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Don’t like the new Saudi golf circuit? Phil Mickelson thinks you are the problem

Don't like Saudi golf?  Phil Mickelson thinks you are the problem - GETTY IMAGES

Don’t like Saudi golf? Phil Mickelson thinks you are the problem – GETTY IMAGES

If you are in your 50s or older and not enjoying the Saudi rebel circuit with its 54-hole and shotgun-start format – not to mention the music, wacky team names and the YouTube coverage – then Phil Mickelson and LIV Golf’s production guru are not at all concerned. Because you are part of the “horrendous truth about golf”.

Mickelson has been heckled here at Trump National Bedminster in the series’ third £20million event – “do it for the Saudi royal family” a member of the gallery yelled during Friday’s first round – but the 52-year-old claims not to be bothered and is instead focused on the mission of obtaining a return on more than £2billion of investment from the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, including a reported upfront payment of more than £150million to the six-time major champion.

“As a game and sport, the viewership has gone up five years to an average age, I believe, of 64 – we have to target the younger generation,” Mickelson said. “That’s going to happen in two ways. One, it’s not a 12-hour day, having to watch golf all day. You’ve got a four-and-a-half-hour window [with the 48-man field all starting off different tees at the same time].

“Second, when a streaming partner comes along, it’s going to revolutionize the way golf is viewed. You’ll have no commercials and you’ll have shot after shot after shot and it will capture that younger generation’s attention span. We’ll open up a lot of opportunities to get that younger generation. For 30 years we’ve tried to do this and it’s gone the other way”

As well as the team concept – featuring a separate leaderboard and prize fund for four-man teams with names such as Majesticks, Fireball and Stinger – the target audience is central to the LIV gameplan. David Hill is the industry giant masterminding the campaign to lure the new wave of 18-35 golfers to watch as well as play.

Hill’s appointment as executive consultant is big news in the world of TV. The 76-year-old set up Sky in the UK in the Eighties and then Sky Sports itself in 1991. Rupert Murdoch then moved his fellow Australian to the US where he formed Fox Sports, winning the rights to the NFL. Hill is not one to pull his punches, as he re-emphasized in an apocalyptic interview last week, taking aim at the output of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.

‘Golf’s viewership is on a downward ski slope’

“The horrendous truth about golf is that the last figures I saw reported that 50 per cent of the television audience is 65-plus, which means they’re dead in 25 years,” Hill said. “And 78 per cent is 50-plus. So what does that tell you? It tells you that the audience is dying.

“Golf’s viewership is on a downward ski slope. Golf on TV is something you go to sleep with. Monotone. What Greg [Norman, the LIV chief executive] wants to do is reverse that trend and produce golf that appeals, for the first time in many decades. We aim to produce something that’s dramatic and exciting. And I don’t think, with all due respect, those are two adjectives you can apply week-by-week to golf tournaments.”

Hill is a fan of controversial boxing promoter Don King. “What he would always say is ‘content is King and King is content’,” Hill said, before explaining that the most significant aspect is not all the bells and whistles, with F1-style leaderboards and drones. “The announcer is the key, because sports are all about human beings to human beings,” he said.

To that end, Hill has brought in David Feherty, the former European Ryder Cup player from Northern Ireland who has become a huge star on the US networks as an irreverent analyst. This is his first week alongside Arlo White, the English football commentator who was hurled into the deep end at last month’s inaugural LIV event in Hertfordshire, tasked with presenting his first golf tournament.

And although Ferherty has earned ridicule on social media when relaying a conversation with Sergio Garcia in which the Spaniard told him, “this atmosphere is as close to a Ryder Cup as you can get”, as well as his comment that “I’ve noticed everyone’s wives are happier now that they’ve joined LIV”, the 63-year-old’s capture is as a sizeable positive.

“We were thrilled to get David, because he actually injects fun into the commentary,” Hill said. “And we’re looking at some other guys to add to it. It’s the commentary that does it. They are the most important part of any producer’s weapon.”

Of course, the platform is even more significant and at the moment the broadcast is confined to the official website and in the US is streamed on DAZN, but as that does have a robust subscription base, the overwhelming majority of viewers are on YouTube. The audience figures have yet to break the 100,000 mark for a single day of coverage.

Next year, the £332 million LIV Golf League begins with 12 set four-man teams appearing in 14 events around the world – seven taking place in the States – and a TV deal looks vital if the LGL is to be viable. But who and where and at what cost? The answers to those questions are increasingly being viewed as paramount.