[PHOTO: Keyur Khamar]
For a brief period in my childhood, thanks mostly to the radio station WFAN, which came through clearly at night in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, I was a fervent New York Rangers fan. My “hockey era” started about age 8 and lasted until about 12. It was my good luck that this span encompassed the 1994 Stanley Cup run, and I even retain a memory of ‘95, when the Rangers were swept out of the playoffs by the Flyers. Then, suddenly and for reasons I can’t quite remember, I was no longer an NHL fan. I’ve never gone back.
It was only years later that I learned my experience was not unique. Four months after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, a dispute over labour issues between NHL players and owners caused a lockout that cut the 1994-1995 season nearly in half. Anecdotally, I’ve met many others about my age who fell off as fans about the same time.
Ask a group of fans 10 years younger than me, and you can probably find similar stories after the 2004-2005 lockout. The Journal of Sports Economics found that there were “sustained decreases in attendance” after each labour dispute, with attendant drops in in TV ratings. And even those who supported the lockout at the time maintain it cost the NHL dearly when ice hockey threatened to overtake the troubled NBA as the third-most popular league in the US. It even affected people like me who couldn’t really articulate why we weren’t tuning in anymore. The narrative is the same in other sports; after the 1994 MLB strike, fan attendance dropped by 20 percent the next season.
It’s not that these leagues didn’t return to strong health. But the point is that even for established “Big Four” sports in America, internal disputes make all of the parties involved look bad, from players to management, and can have a significant, immediate impact in terms of fan interest. Resentment, in all its forms, will absolutely take an economic toll.
Which brings us to golf.
Despite the absurd money being thrown at top players, divorced from what they’re actually worth in any tangible way, professional golf is not a “Big Four” sport in the US. The PGA Tour is, however, a pretty good weekend TV product that has a lot of favourable recent trends going for it, from a surge in participation to a popular Netflix documentary. I’ve written before about how other individual sports like IndyCar and boxing have been gutted by organisational schisms, and while we may see that problem resolved in golf in the next few weeks of merger negotiations, the problem looming beyond is the fans. Despite the ways in which professional golf has benefited from a series of booms, starting with Tiger Woods and continuing through the pandemic bump, it would be a mistake to think it’s on such solid ground that the events of the past two years haven’t taken a hidden toll on the people who are supposed to keep watching. The big sports may have further to fall, but golf has less of a chance to rebound if it falls in the first place.
It will be some time before we have hard data to assess the damage done to the professional game by the PGA Tour vs LIV Golf fight, and if the tour ratings from 2023 (up 1 percent compared to last year on CBS) hold steady in 2024, this may be pointless worrying. But I won’t be the first writer to point out a negative anecdotal undercurrent among fans, and if you spend any time talking about golf with friends, you’ll have noticed the same thing: people are tired of the ongoing drama. This seems to hold across the opinion spectrum, whether you think LIV golfers are sell-outs or Jon Rahm had to take the money or Jay Monahan should be fired, or whatever today’s favourite take du jour might be. At a certain point, strong opinions give way to a more general distaste and fatigue for the entire process. This undercurrent – which I stress is still anecdotal – is reminiscent of events like the NHL lockout, where opinion was divided on whether the owners or players were to blame, but fans were lost in both camps.
That word “fatigue” appears in similar contexts like “war fatigue”. It happens when a conflict drags on long enough that whatever initial energy or even enthusiasm greeted the start of the fight runs into the cold reality of extended battle, and loss, and attrition. The emergence of war fatigue is not an exact science, and it changes with the facts on the ground – you’ll get fatigued a lot faster if you’re losing. But in the context of golf it does seem as though the Rahm signing represented a turning point for LIV, a victory that only made the potential length of this war even clearer. If it once seemed like the PGA Tour could hold out and survive in its former form, or that even after the framework deal it might slip out of the noose via private equity, now the delusions are swept aside and only two true outcomes remain: peace, or a forever war. That’s when fatigue sets in.
Golf is fortunate in the sense that there won’t be a complete cessation of play as in a lockout; you’ll still see golf on television every weekend, even if the fields aren’t as stacked as you would like, and viewers who want to tune in won’t have a chance to get out of the habit passively. But golf is unlucky in that it doesn’t have quite the cultural foothold of more established sports that can eventually recover after a stoppage. The current $US700 million TV deal, which was a huge coup for the PGA Tour, runs through until 2030 and now looks like both a blessing – it gives them plenty of time to get settled after whatever resolution comes of the current divide – and a curse, in that it may seem, at the moment, overvalued, at least until you can get the best players back on the same courses outside the majors.
All of which leads to the theory that golf can’t afford the loss of goodwill that the tour vs LIV fight has engendered. We’ve spoken plenty about “bifurcation” when it comes to equipment, but we may be on the verge of a metaphorical bifurcation among rank-and-file golfers, in which the game retains and even grows its popularity, but the conduct of the major figures and organisations in the pro game diminishes the popularity of “regular season golf” as a spectator sport.
For various reasons, some selfish and some not, I hope these are empty anxieties. The best thing that can happen in terms of fan interest at this point is a total reconciliation via merger, and the worst is a continued schism that reduces fan interest and transforms golf into a glorified version of tennis. But even in the best-case scenario, there’s no walking back the events of the past two years, and some fan resentment will linger. It remains to be seen how much that will actually hurt the pro game, but the history of other, more popular sports, along with a perceived sense of war fatigue among fans, means that the power brokers at the top of this sport should at least – at least – be concerned.