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LIV Golfs controversial growth raises questions over Saudi sportswashing


(NEW YORK) — For the past three years, LIV Golf has taken the world of professional golf by storm.

The newly formed professional league has already lured away superstars like Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson with unmatchable salaries and a whole new attitude — turning golf tournaments into open-air parties.

But not everyone is on board. Tiger Woods, who reportedly turned down $800 million to join LIV golf, and 24-time PGA Winner Rory McIlroy have been among LIV golf’s most vocal critics.

“What we’re doing here is incredibly additive to the sport,” said Monica Fee, Global Head of Partnerships at LIV Golf. “When you look outside and you see 20-somethings coming out to experience golf for the very first time, 30% of our fans have never come out to a golf event before. And they’re coming out to experience it through LIV. That’s good for the sport of golf.”

But with all the fanfare, LIV Golf has come under fire and controversy because it’s created and fully funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The country’s Public Investment Fund, or PIF, has reportedly poured more than $2 billion into LIV Golf, and billions more into other sports ventures as part of its plan to diversify the country’s economy beyond oil.

The PIF, which also owns a minority stake in Disney, the parent company of ABC News and Hulu, has been rapidly increasing its investments into sports and entertainment businesses. According to Global SWF, an organization that tracks sovereign wealth funds, the fund has invested $13.5 billion into sports alone since its inception.

The fund’s expansion has been called out by human rights groups and Congressional leaders who point to the Saudi government’s human rights violations, its ties to the 9/11 attacks and the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.

“Big governments, and big corporations included, use sports-related content and the media stories tied to sports, in order to alter the information that reached their target audiences,” Sarath Ganji, the director of the Autocracy and Global Sports Initiative told Impact. “Saudi Arabia can use the media cycle of good sports stories in the United States to push out all those negative stories.”

Although the Saudi government has repeatedly denied allegations of its involvement in the 9/11 attacks, it has faced pushback from families of the victims through an ongoing class action lawsuit.

When LIV Golf was first announced in 2021, Terry Strada, chair of 9/11 Families United, said she was outraged as PGA stars started to join the new league.

“I wrote the first letter that went to Phil [Mickelson] and a few of the other players, and called them traitors,” she told Impact.

Mickelson responded to the criticism from the 9/11 families during the 2022 U.S. Open, telling reporters, “We feel the deepest of sympathies for those who have lost loved ones, friends, in 9/11.”

Mickelson also told Sky Sports Golf in June 2022, ” I don’t condone human rights violations, I don’t know how I can be any more clear.”

Former PGA pro Bubba Watson signed a multi-year contract worth more than $566 million with LIV Golf in 2022, telling Impact he has no regrets about joining the organization.

“I’m doing something that’s fun, energetic, and new. And if you’re going to grow the game of golf, this is the way, I believe, to do that,” Watson told “Impact”. “And so for me, it’s all about me and my family.”

Strada, whose husband was killed on 9/11, pushed back against Watson’s rationale.

“Weren’t they making millions on the PGAT? You didn’t have to go to LIV Golf to provide for your family. You know, that’s just another Saudi talking point,” she said.

Initially, PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan suspended players who took deals with LIV Golf and allied himself with 9/11 Families United in criticizing the Saudi government.

“Some of the early criticisms that the PGA Tour launched against the LIV Golf tour were couched in moral terms,” Ganji said.

Still, LIV Golf continued to grow, signing on more pro golfers, and putting the future of the PGA at risk, Jay Monahan told The New York Times. After months of media fights between the rival leagues, a surprise announcement was made last June, the PGA and LIV would join forces under one umbrella.

The PGA did not provide comment to Impact about the story.

In November Monahan told the New York Times, “the PGA Tour was facing an existential threat,” from the Saudi investment fund.

“I knew in the short term it was going to be difficult because it was something that was going to be a surprise to people, but I firmly believed that the decision that I was making … was the right decision for the game,” he told the Times.

Some PGA players who swore against LIV Golf, such as Rory McIlroy, said they felt blindsided by the surprise announcement.

“It’s hard for me to not sit up here and feel somewhat like a sacrificial lamb,” he told reporters shortly after the announcement.

Strada said she was disappointed in the commissioner and felt betrayed.

“They definitely took advantage of the 9/11 story,” she said. “You have to have a strong moral compass to stand up against the Kingdom.”

Monahan responded to the criticism in a June 2023 interview with Golf Today.

“As we sit here today I understand the criticism that I’m receiving around the hypocrisy and me being hypocritical given my commentary and my actions over the past last couple of years,” he said.

But in recent months, the investment group Strategic Sports Group, or SSG, announced it would invest upwards of $3 billion into the PGA tour, creating a new for profit venture “PGA tour enterprises.” The investment could force PIF to be a minority investor in the PGA, according to experts.

Although the future of the PGA Tour and LIV Golf partnership is still uncertain, Saudi influence in the sports world continues to grow as it invests in clubs, leagues and other sports groups throughout the world.

Ganji cautioned against letting these investments distract from the Kingdom’s human rights record.

“Sportswashing is such an interesting word…the washing part at the end of it is what’s key. It implies that there was something stained, something dirty, fundamentally something problematic and wrong,” he said. “But here’s the thing: When you do something wrong as a political regime, you can’t just get rid of the stain. It’s a forever fact.”

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