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PGA trounces Saudi-backed LIV Golf in first viewership match-up

LIV taunts PGA with tweet accusing established US league of being out-of-step with modern game
The individual champion, Charles Howell III of Crushers GC, poses with the trophy after winning the LIV Golf Mayakoba, on 26 February, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (AP)

LIV Golf was trounced in viewership numbers by the rival PGA tour over the weekend, in some of the first data to showcase the established US league's edge over the upstart Saudi-backed group.

LIV Golf debuted in the US on broadcast TV last weekend 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.

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Sportswriters and analysts cautioned about caveats in the data, noting that the numbers leave out streaming viewers and that the PGA Tour was available in more US homes. 

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.

In a landmark decision earlier this month, a US federal judge ruled that the PGA could directly sue Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and its governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, who backs  LIV.

The viewership numbers provide the first glimpse of LIV’s uphill battle against PGA, but signs of competition are growing. According to a report Wednesday by Golfweek, the PGA Tour is revamping its schedule and event logistics.

LIV put out a tweet accusing the PGA of lagging behind in its approach to the game.

The Saudi-backed league has sought to spice up the game, allowing music to be played on some holes. It 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,” the LIV Golf League Twitter handle wrote. “Congratulations PGA Tour. Welcome to the future.”

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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