PGA Tour-LIV Golf merger

In the wake of the controversial golf deal, Benjamin L. Schmitt of the School of Arts & Sciences and the Kleinman Center discusses ‘sportswashing,’ malign influence campaigns, and steps global democracies can take to prevent it all.

Golfer Phil Mickelson holds a golf club standing on grass and looks into the distance, bending at the waist, in front of a LIV Golf sign and a rock wall.
Phil Mickelson at the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., in July 2022. (Image: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The announcement that the Saudi-funded LIV Golf league would merge with the PGA Tour after their two-year-long court battle shocked the sporting world and gave Saudi Arabia its biggest prize to date in its efforts to gain a foothold in global sports.

The move was decried by 9/11 victims’ families, critics of Riyadh’s human rights abuses, and PGA Tour players who were blindsided by the news but lauded by former President Donald Trump and LIV Golf players like Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka.

What does this all mean for the world of golf, and what does it say about influence peddling by foreign governments?

Benjamin L. Schmitt, a senior fellow at the Penn Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, has a lot to say on the topic. At Penn, Schmitt focuses on the development of instrumentation and infrastructure for the Advanced Simons Observatory, a cosmology telescope project in Chile’s Atacama Desert led by Penn Professor Mark Devlin. Benjamin also pursues research and teaching related to European energy security, transatlantic national security, export control policies, and modern sanctions regimes with the Kleinman Center. He is also a member of the United States Golf Association. His latest column for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute addresses the PGA Tour-LIV Golf controversy.

Penn Today sat down with Schmitt to discuss the deal and hear his thoughts on “sportswashing,” malign influence campaigns, and why global democracies need to set norms with legislation and regulation to prevent these trends from continuing.

Why is the role of foreign influence in the popular culture of global democracies a concern?

The main concern that has been raised in relation to the LIV Golf league—an entity bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled Public Investment Fund (PIF) —is really a concern over an emerging trend known as sportswashing which is the concept that authoritarian regimes from around the globe can use their wealth—however it may have been derived—to purchase or sponsor sporting events, leagues, or individual athletes. The intention behind the moves isn’t just commercial in nature but rather to use a vehicle like sports to make that regime appear more palatable to the public across Western democracies. And autocrats have had some success in cleaning up their reputations through the influence of sports despite not having changed anything fundamental related to their approach to human rights, corruption, or any of the litany of other malign activities which stand in stark opposition to the Western liberal democratic norms that the United States and its like-minded partners and allies strive for.

Why is Saudi Arabia focusing on golf?

For starters, Saudi Arabia’s push into the golf world has been led by Yasir Al-Rumayyan, a top lieutenant of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and governor of the PIF, who by all public accounts is absolutely taken with the sport of golf itself. Beyond that fact, the global structure of the golf world, as well as the relatively lower cost of entry related to other sports leagues, means that golf lends itself to being a large-scale vehicle for image laundering.

More important, the way in which the Saudis have gone about their campaign to build LIV Golf is eerily similar to trends that we have seen from other autocratic states like Russia and China. For example, Russia has been involved in sportswashing of its own over the years, most overtly in Russian-state-owned energy giant Gazprom’s sponsorship of the German Bundesliga team Schalke 04, who until Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine last February had the Gazprom logo emblazoned across its jerseys. The stadium also had advertisements for the controversial Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 plastered around the stadium for years. Russia has also had a state strategy for years of what is know as ‘elite capture,’ the process by which Putin’s Kremlin has been able to co-opt former senior Western officials to work for Russian state-owned-enterprises, an attempt to put a pseudo-democratic face on what is otherwise an autocrat-controlled entity.

That tracks very similarly with how the Saudi’s approached LIV Golf. The fact is that they have also enacted what could be considered de-facto golf elite capture by offering exorbitant sums to some of golf’s luminaries, reportedly a $200 million deal for Phil Mickelson and over $100 million for Dustin Johnson. These athletes would never have seen that level of pay from their careers in the traditional PGA Tour, just as former government officials might not normally command as much following service as they have been offered to work for authoritarian-regime-controlled state-owned-enterprises.

These players with very prominent names—folks like Mickelson, Johnson, as well as Brooks Koepka, and Bryson DeChambeau, who would otherwise would be on the PGA Tour—instead decided to go play fewer times a year for a league that had no immediate credibility, had no TV sponsorship deal, little-to-no corporate sponsorship, and no level of history or prestige (important traits in the golf world), jumping ship to LIV simply because of the money involved. Now these players effectively defend the regime in their public commentary; you would be hard pressed to hear real criticism of the Saudi regime from these players because they’re paid from state-controlled PIF funds.

