Investors line up to join virtual golf league spearheaded by Tiger Woods
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Monday night football is a US institution, with millions of fans tuning in each week to watch the biggest games in the National Football League. Can Monday night golf compete?
That’s the hope of those backing the planned golf league TGL — an attempt to reimagine the game, spearheaded by superstar players Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy through their investment vehicle, TMRW Sports Group, in partnership with the PGA Tour.
The concept involves six teams of three players facing off each Monday night for a two-hour game played partly on a high-tech golf simulator, and partly on a green inside a purpose-built arena. Organisers hope that the matches, which will take place in the new arena rather than on a golf course, will be beamed to homes around the US during primetime viewing.
The distilled format has been designed to appeal to a wider audience than traditional golf enthusiasts alone, with the action condensed into snippets that can be easily posted on social media. Data will form a core part of the experience — both for people watching live inside the arena in Palm Beach, Florida which will host up to 2,000 fans, and those also tuning in online around the world.
The league, due to launch in January next year, has already attracted some of golf’s top players. Alongside Woods and McIlroy, Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele and Jon Rahm have signed up to play for one of the teams.
“It’s very focused on stars”, says Mike McCarley, chief executive of TMRW Sports. “It’s a modern version of a game that has 600 years of history and tradition. We’re taking the sport and using a modern approach that should be a way of bringing in new fans who may or may not have followed golf in the past.”
Investors have lined up behind the plan. A list of celebrities and sports personalities have given their backing to TMRW Sports, including Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, singer Justin Bieber, baseball player Mike Trout, and basketball’s Kevin Durant.
Big names from sports investment have joined them, including Blackstone executive David Blitzer, Michael Rubin, founder of sports merchandiser Fanatics, and Greg Maffei, chief executive of Liberty Media, which owns F1.
Last month, the first team franchises were awarded, with Los Angeles Golf Club going to social news website Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, his wife Serena Williams, and her sister Venus.
Ohanian has a background in sport investment through Angel City FC, the women’s football team. A diehard NFL fan, golf first caught his attention during the pandemic, when interest in playing sport outdoors surged. His daughter Olympia started taking lessons, which brought him to the golf course for the first time. Before that, he says: “I’d been totally ignorant about the sport.”
Then came a phone call from Woods, a long time friend, with a pitch for TGL that quickly convinced him that using technology to shrink golf down into shareable clips of action had the potential to reach an entirely new fan base. “For the first time ever, you’re going to get to see these crucial moments”, says Ohanian. “These moments will feel spectacular for a casual fan just scrolling through their feed thinking ‘wow this is a lot more fun than I thought golf was’.”
Ohanian hopes that other elements of the format — such as the three-person team — will provide ample opportunities for owners to “tell stories” and build an audience, in the same way that the Netflix series Drive to Survive has raised the profile of F1 in the US.
Soon after Ohanian and the Williams sisters had secured rights to the LA team, plans were announced by Fenway Sports Group, owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team and Liverpool FC in English football’s Premier League, to set up a New England team franchise.
While Ohanian has a record in building online communities, FSG has vast experience with traditional sport fanbases, such as the passionate crowds that follow Liverpool and the Red Sox. It hopes this can help it bring golf to a new, younger audience.
“The idea is what really excites us — and it’s going to be executed with the very best PGA Tour players in the world,” says Tom Werner, FSG chair. He identifies the Indian Premier League cricket competition as an inspiration: “Look at what happened in India,” he points out. “Cricket was four or five days long. Somebody had the idea of changing the format and condensing it to a couple of hours — and look at how successful that is.”
The business plan is likely to match the traditional model in sport: a mix of broadcast income, sponsorship and merchandise — but with lower overheads. TGL hopes to announce the remaining four team owners later this summer, along with, says McCarley, a media rights deal.
No financial terms have been disclosed for the deals to buy franchises. All team owners will receive a 3 per cent share in TGL, the players will share 10 per cent and the PGA Tour will have 18 per cent. TMRW Sports holds a 54 per cent interest.
McCarley says that the recent deal struck between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund has not altered TGL’s plans, the idea for which predated the spat between the Tour and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf breakaway competition.
Those involved in TGL appear optimistic that the effects of this golfing world controversy in the past year and a half will have no impact on their project. “It’s full speed ahead for TGL and what we’re doing”, says Ohanian.