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PGA sabotaged LIV Golf TV deals, upstart Saudi league claims

Allegations come after PGA trounced LIV in viewership in their first TV battle
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman greets fans during Day Three of LIV Golf Invitational - Tucson at The Gallery Golf Club, on 19 March 2023, in Tucson, Arizona (AFP)

A PGA Tour Inc executive unlawfully lobbied broadcasters not to sign streaming deals with LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league alleged in the latest escalation between it and the US group in an ongoing lawsuit. 

In court filings, the Saudi-backed league’s lawyers accused Thierry Pascal, senior vice president of international media for the PGA Tour, of working behind the scenes to prevent media companies from cutting deals with LIV.

“Based on Tour documents and other sources, LIV believes Mr Pascal used illegal means to dissuade numerous broadcasters in international markets from signing broadcast contracts with LIV and even from reporting about LIV events in their news content,” LIV’s lawyers said in a court filing.

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The rival leagues have been locked in a legal dispute since last year, after a number of key golf stars decided to sign with LIV, including three-time Master's champion Phil Mickelson, who said the Saudi golf league gave him and golfers willing to participate "leverage" against the PGA Tour.

Last August, several players and LIV Golf sued the PGA on anti-trust grounds. Then, in September, the PGA fired back with a countersuit against LIV, accusing it of interfering with its players' contracts.

The new allegations come after LIV was trounced in viewership numbers by the rival PGA tour last month, in the first TV match-up between the two.

LIV Golf debuted in the US on broadcast TV in February for its season opener in Mayakoba, Mexico. The event drew an average of 286,000 viewers Saturday on the CW Network and 291,000 viewers Sunday.

That contrasts with 1.61 million viewers Saturday and 2.38 million on Sunday who tuned in to watch the PGA’s Honda Classic over the same weekend.

'Signed contracts cancelled'

LIV faces an uphill battle to find US broadcasters willing to showcase its tournaments, a key source of revenue and prestige for professional sports. The established PGA tour has long-term contracts with major broadcasters like CBS, NBC, and ESPN.

LIV lawyers said Pascal conducted a discreet lobbying campaign against them, leaving little written evidence of his efforts.

“Time and again, after the live meeting or phone call, the broadcaster did an about-face and informed LIV the negotiations (in one case, a signed contract) could not proceed,” LIV’s attorneys said.

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Pascal has until 14 April to make a deposition in London, a US magistrate judge ruled on Thursday.

The ongoing legal battle showcases the acrimonious relationship between the Saudi-backed and American League.

LIV sent out a taunting tweet earlier this month, accusing the PGA of copying its efforts to spice up golf tournaments. The Saudi-backed league has broken precedent by allowing music to be played on some holes. It has also introduced an expanded season with 14 events instead of eight and condensed the number of rounds played to three from four. 

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Congratulations PGA Tour. Welcome to the future,” LIV tweeted after PGA announced updates to its tournaments.

LIV is backed by Saudi Arabia’s $600bn Public Investment Fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Besides backing the league, the PIF acquired the English Premier League football club, Newcastle United FC, in 2021, and also considered buying Formula 1 motor racing last year.

The crown prince has sought to boost the kingdom's holdings in sports and entertainment. While he has pushed through some social reforms, he has also overseen a crackdown on dissent. And critics have accused Saudi Arabia of engaging in "sportswashing" to cover up its human rights record.

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