Arbitrators Decide European Tour Can Punish LIV Golfers. A London arbitration panel ruled on Thursday, the first day of the Master’s Tournament, that European Tour golfers may face repercussions if they switch to the competing Saudi-funded LIV Golf series.
The panel’s judgment regarding the European series, the DP World Tour, was greatly anticipated and worried by players and executives because a resolution to the litigation in the United States may take years. It was seen as pivotal in determining whether or not LIV, the league funded by billions from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, could successfully discipline players from more established tours.
The European rule will not affect the Masters, which features 18 LIV participants. The renegade league had thought the tournament days would be a catapult to greater legitimacy, but instead, it has sparked new debate over the league’s ability to attract major players.
The choice will also influence who represents Europe in the upcoming Ryder Cup, which pits the United States and Europe against one another. Members of the DP World Tour are the only players who can compete for Europe.
The issue before the London arbitrators was narrow: the DP World Tour’s (Europe’s tour) conflicting events regulation forbids players from competing in specific tournaments without prior consent. After a lengthy hearing in early February, the arbitrators decided that the rebel players were guilty of “severe breaches” of the tour’s rules.
The arbitrators decided that “commercial partners would be tempted to terminate or limit agreements with the tour” because of the infractions. Players’ requests to appear at LIV events were denied by DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley, who the tribunal deemed to have “acted appropriately” due to “the scope and gravity of the possible harm” to the tour.
“We are glad that the panel recognized we had a responsibility to our complete membership to accomplish this and also concluded that the process we followed was fair and proportional,” Pelley said.
There was no quick response from LIV regarding the ruling or its effects on the league’s players.
Many sports attorneys believed the case’s conclusion could significantly impact efforts to establish viable alternatives to established leagues, tours, and federations, even though the issue only involved a single tour policy. They reasoned that if the tour won, it would provide crucial backing for the regulations that significant sports governing bodies have established to safeguard their monopoly on television rights and other sources of revenue. If the players had won, professional athletes across sports would have been more likely to consider offers from new leagues and contests, not just in golf.
Soccer, speedskating, and swimming are three sports where this issue has recently resurfaced. It may become more widespread as athletes seek more independence and as affluent Persian Gulf regimes look to spend more extensively in sports. For instance, there has been general talk in the women’s golfing community that Saudi Arabia may fund a league analogous to LIV, a tournament that has splintered the men’s game.
This schism first came to light at a course near London in June, when veterans of the PGA Tour like Ian Poulter, Charl Schwartzel, and Lee Westwood participated in the first LIV tournament. Golfers could get an early look at the potential financial rewards of participating in the Saudi Arabia-backed circuit at that tournament. Schwartzel’s individual and team efforts earned him $4.75 million throughout the tournament’s three days. By his tour career, which began in 2004, he had made close to 17.7 million euros, or more than $19 million.
Tour executives responded with suspensions and fines because they were unwilling to risk having individual golfers undermine their multimillion-dollar media contracts and sponsorship deals. Yet Poulter was one of the players who got their suspensions put on hold while the arbitrators deliberated. Poulter, Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, and Patrick Reed were among the 12 players (four others had dropped their appeals) who had participated in the LIV event in Britain or a following one in the United States. Players like Schwartzel and Sergio Garcia had already dropped out of the case.
Past Masters champions like Garcia, Reed, and Schwartzel are among the Top players at this year’s tournament in Augusta.
Skeptics of the LIV frequently point to the rival circuit’s 54-hole, no-cut tournaments as evidence that Saudi Arabia is trying to whitewash its human rights record. Players in the LIV, many of whom signed contracts guaranteeing them tens of millions of dollars, see themselves as independent contractors and believe they should be free to compete when and where they choose. At the same time, LIV executives insist they only try to electrify and repopularize a sport they judge stagnant.
Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, was interviewed in January at a DP World Tour tournament in Dubai while sporting a LIV hat on the driving range and said, “There is no difference whether I’m on the PGA Tour or LIV: I’ve always played two tours.” You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, right? That’s what all these guys are saying, and they love to use that cake term. So you want to have your cake and eat it, too? Rory, I, and all these guys have played on many tours, so I guess that’s possible. (Rory McIlroy, a significant player on the PGA and European tours, is one of the game’s most vocal critics of LIV.)
The arbitrators said emphatically that the independent contractor defense was “overplayed” in their conclusion.
To be a part of a tour, “individual players have to accept some limitation on their freedoms,” the experts stated. No player “indicated that he had given up his independence by signing up to onerous (although remunerative) duties to LIV,” as the arbitrators put it.
The arbitrators concluded that the tour did not violate antitrust or free-trade rules.
Due to the arbitrators’ decision, there will likely be no impact on the ongoing legal disputes between LIV and the PGA Tour in the United States. The trial for the American issue will not begin until 2019.