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Senate hearing scrutinizes PGA Tour-LIV golf merger

PGA Tour Chief Operating Officer Ron Price, left, and PGA Tour board member Jimmy Dunne are sworn in before testifying at a Senate hearing on the proposed PGA Tour-LIV Golf partnership on July 11.
Patrick Semansky
/
AP
PGA Tour Chief Operating Officer Ron Price, left, and PGA Tour board member Jimmy Dunne are sworn in before testifying at a Senate hearing on the proposed PGA Tour-LIV Golf partnership on July 11.

Updated July 14, 2023 at 2:01 PM ET

Senate Democrats and Republicans grilled PGA Tour officials over their plans to merge with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf during a Tuesday hearing.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations heard testimony from PGA Tour Chief Operating Officer Ron Price and board member Jimmy Dunne, who argued a proposed framework for the deal would allow expensive legal fights and fracturing player and fan base to end.

"Sports are central to our culture and society, they have huge implications for our way of life, our economies and our communities," said Rep. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., later calling the deal a "sell out."

"Athletes like the PGA Tour golf players are role models, they are ambassadors of our values and the institutions that concern us today are vital to our national interests," Blumenthal said. "To have them taken over by a repressive foreign regime certainly is a matter of our national security."

The hearing comes a month after the PGA Tour, the world's leading professional golf league, agreed to merge with LIV Golf, the Saudi-funded upstart league. The two leagues were fierce competitors until the announced merger, with lawsuits and countersuits, as well as a battle over golf's biggest names.

Price raised concern that PGA Tour runs the threat of "a $700 billion fund recruiting our players and operating a league in an irrational economic matter."

Some players resisted the massive financial incentives to join LIV because of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, the source of the league's seemingly endless supply of money.

But several top-name golf players did make the jump from PGA Tour to LIV beginning last year. Golf legend Tiger Woods was offered between $700 million to $800 million to join the Saudi-backed LIV, but he ultimately turned that offer down.

"They sued us, we did not decide to sue them. They took our players. Their entire existence is based on taking more of our players — that's just the reality," Dunne said. He added that PGA Tour looks to support the players who have stayed with the American-based league but he and Price warned against LIV's future expansion without a merge.

"If LIV stays in existence and continues to take our top players from us, that will put pressure on our ability to retain those media revenues and sponsorship revenues. They could decline in the future," Price said. "That is the existential threat."

News of the merger resulted in bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers raising not only Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record but also potential antitrust issues raised by the merger. Last month, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren to the Justice Department sent a letter urging the Justice Department to look into any potential antitrust violations in the deal.

Though the deal between the two leagues has yet to be finalized, it's faced a backlash from players who remain loyal to the PGA Tour and from human rights activists who see this as an attempt by the Saudi government to use sports to draw attention away from their record of human rights abuses.

Price said the public congressional hearings make it difficult to finalize any deal.

"I generally don't negotiate a deal in public but we are committed to trying to move from a framework agreement to a definitive agreement because we believe that would allow us to continue our leadership in professional golf," Price said. "But these proceedings make that even more difficult."

A framework of the deal, which does not reflect any final agreement, places a hold on LIV's recruitment, includes a non-solicitation agreement between both entities and asks for a final agreement before the year.

While Blumenthal pushed the PGA Tour leaders to ensure the deal would not require players to sign a non-disparagement clause, Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky argued there is "no grounds for government to be involved in the game of golf."

The PGA Tour officials said they "wouldn't recommend" a non-disparagement clause.

"Our position is players are free to speak their mind under this framework," Price said.

9/11 families present at the hearing

Blumenthal and other members also raised concerns about ties to the Saudi government on behalf of the surviving members of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, some of whom were present at the hearing.

Some of the starkest criticism of the impending deal comes from 9/11 Families United, a group representing thousands — many still undergoing court proceedings to hold the Saudi government responsible for the attacks, as NPR has previously reported.

"We are outraged that they are coming now to America, pouring billions of dollars into one of our time-honored, loved sports of golf, all in an effort to get the American people in the world to forget about how they used to spend their billions of dollars," Terry Strada, chair of 9/11 Families United, told NPR's Susan Davis, calling the deal an attempt of "sportswashing."

Dunne committed to meeting with the families and denounced any involvement in the attacks but cautioned against potential discrimination against the Saudis.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 13, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of the web story and headline referred to the PGA but should have said PGA Tour. They are not the same. And one instance incorrectly said Ron Price is CEO of the PGA. Price is COO of the PGA Tour. In the audio, we say that Jimmy Dunne is a PGA board member. In fact, Dunne is a PGA Tour board member.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.