Make no mistake: A nine-figure sum is a lot of money, for anyone.
That's what reportedly is on the table in a negotiation between a Saudi-backed breakway golf league and 2020 US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau. The Daily Mail reported -- and DeChambeau disputed -- that the Saudis are offering him $135 million to sign on to their concept that would feature a series of global tournaments with limited fields, guaranteed prize money and perhaps a team component.
Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Jason Kokrak are among those who have reportedly shown interest in the concept. Reporting has suggested the European Ryder Cup stalwarts have been offered sums in the range of $20 million to $25 million to get on board. Mickelson would surely be offered much more.
To put this money into perspective, Tiger Woods has won more than $120 million in PGA Tour career earnings. Add in two FedEx Cup wins and millions won overseas in purse money and earned through appearance fees, and his total figure is about $170 million. To date, DeChambeau has earned approximately $26 million on the PGA Tour, and with his bonuses and appearance fees, he's likely in the $32 million range.
Even if the $135 million figure is off by a fair amount, the Saudis are still offering him triple his career earnings. On its face, the offer is a no-brainer for DeChambeau. The reported smaller offers for the the likes of Westwood and Poulter may well seem that way, too. Are guys who are in their late 40s going to find that kind of money for the remainder of their viable careers on the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and, someday, PGA Tour Champions?
Yet the answer isn't that simple. Or at least it shouldn't be. That's without considering the morality of engaging with a Saudi-backed concept that, with the estimated payoffs being thrown around, is almost impossible to understand as a business model. In other words, as Eamon Lynch has echoed, this concept isn't about developing a sustainable, long-term future for pro golf.
These players, including the older ones, then have to consider what they're signing up to do. Setting aside the morality of it for a moment -- it may well not be much of a consideration for these players, so let's not factor it in here -- there are litany specifics that matter.
How long is the deal? Seemingly, it would vary by golfer unless they're all lifetime contracts, right? No offense to the reigning PGA champion, but Phil Mickelson has a much shorter viable career left compared to DeChambeau or Kokrak or Johnson. If these are short-term deals that are under five years, golfers are likely more intrigued than long-term deals. Players could make their money, leave and hope to return to the PGA Tour or DP World Tour, provided that threatened bans either never materialize or are declared illegal through litigation.
The threatened ban (herein referred to as "The Ban") has to be a consideration as well. If the PGA Tour and DP World Tour follow through with a ban and it does hold up on a nearly guaranteed legal challenge, there's No Way Home -- at least a guaranteed one -- for defectors. Even if a legal challenge proves successful, the tours could be engaged in them for years that could extend beyond the length of a Saudi contract. If that's the case, and there's no stay of the ban while litigation unfolds, these players may not have a clear next move.
It's also not clear if these contracts guarantee the players access to the hypothetical league's prize pool. The league is positioned as being for elite players, but what if a player suddenly loses form? Will they be allowed to compete even after a precipitous drop in form and ranking? Would they be pushed to the side, unable to compete for PGA Tour-level money? Is The International Series, a new series within the Asian Tour schedule featuring $1.5 million to $2 million purses, the B-league? How fluidly will players move?
Aside from the question of a player's viability, there's the big question of the league's viability. The Saudis have astounding sums of money. Their Public Investment Fund, which is an investor in the Greg Norman-led off-shoot LIV Golf Investments, has an estimated value of approximately $500 billion. The funding is there. However, are the Saudis committed to a truly long-term investment in this concept? What if TV rights, particularly in the United States, are difficult to secure? What if, several years into the concept, it's clear that it hasn't caught on with golf fans weary of yet again using money instead of prestige as a bait for fans? If the Saudis pull the plug, and The Ban is in effect, where will these players go to compete? That might be great news for the Asian Tour, but it probably isn't for the US-based players who could be locked out.
That's to say nothing of the major championships and what their governing bodies may choose to do with these players. In the grand scheme of things, a player's legacy only means something to them while they're alive. If the spigot of the majors is cut off in exchange for a large amount of money, what does a player choose?
Again, the Saudis aren't doing this because they want or need to make money from professional golf. That's not the point. There are much better investments from a financial perspective. So it's a reputational investment. If it doesn't pan out, there's no reason to continue it, and these golfers could have their career viability drastically shortened as a result.
Even if it does all work out, will the combined signing money and prize money net out any potential losses from endorsement income? Many top-tier pros compound their money from lucrative sponsorships on top of their on-course earnings. Making the assumption that the sponsor pool will remain the same -- which is a big assumption -- the money may not be the same.
The Saudi concept is said to have global ambitions, but that's a tough sell for sponsors who know PGA Tour players are predominantly in the American market. Sponsor exposure isn't worth quite as much when events are played in markets that aren't as valuable to that sponsor's bottom line. Also, Americans are much less likely to watch tournaments in the middle of the night (see the last three Olympics), so that audience may not be a significant part of the sponsor equation. The Saudis almost certainly know that, so are they accommodating potential income loss in these contracts?
A nine-figure sum may make all of these questions irrelevant. Just sign on and deal with any consequences when they come. Likely, though, it probably doesn't.
Then there's the realistic possibility that this is all a negotiating tactic for the players to gain guaranteed money for access to a similar, PGA Tour-produced concept. Reporting has suggested that the PGA Tour is entertaining building a similar idea in the fall portion of the year, with guaranteed purses and a team concept. Even with the Tour's negotiating prowess, compiling several hundred million dollars in sponsor money isn't quite as simple as the Saudis producing it with the snap of a finger. However, if the Tour can come up with a concept that approximates what the Saudis are discussing, would players be happy to sign on and avoid all the inconvenient questions and truths that come up when talking about walking away from the world's biggest professional golf tours?
There truly are more questions than answers.