Breakaway sporting competitions are almost as old as professional sport itself. Ever since 21 northern English rugby clubs set up their own League in 1895 over a row about wanting to pay their players, two codes of rugby have (more or less) happily co-existed – although ironically Rugby Union is now by far the more commercially successful. Often discussions around breaking away from established competitions or formats start as behind-closed-doors affairs, used by teams or competitors as leverage to push their agenda with governing bodies that fiercely defend their hold on a sport’s revenue streams. Think of Billie Jean King in her campaign for equal prize money in women’s tennis, or Ferrari’s threat to set up their own Formula-1 championship but which ended in a new financial agreement.
Helicopters and fake dollar bills
At the other end of the spectrum, bids to disrupt the established order of world sport can be breathtakingly audacious and flamboyant. Perhaps the most infamous example is when Allen Stanford, a millionaire later convicted on multiple counts of fraud, landed his helicopter on the hallowed turf of Lord’s cricket ground, laden with a ‘treasure chest’ of dollar bills, to announce a new T20 competition between England and a Caribbean team nicknamed the ‘Stanford All-Stars’. The competition folded after two matches when Stanford was arrested, and the English Cricket Board terminated its contract with the disgraced millionaire. It later emerged that the dollar bills in the chest were in fact fake.
More recent in the memory is the short-lived idea of the European Super League in football. Fronted by senior statesmen from two European super-clubs, Florentino Perez of Real Madrid and Andrea Agnelli of Juventus, and with funding from JP Morgan, the move to create a new competition between 20 of Europe’s elite clubs provoked a widespread backlash from fans, former players and managers, other clubs, broadcasters…even politicians waded into the debate. The plug was pulled three days after its announcement.
54 ways to annoy the PGA
Against this backdrop comes a new golf format and competition called the LIV Golf Invitational. It starts in less than a month with a 3-round / 54-hole tournament (LIV = 54 in Roman numerals) at the Centurion Club, north of London. Funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, this breakaway movement has, like so many others, attracted controversy, ire, and resistance from the sport’s incumbent governing bodies the PGA and EGA, organisers of the main US and European golf tournaments, respectively.
Despite decent publicity and a former World No. 1 in Greg Norman as front man, the new format has been slow to attract high-profile players. With the PGA insisting that all players apply for waivers to play in the new competition at risk of exclusion, several well-known names such as Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have pledged allegiance to existing tournaments. Nonetheless, despite the headwinds, Norman is quietly confident of attracting the big names seen as crucial to making the competition a success; in recent days, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson have indicated that they are keen to participate.
Lessons on how to make the break
So with these examples of (attempted) breakaway competitions, are there some comparisons to be made and lessons learned for how to make a success of it? Here are my suggestions:
- Funding – prize money, appearance fees, publicity…starting a new global sporting franchise is an expensive business. The PIF has reportedly invested US$400m in LIV Golf, and a further US$300m in the Asian Tour which now includes the Saudi International tournament. Players in the LIV Invitational will compete for a US$20m purse, with additional team prizes on offer. Along with football and Formula-1, golf is clearly the latest vehicle for Saudi investment and soft power to be projected around the world. There is doubtless some regional rivalry at play too, as the European Tour is aligned ever more closely to Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Dubai – this year the European Tour has been re-branded as the DP World Tour. With the financial firepower of the PIF on its side, you would not bet against LIV Golf.
- Lead personality – when swimming’s world governing body FINA initially refused in 2019 to recognise the International Swimming League, a new team-based swimming series, it helped that breaststroke superstar Adam Peaty led the charge in forcing FINA to back down – so having a high-profile, successful and well-liked lead personality is an advantage. It is still early days but Greg Norman – known for his attacking style of golf, business acumen and outspoken opinions – could turn out to be an inspired choice for LIV Golf.
- Stakeholder management – getting all stakeholders in place – including competitors, sponsors, venues and broadcasters – before ‘going live’ with your breakaway competition will increase its chance of success. In hindsight, it seems odd that the aborted European Super League did not have a broadcasting deal in place before the launch announcement – or at least one that any of the major broadcasters would admit to. For the LIV Invitational, organisers are reportedly in discussions with US-based NEP Group, which might prove controversial given that the company has an existing relationship with the PGA.
- Read the room – conducting market research and testing a potential product on your audience is now such a fundamental and accepted part of commercial planning, that it is difficult to understand how the promoters of the ESL could have failed to anticipate the strength of popular feeling against their new idea. When it comes to LIV Golf, despite one or two comments from players about Saudi sportwashing and some “unhelpful” off the cuff remarks by veteran pro Phil Mickelson, the general feeling is that the wider golf community is keeping an open mind on the new format.
So while we wait to see how the new LIV Golf concept fares, there is also something to be said for officials at global sporting organisations keeping an open mind themselves. When several Indian international cricketers broke away to form a new domestic T20 cricket competition, the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India promptly banned the players and then launched their own version of the same idea. The Indian Premier League (IPL) is now the BCCI’s biggest revenue earner and one of the top 5 most lucrative of all sports tournaments in the world. And it all started with a breakaway.