Is History Repeating With the PGA/LIV Split?

Think about a proud sports organization outside of the major four professional team sports that boasted a great, star-studded product, decent TV ratings most weekends, and lots of prominent sponsors. It had some rules and structures some participants didn't like, but things were about as good as you could expect in the sports landscape.

But the organization still fractured, and a new league in the sport began. At first, its potential success is written off as pure fantasy because things are so good with the popular league, whose biggest names pledge unconditional loyalty to the established circuit. This original league is furious with the upstart and starts a war of words with the new kid on the block but underestimates just how far the new league is willing to go.

The startup gets off the ground, but there are few defections from the big league. A stalemate ensues for a while, but huge defections eventually trickle over, lured by a prize the established organization can't offer.

The split causes a low tide that grounds all boats. TV ratings slip, with true competition between all the biggest names in the sport non-existent. Everyone is unhappy, neither side wins, and the incredible popularity the sport had for over a generation washes away in a sports landscape to be dominated by the ball-and-puck team sports.

I'm not talking about the split between the PGA Tour and Greg Norman/Saudi Arabia's LIV Golf. I'm referencing the IndyCar split of the 1990s that resulted in the CART-IRL war, waged for over a decade, and put American open wheel racing on unstable financial footing.

Such has been the decline of IndyCar racing from its heyday of the 1970s to the mid-1990s that it was passed for American racing supremacy in the '90s by NASCAR's nationwide boom and is now arguably less popular in this country than Formula 1 for the first time.

During the past few weeks, and as a huge auto racing fan that's always wondered about the alternate reality of a world with no IndyCar split in 1996, I've been enamored with how LIV Golf might change the entire sport and what professional golf will look like in five, 10, and 25 years. There's about a million possibilities for how things could turn out, and I'm not sure many of them involve a PGA Tour that's as untouchable as a few years ago.

That said, there's a lot of unique elements about racing that don't apply to golf, much less any of the major four North American leagues. And then there were some things that made the IndyCar split unlike anything else in racing before or since. It's worth going through some of those key differences, because those may shed light on how long this newest, potentially seismic split in North American sports will last — and how long it will reverberate for.

Majors and the Indy 500

In golf, like tennis, the calendar revolves around the four biggest tournaments. In IndyCar racing, there's one "major," the Indy 500. In the CART-IRL split, the owner of that pre-eminent event ran the entire renegade series.

In the case of LIV Golf, the Saudis and Greg Norman don't own Augusta National or the sanctioning bodies that decide where the PGA Championship, U.S. Open, or British Open will be played — and who qualifies. LIV Golf players who were exempted into the field through past major finishes, wins, or other criteria participated in last week's U.S. Open and will be able to participate in the British Open in July.

Augusta may spike LIV golfers for next year's Masters and it stands to reason that the PGA of America would follow the PGA Tour's lead and suspend LIV members from the 2023 PGA Championship. The President's Cup and Ryder Cup also require PGA Tour membership, so Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and others who have joined LIV won't be able to participate in the two biggest team competitions in golf.

In 1996, CART IndyCar teams were prepared to play ball and participate in the Indy 500 under United States Auto Club/IRL rules, but IMS President and IRL founder Tony George created the highly controversial 25/8 rule, which guaranteed that 25 of the 33 Indy 500 spots for 1996 would be filled by IRL regulars. Before this, drivers and teams qualified for Indy by having one of the 33 fastest qualifying times, regardless of series standing or prior results. The dissolution of that meritocracy of the stopwatch at the world's most important motor race was the final nail in the coffin for CART boycotting the 1996 Indy 500.

Without holding the keys to the Indy 500, the IRL probably wouldn't have gone anywhere. Right now, LIV Golf doesn't hold the keys or a clear qualification route to any of pro golf's most prestigious prizes.

How Deep is Your Pocketbook?

What LIV Golf does have that the PGA Tour and the majors don't is a whole lot of extra cash.

In March, the Players Championship awarded a $20 million purse. Even including majors, that's likely to be the highest purse awarded for a single tournament on the PGA Tour this year. Most of the week-to-week tournaments are between $7 million and $9 million, with a few getting up to $12 million.

Each LIV Golf event has a $25 million purse allocated to much smaller fields than a typical PGA event, and Johnson and DeChambeau are reportedly receiving nine-figure signing bonuses to ditch the PGA Tour.

It's well-known that George threw down a lot of money to keep the IRL afloat in its early years. One anecdote I found particularly interesting in Al Unser, Jr.'s excellent recent memoir is that George paid Unser, Jr.'s salary when Little Al jumped from CART to the IRL, becoming the first major star of the IndyCar war to do so in 2000. In racing, it was just about unheard of for a sanctioning body chief to pay a driver's salary like that. But that check was nowhere near $125 million. Based on Unser, Jr.'s language in the book, it was probably for about $10-20 million over 10 years.

And between 1996 to about 2002, CART still had money on its side, thanks to bigger sponsors, more famous drivers, more established teams, and partnerships with more popular automakers on race engines. That financial equation only flipped when the big-money sponsors and auto marques wanted to go back to Indy and be free of questionable CART management in the early 2000s. Even one week into golf's split, it appears that the Saudis are willing to part with billions to get LIV Golf off the ground.

The TV Piece of the Pie

In hindsight, one of the more incredible aspects of the IRL/CART split to me was that both series' races were on ABC/ESPN for the first several years of the conflict — 1996 to 2001 — and often with many of the same voices on air.

(I want to have a quick aside here and show you CART's season-opening race from 1996 on YouTube. Go to 1:26:37 and you'll find something incomprehensible for the 2022 sports landscape — this CART/IndyCar race, due to rain delay, is preempting the beginning of a North Carolina/Duke basketball game played in March. If you were born after the mid-1980s and want some context on how big IndyCar racing — even outside of Indy — used to be in this country, think about this.)

The breakaway series on the same network as the original series is a far cry from what we've seen with LIV Golf.

To even watch LIV Golf's debut event, you had to go to YouTube, Facebook, or LIV's website. Future events will be available on DAZN, but will likely stay off of traditional linear TV for now. In other words, the traditional sports TV rights players are staying away — or are actively going on the warpath as Jim Nantz did during the Canadian Open on CBS.

The Saudis and Norman have a lot of petroleum resources to subsidize LIV for a while, but I can't imagine that their business plan involves few media deals, continued bad PR from sports-washing, little advertising revenue, and annual losses of hundreds of millions for years on end. If it can prove some value for golf fans and/or gain access to major tournaments for its players, a divided pro golf world will stick around — much as it did in IndyCar racing from 1996 to 2008.

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