Discover more from Popular Information
What the PGA Tour's corporate sponsors have to say about joining forces with the Saudis
On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist critical of the Saudi regime, was murdered and dismembered. According to the U.S. government, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, ordered the brutal assassination. Khashoggi's murder is part of a pattern of violence and intimidation orchestrated by MBS "targeting dozens of critics and potential critics of Saudi government policies."
In response to Khashoggi's murder, major corporations sought to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia. Amazon, Comcast, Mastercard, and many others canceled plans to attend the Future Investment Initiative, known as “Davos in the Desert.”
"What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government," Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, said.
Since then, MBS has methodically sought to restore Saudi Arabia's standing among the global economic elite. Golf, a sport beloved by the wealthy and powerful globally, is an ideal vehicle for this project. So the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) struck a deal with Greg Norman, for a time the most popular golfer in the world, to launch a new golf tour called LIV. PIF Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan, MBS' "right-hand man," was put in charge of the project.
Armed with PIF's billions, Norman and Al-Rumayyan were able to lure some of the world's best golfers — including Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau — with eight and nine-figure contracts. The players who signed with LIV were promptly suspended by the PGA Tour when the LIV tour began play in 2022. In the litigation that followed, the PGA Tour said, "LIV has executed a campaign to pay the LIV Players astronomical sums of money to induce them to breach their contracts with the TOUR in an effort to use the LIV Players and the game of golf to sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities."
While LIV was able to attract some top talent, major corporations stayed away. Rocket Mortgage, the "Official Mortgage Sponsor of the PGA TOUR," terminated its sponsorship deal with DeChambeau. "As has been widely reported, Bryson [DeChambeau] elected to join the LIV Golf Series," a company spokesperson said. "Effective immediately, Rocket Mortgage has ended its sponsorship agreement with Bryson." Royal Bank of Canada, which sponsors two PGA Tour tournaments annually, severed its sponsorship agreement with Johnson, saying it was "extremely disappointed" with the golfer's decision to join LIV.
Tom Fanning, CEO of the Southern Company, the sponsor of the PGA Tour Championship, explained why corporations were repelled by LIV. "Golf, more than probably any other sport, is notable for behaviors and values that transcend the sport—sportsmanship, character, charity, honesty, hard work," Fanning told the New Yorker. "I’m not sure what ideals [LIV] represent[s]. We don’t have any interest in associating with them."
But now, Southern Company and every other PGA Tour sponsor is associated with LIV, PIF, MBS, and the Saudi government. On June 6, the PGA Tour abruptly announced that it had reached a deal to combine "PIF’s golf-related commercial businesses and rights (including LIV Golf) with the commercial businesses and rights of the PGA TOUR." The Saudis will invest several billion dollars in the new for-profit corporation, which will be chaired by Al-Rumayyan.
The PGA Tour went from decrying sportswashing to participating in it. "I applaud PIF Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan for his vision and collaborative and forward-thinking approach that is not just a solution to the rift in our game, but also a commitment to taking it to new heights," PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said in a statement. The deal still needs to be finalized and approved by government regulators.
But what do the PGA Tour's sponsors think of this arrangement? Popular Information contacted 54 official PGA Tour sponsors and asked the following questions:
Do you support the PGA Tour's decision to merge with the Saudi-controlled LIV tour?
Do you have any concerns about what continuing to sponsor the PGA Tour would say about your company's commitment to human rights?
Will the merger impact your decision to sponsor the PGA Tour moving forward?
No companies were willing to answer any of these questions on the record.
How the PGA Tour's corporate sponsors responded
Popular Information received a few responses from PGA Tour's corporate sponsors:
FanDuel: "We have no comment on the PGA/LIV announcement as we’ve not had an opportunity to speak with our partner (PGA) as of yet… We were not a partner of LIV and have not offered betting markets on LIV events since its launch."
United Airlines: "We have nothing to share at this time but can keep you posted if that changes."
DraftKings: "Thanks for reaching out and apologies for the delay. I'll let you know if we have a statement."
TruGreen: "Politely decline."
Getty Images: "We have no comment on the news. To clarify for reference, please note that Getty Images is not a sponsor of the PGA Tour. Our relationship with the organization is as a distribution partner for PGA content from their various events."
Morgan Stanley: "We decline to comment."
Citibank: A spokesperson requested a phone call. On the call, the company declined to comment.
Kingmade Jerky: "At this time, we have no comment on the deal."
Aon: "Thanks for reaching out to Aon but we won’t be commenting for this story."
Mitsubishi Electric: "We will not be commenting."
Three companies that skipped the Saudi Future Investment Initiative after Khashoggi's murder — Amazon, Comcast, Mastercard — did not respond to comment. Rocket Mortgage, which terminated its relationship with DeChambeau following his move to LIV, did not respond to comment. Southern Company, which publicly criticized LIV, also did not respond.
BetMGM did not respond to Popular Information's request, but according to the Wall Street Journal, the company "reiterated its status as a partner and described the deal as exciting for the future of professional golf."
Other PGA Tour sponsors that did not respond to a request for comment: Ascendant National Title, Avis, BET365, BetPARX, BH Sports, Bridgestone Tire, CDW, Charles Schwab, DemandScience, FedEx, Forme, Fortune, GolfDigest, Grant Thornton, Hawaii Tourism Authority, Hyperice, John Deere, Konica Minolta, Korn Ferry, LOCALiQ, Maestro Dobel, Meiomi, Michelob Ultra, Netjets, NOBULL, O'Douls, Omni Hotels & Resorts, Pacific Life, PointsBet, Puerto Rico Tourism, Servpro, Tiffany & Co, Travelers, United Rentals, USA Today Sports, Valspar, Velocity Global, and Whoop.
Popular Information was unable to reach Rolex, Tito's Vodka, and Carey International.
PGA Tour's Saudi deal faces Congressional scrutiny
Others, however, are speaking out against the planned agreement. This week, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) opened an official probe to explore the “reasons for and terms behind the announced agreement.”
Blumenthal noted that the PIF “has announced that it intends to use investments in sports to further the Saudi government’s strategic objectives” and criticized “Saudi Arabia’s deeply disturbing human rights record at home and abroad.”
Similarly, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is also “planning a congressional investigation.” According to the New York Times, Wyden seeks to determine whether the deal will give “the Saudi regime inappropriate control or access to U.S. real estate.”
Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) also introduced a bill that would strip PGA Tour of its tax-exempt status. Titled the “No Corporate Tax Exemption for Professional Sports Act,” the bill would require professional sports leagues generating more than $100 million in income to pay federal corporate income tax. (The New York Times reports that in the past 18 months PGA Tour “has spent at least $640,000 on lobbying, with much of that work tied to ‘tax legislation affecting exempt organizations.’”)
“Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to sports wash its government’s horrific human rights abuses and the 2018 murder of American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by taking over the PGA Tour,” Garamendi said.
The Department of Justice has also been investigating since summer 2022 whether PGA Tour “engaged in anticompetitive behavior” against LIV. Following the recent announcement of the deal, some experts say that it is possible the agreement will be blocked by antitrust regulators.
Meanwhile, Monahan recently penned a letter to U.S. lawmakers suggesting that Congress made the deal inevitable. Monahan wrote that Congress failed to step in and that PGA Tour was “largely left on our own to fend off” the encroachment of PIF.