What should or can global democracies do in response to this?

First, we have to get our house in order in terms of finally addressing some of the most prominent malign influence campaigns aimed at Western democracies from the likes of China and Russia. Look at Russia, which has gotten former senior officials from Germany, in the case of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder approving the original Nord Stream deal while in office and becoming the chairman of the Gazprom-controlled pipeline company after leaving office. Add to that the likes of former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who, like Schroeder, took a post on the board of Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company, after leaving the public trust. There’s a lot of these examples across democracies, and the practice simply must stop to avoid undermining democratic resiliency in our societies.

The thing that we can do first and foremost is to continue to pass legislation in the United States to help set norms for other democracies, in particular European democracies, to make it effectively illegal for former U.S. officials to do similar things. We need to mandate that there is no chance that former officials who held the public trust in the United States can leave that trust and become paid lobbyists for Russian, Chinese, or other authoritarian state-owned enterprises. By passing these we set this norm where it is not only seen as a sleazy thing to do but an act that is actually illegal. That changes public perception in countries where elite capture has taken place but hasn’t had as high public coverage as in the United States, places like Germany and Austria. That’s what we can do on the policy side, and it’s something that I’ve repeatedly testified on before both U.S. Congress and the Canadian Parliament, calling for legislation to block this level of elite capture through a bill known as the SHAME Act, which was last year introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives but has not yet been passed into law. In this case SHAME stands for the Stop Helping Adversaries Manipulate Everything act.

But for issues like LIV Golf, these are effectively new vectors of foreign influence, and there has to be more oversight and regulation on the deal between the PGA Tour and the Saudi PIF. Big questions remain regarding potential future challenges by the U.S. Department of Justice on antimonopoly grounds. Then there is the question of what sort of oversight would be needed on whatever the new entity this merger creates, should it make it past antitrust regulators in the first place. Will employees of the new venture need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)? Will the golfers themselves need to register under FARA? The whole organization? These are open questions that may pose a significant challenge to the merger, meaning that not only is the venture not just a commercial deal but also that it might not be a done deal after all.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about what this partnership means?

The PGA Tour had taken a moral stance against LIV Golf for years, to the extent that PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan had specifically asked players, ‘Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?’ while heavily leaning into the potential reputational damage that golfers would need to think about before working for a Saudi-backed league. Remember, back in 2018 the CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in brutal fashion. The sudden turnaround by Monahan himself was a truly shocking one, leading fans and groups like 9/11 Families United—once de-facto allies of the PGA in its fight against LIV—to roundly criticize the decision. If the deal ever gets done, it’s more than a little unclear if Monahan will still be PGA commissioner given the public criticism he has received.

It’s also been very disappointing to hear professional golfers and golf commentators saying that this probably is the way sports is moving. I’ve seen golf commentators say, ‘Well, this teaches a lesson: you should just take the money.’ That’s a terrible, terrible message to people who are either golf fans or young people watching the sport, the idea that you should simply take the money, no matter what, no matter what the moral costs, no matter what the geopolitical cost might be. That’s a chilling notion. And that, unfortunately, is exactly what we’re seeing.

We’re seeing the PGA Tour being bought by a regime, which of course is allied with the United States on certain issues and at odds with the United States on other issues. That’s part of the geopolitical discussion more broadly. But the fact that they are now so embedded in a sport that is a significant area of U.S. popular culture, and, frankly, global popular culture, given the internationality of global golf; it’s quite stunning.

Let’s put this in perspective: What has happened is that the Saudis have completed their push to effectively buy an entire sport because they’ve merged the top players that they got from the PGA tour last year to go to LIV Golf and merged them with the PGA Tour and the European DP World Tour. Now you have an autocratic regime in Riyadh that would, if the deal goes through, have significant control of an entire sport.

Imagine if China’s Xi Jinping bought the NFL or if Russia’s Vladimir Putin bought the NHL. That’s the scale of what we are talking about in the golf world. It’s time for global democracies to make sure our response to foreign influence campaigns is up to par.

The fact that the PGA Tour changed its mind after getting enough money from the Saudi PIF and was apparently suddenly fine with the moral aspects of the deal, sends a horrible message that malign influence campaigns can still work in western democracies. At the end of the day, what autocrats learn from this is that for the right price greed will win out, and that is a horrifying thought.