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Following the disastrous performance of the Europeans in the Ryder Cup, Lord Triesman discusses golf’s new handicap

Following the disastrous performance of the Europeans in the Ryder Cup, Lord Triesman discusses golf’s new handicap

Lord Triesman

4 min read

The fury accompanying the announcement of the football “Super League” was predictable. Hubris, greed and powerful interests were always likely to push the sport toward the interests of JP Morgan, the Glazers and their colleagues. In the eye of the storm, the English contingent backed out and JP Morgan acknowledged it had “clearly misjudged” how the football community would receive revelations of the multi-billion dollar scheme.

The tsunami of football supporter anger has not wholly derailed the proposal, however, and a stream of litigation has started. Demands for meaningful regulation, a task plainly beyond the capabilities of the FA, remains toxic for club owners, but parties of all stripes finally embraced the need to act to regulate properly the finances and governance of football.

There is a deeper story here. The recognition that venture capital can make significant returns by buying in advance the future incomes of elite sports clubs or individuals is a massive shift for them. Clubs no longer need to wait for income to be earned, and will pay a margin for the certainty provided. Indeed, they  go further by defining who is the “elite” vanguard. It’s a financial model well-known in sectors like real estate. So why would other sports not follow football and JP Morgan?

Which brings us to golf. It is now reported that a number of golf’s superstars have been offered $30m (£22m) to sign up to a Saudi-backed “Super League”. The target start date is 2023, with an 18-tournament programme offering $20m (£15m) prizes. This World Golf Super League has, according to media outlets, offered contracts to Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson, and has approached Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Brooks Koepka and others. The case made, echoing football and even Kerry Packer’s break-away cricket competition a generation back, is that the top five to 10 per cent of players generate 80 to 90 per cent of revenues and interest.

Now I know far less about golf than many, but the European debacle in the recent Ryder Cup feels like a wake-up call.

This is accentuated in individual rather than team sports (though individual stars in major clubs play a similar role) and there is allegedly a defined talent pool of such stars. Why pay too much to the rest?

Naturally, an attractive commercial idea breeds rivals and, on the heels of the Saudi plan, a British consortium has flown a flag for a £250m, 40-competitor tournament series, also to tee off in 2023. Opponents including Rory McIlroy have already denounced it. 

Nothing like this comes without consequences and the push-back has been severe. PGA tour commissioner Jay Monahan says it could lead to suspension and even lifetime bans of participating players. They might face the choice of Saudi largesse or participation in the PGA Tour, and even the Masters and Ryder Cup. When the players met Monahan for their annual get-together at Quail Hollow, the room fell silent at this news.

Top stars argue the PGA Tour doesn’t run the majors or Ryder Cup and they might litigate. That is unlikely to solve their problem. The Saudi events would likely not get World Ranking points, blocking the route to entry to the majors.

Now I know far less about golf than many, but the European debacle in the recent Ryder Cup feels like a wake-up call. If some players can guarantee Saudi-backed super-incomes, they have a secure route to wealth whether playing in the great tournaments or not. Without them, those tournaments may be historic but not as great.

What it surely tells us is without restraint, the ethos of any sport, the culture of competition, of access to the top and relegation from the top, can be subordinated to returns on capital invested from outside the sport. The investors could not, for obvious reasons, ignore rates of profit, returns on exit, or their shareholders. Doing the right thing for the culture of a sport and its competitors at all ability levels may simply not be compatible. 

Lord Triesman is a Labour peer and former chair of the Football Association

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