After its splashy challenge to the PGA Tour last year produced few tangible results, LIV’s managing director, chief marketing officer and chief communications officer have departed.
Three prominent LIV Golf executives have departed their posts in recent days, according to people familiar with the matter, as the upstart Saudi-backed circuit’s leadership is roiled by turnover a year after its launch.
Majed Al Sorour, the head of the Saudi Golf Federation, was earlier this week removed as LIV’s managing director, a role that was just below CEO and commissioner Greg Norman. Then two other LIV executives, chief marketing officer Kerry Taylor and chief communications officer Jonathan Grella, were also set to leave the company, according to the people familiar with the situation.
The decisions weren’t voluntary, one of the people said, adding that it was an effort to make changes ahead of LIV’s second season.
“As LIV begins our second year, we are grateful to the team that helped get us off the ground and launch such a successful start-up,” LIV said in a statement. “In all cases, we are appreciative and will continue to assemble a world-class team to guide us through our second year.”
A senior LIV official said no further high-level departures were imminent, and downplayed suggestions that the turnover reflected broader turbulence for the circuit.
“Our biggest task going forward is commercial, it’s selling tickets. It’s the normal sports aspect of a league, as opposed to an exciting launch,” the official said. “I know some of our critics like to make more of a personnel change than meets the eye.”
The exits follow the departure late last year of Atul Khosla as president and chief operating officer, just as the circuit was seeking to land the media-rights deals and sponsors that will help determine its long-term financial viability. LIV, earlier this month, struck a pact to broadcast the league on the CW Network, under undisclosed terms.
The turnover at LIV is taking place at a critical moment, as the start-up wrestles with the PGA Tour in the courts and in the court of public opinion. The two bodies are in a pitched legal battle in which LIV is accusing the PGA Tour of using its monopoly power in an attempt to squash a nascent rival, in violation of antitrust law.
The Tour has countered that LIV has interfered with its players and contracts, and that LIV has struggled not because of the Tour’s actions, but because of public distaste for Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
The court fight has already inflicted damage to both sides, and is only set to escalate after Tour lawyers sought this week to add Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund as a direct defendant in their counterclaim. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, have been resisting demands from the PGA Tour to turn over documents about their support for LIV by arguing that there is no court in the U.S. with jurisdiction over them.
Since its inception last year, LIV has attracted some of the most prominent golfers in the world with the lure of huge paydays from PIF. Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Cameron Smith, among others, signed on to play in LIV’s events, which feature record-breaking prize funds—in addition to appearance fees, which have reportedly surpassed $100 million for the biggest names.
Although PIF has committed at least $2 billion to LIV, there has been little visible return on that investment to date. Last year’s tournaments were free to watch on YouTube, and played in front of often sparse crowds in person. Sponsors have been virtually nonexistent. When ROSHN, a real-estate developer, sponsored a tournament last year, it raised eyebrows because ROSHN is also backed by PIF.
LIV made inroads to possibly reaching a wider audience when it made a deal with the CW Network, which will air tournaments on its broadcast stations on weekends while the Friday round will be available on its app. But the appetite for audiences and advertisers remains unclear, owing to the controversy that has surrounded the circuit since its launch. LIV has been accused of “sportswashing,” or using the halo effect from a popular sport to improve the country’s international image after incidents such as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
LIV has denied those allegations and said its mission is to grow the game of golf with an entertaining new format. Its events are 54 holes, instead of the traditional 72, and feature a team element.
Norman, the golfer who is now LIV’s chief executive officer, is still in his position, the circuit has said this week.