonderfully relatable tee box tantrum at The Players? Casey Bannon of The Golfer’s Journal just happened to be watching PGA Tour Live late on a Friday, and recorded it so that it could be shared with the world. It was met almost immediately with a DMCA notice from the PGA Tour and had to be removed from social media. It only returned when Mitchell reposted the video on his own Twitter account the following day.

Players, agents and golf executives have to wrap their brains around the idea that personalities, rivalries and even embarrassing viral moments work to benefit the sport. They bring in additional eyeballs, they don’t scare them away. Think about the window HBO’s Hard Knocks and the Netflix documentary “Quarterback” has offered into the lives of NFL players. Players curse, they cry, they talk shit about their opponents. There are still some guardrails, still things that get deleted when players are miked up, but NFL players grew to see it as a normal part of their jobs.

Better television alone isn’t going to bring in millions of fans and billions of dollars. It’s going to require the product to be reimagined in numerous ways. Should that involve some aspect of team golf? It probably should. There might be a future where TGL franchises and LIV Golf franchises face off in both the real and virtual world. If that happens, all the animosity between the two tours could be a boon to interest and ratings. The new partners in the Strategic Sports Group include the owners or controlling partners of franchises like the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC, the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Mets, the Boston Celtics, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Milwaukee Bucks, so you can bet they will want to lean into some kind of team aspect to make money.

“With SSG joining, they’re not just smart business guys, they’re smart guys within sports who understand how to build fanbases,” Morikawa said. “Right now for us, there are no teams. A player might be out for two rounds and you don’t even see them. So I think that’s what the focus is going to be, and that’s what we’re going to trust them on. They know how to essentially build things up. You go to big sporting events and you can tell how into it the fans are. That’s what we have to see on a week-to-week basis in order for this to see it through.”

There is always the risk that the Strategic Sports Group and the PGA Tour could take all the wrong lessons from this venture. As a veteran of the media business, I don’t have a particularly glowing view of private equity after watching countless media companies get stripped for parts by finance thugs at a rate faster than they could die, all in the name of a few quarterly profit increases. It’s been like watching a hospital sell off the organs of a hospice patient while claiming it’s meant to increase efficiency.

If PGA Tour Enterprises adds more commercials, and tries to squeeze its partners for more money, while only paying lip service to improving the product, it’s going to be a disaster. Everything should be on the table: Better venues, more access for media, interesting formats, new leadership, few restrictions on sharing highlights (and lowlights). Baseball resisted those kinds of changes for years, but it flourished in 2023 by adopting tweaks like the pitch clock that would have once been viewed as sacrilege.

Adam Scott, a member of the PGA Tour policy board who helped negotiate the deal with SSG, didn’t want to get into specifics, but he feels optimistic about what’s coming. It’s important to grasp that players, under this new alliance, are essentially owners. They’re no longer incentivized to think solely of themselves.

“I feel like it’s probably the start of the next chapter in the PGA Tour,” Scott said. “It’s a big thing. I think it should be really celebrated. This is an iconic American sports league joining forces with other iconic American sports partners. It’s really hard to know what’s next. There are still a lot of moving pieces to be resolved. There are still open discussions with the PIF (Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia) and exactly how the professional golf world will shape up over the next few years is really unknown. But I think this is really the right direction for the sport.”

But what about fans? I asked Scott what he would say to fans who remain skeptical, and burned, by the events of the last two years.

“I think soon enough fans will see this will help evolve the competition side of the PGA Tour,” he said. “I think this will give Tour the opportunity to evolve and grow and give the fans what they want. Ultimately, we don’t know how it’s going to end up. But I think everyone’s intent is for it to be more fan-friendly, whether it means everyone can play together more often, or if we can just make the best product we can between the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, and make those big events better and better.”

Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.

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