In June 1966, the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) finally came together to form a new league with two conferences instead of continuing to engage in a feud that did not serve the interests of players, fans, or football itself. The union led to one of the most successful leagues in professional sport — and a beloved American tradition bigger than the league itself: Super Bowl Sunday.
Now, almost 60 years later, the once-unimaginable truce between the NFL and the AFL serves as an example that someone perhaps needs to share with PGA Tour executives, the self-appointed stewards of professional golf who find themselves and their league at a pivotal moment.
While millions enjoy golf, the sport lags far behind the NFL, the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) in popularity.
The PGA Tour gets lousy ratings, and the sport’s all-time biggest star player, Tiger Woods, may never return. This is why some of the PGA’s recent behavior has been so puzzling.
Rather than take a page from the NFL’s playbook, and those of other professional sports, and build bridges with competitors, they’re moving in the opposite direction.
At a time when at least two new golf leagues are rumored to be forming to bring the sport to larger audiences, the PGA seems to be doubling down on monopolistic behaviors, stifling innovation, and worrying more about providing lavish executive compensation than spreading the game to new generations.
Fearful of having to compete, the PGA has threatened to ban, for life, any player who participates in a non-PGA sanctioned event. And bear in mind that, in 1968 — months after the formation of the modern NFL — the PGA Tour itself was formed by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer rebelling against the stolid administration of touring professional golf’s then-governing body, the PGA of America.
It also seems unlikely the PGA could even enforce potential bans given that the players are independent contractors, and they could all probably afford an army of lawyers if they wanted to press the issue.
In the 1950’s, the NFL kept competing leagues from emerging by imposing lifetime bans on their players. Those bans were held to be unlawful.
Likewise, similarly aggressive moves by the PGA against its players could run afoul of antitrust laws aimed at preventing monopolies.
One question to ask is why pro golfers' heads have been turned in the first place?
One only need look at how the professional sports economic pie has grown larger and faster than golf’s in nearly every other sport.
PGA Tour pros have seen an increase in prize money of just 2.5% annually from 2014 –2019. By comparison, other sports leagues’ player salary caps grew by 15% (NFL), 8% (NBA) and 4% (NHL) respectively.
At the same time that their players are questioning if they are being paid on par with superstars in other pro sports, golf is plagued with a variety of issues across its fan ecosystem.
TV ratings are declining, the average viewing age (64) for PGA Tour broadcasts is rising, and the number of participants hitting the links is in a steady decline, bar the pandemic bump golf briefly enjoyed.
While almost every other sport continues to adapt, grow and flourish, the PGA has instead decided to double down on monopolistic behavior.
Other sports leagues, like the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, have seen competitors in the past, but with the unique exception of the MLB, the absence of multiple leagues has been due to failed business models and less favorable circumstances, not because of anti-competitive measures designed to prohibit them from entering the arena in the first place.
Competition in the marketplace is usually a good thing for both the consumer (in this case, spectators, fans, and average golfers) and the labor market (pro-golfers).
The threat of competition itself provides a fertile fairway for innovation and increased prospects for financial reward.
The PGA has been buffered against such positive pressure for far too long.
Athletic icons grow both interest in a sport and the merchandising marketplace that feeds it: where would the NBA be without Jordan or the NHL without Gretzky?
The PGA does a disservice to itself, and the game of golf, when it restricts players in a way preventing them from earning their best living, limiting their ability to play on other tours.
All sports at their core are about competition. It's time for the PGA to compete.
Kim Coleman is co-founder and executive director of a nonprofit scholarship granting organization. She has been a planning commissioner and is founder/director of Monticello Academy Charter School. She served as a member of the Utah House of Representatives from 2015 to 2021, representing that state's 42nd district.
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