In an era of cancel culture and virtue signaling, many brands play it safe, avoiding controversy and making sure to “do the right thing.”
While individuals are given more reputational leeway for missteps, the ongoing battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf is a situation that PR pros and brands with sports marketing and sponsorship programs should closely watch.
For non-golf fans, here’s a quick recap. Backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf is an upstart competitor to the PGA Tour that has been characterized as an effort for the nation to clean up and “sports wash” their image. They are promising players big purses and a more exciting format for fans. Initially, common thought was that PGA pros would not defect given LIV’s infancy and the backing of a government with previous terrorism ties and a poor human rights track record.
Then rumblings started that some big stars were considering the move, led by Phil Mickelson. Was the reputational risk not considered? Hardly. Mickelson himself acknowledged this in a bombshell interview. “They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with. We know they killed (Washington Post reporter Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
These comments led to a tremendous fall from grace for Mickelson with sponsors walking sideways and Tour players widely condemning him. It seemed LIV was doomed before even reaching the “first tee.”
But as the inaugural event neared in the beginning of June, several established European veterans pledged to play. Then younger American major winners Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed joined in. And most recently, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka signed on in advance of LIV’s first U.S. event this week. For those who don’t follow the sport; these last four names are four of the top U.S. golfers who openly chose to leave the PGA Tour (since the Tour is not allowing play in both).
After seeing what happened with Mickelson, why did they follow suit? The obvious answer is money (each has received reported eight to nine figure sums to join LIV). The player’s public answer has been about having control of how and when they play (as the PGA Tour dictates these terms). However, the answer communicators should be most interested in is the one from the public, and that is still TBD.
While each of the American players have lost some sponsors like Mickelson, they haven’t been completely shunned either. At the U.S. Open in mid-June, these players received cheers from fans. Why is it that as brands tried to distance themselves, golf fans seemed more tolerant?
Naturally, in a private moment most people will admit being more forgiving of other’s transgressions. However, it also bears asking, as a consumer society are we reaching a cancel culture inflection point? Do consumers accept that behind every big organization or business you can find some dark secret, contradiction, or greed driven choice?
For companies that invest in sports and athlete marketing, LIV Golf provides a new type of case study. While in the past individual criminal acts or discrimination have been the driver of why brands terminate sponsor relationships under public pressure, there has not been as clear a case in which associating with a questionable entity has been put to the test.
In evaluating how to proceed, the most important thing for a brand to remember is that they must keep a consistent standard. If a company chooses to publicly walk away from a current marketing relationship due to a less than desirable association, are they willing to do that in every case? While consumers might not agree with a brand’s stance on an issue, a hypocritical brand is considered even worse. The PGA Tour and LIV Golf will continue to battle it out for player participation and fan support. However, as tournament sponsorship and TV contracts are the real prize, the winner of this fight is still undetermined. In the meantime, brands will have to walk a fine reputational line, either choosing a side or letting these two foes “play through.”