Will Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy’s TGL succeed? Exploring new golf league’s battle to capture an audience

These days, one could argue, the last thing professional golf needs is another league. With the advent of LIV Golf in 2022, the broader golf world is already fairly divided between the PGA Tour, European Tour, LIV and any number of more developmental tours. The number events sanctioned by the Official World Golf Rankings in any given week is dizzying to follow.

And yet, like it or now, another league arrives in January. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy’s TMRW Golf League (TGL) begins Jan. 9, the day after the College Football Playoff National Championship. And while TGL is wildly different from all of the leagues noted above — it will be played indoors with screens, technology and artificial surfaces — it still represents more golf to watch and follow throughout the week.

Is that a good thing? One could argue — this has been a primary LIV talking point — that more golf is always good. Many would not subscribe to that theory, though. More consequential golf is always good, though TGL — despite its total purse of $21 million for its first season — will not be anything close to consequential golf.

However, perhaps we should not be thinking about TGL as “golf” at all. It’s true that clubs will be taken back and swung in a manner similar to the way they are taken back and swung at the Sony Open or Genesis Invitational, but everything else surrounding this physical act will be so foreign that I’m not sure it’s fair to put this in the same bucket as the PGA Tour, LIV or anything else in golf right now.

It seems to be almost another sport entirely.

As with anything new in sports — especially something that involves high-profile players and investors like Tiger, Rory, Steph Curry, Serena Williams and Lewis Hamilton — there exist a wide variety of opinions about what TGL is going to be and whether it is going to work. My parents even recently asked my take on the gambit, shaking their heads at such a nontraditional endeavor in such a traditional sport.

What does it mean for TGL to “work?”

Does it need to achieve and retain a certain level of viewership? What if the audience is small but extremely enthusiastic? What if players love it and loads more want to sign up for the second season? What if it sells out every event at its 1,600-person arena at exorbitant ticket prices? What is the barometer for success in the inaugural season and beyond?

There are two ways to look at this. Friend and colleague Brendan Porath correctly pointed out on the Shotgun Start recently that TGL needs to capture the sickos like myself for it to spread and be successful. However, I have another friend — also named Kyle — who has no interest in golf whatsoever and yet is excited to watch TGL. This is fascinating, but it crosses at an important point that TMRW CEO Mike McCarley shared in a recent Wired article. “This is a TV show — we’re making no bones about it,” he said.

Capturing the critics first and trusting that the rest will fall into place later is a sound strategy, even if big numbers are not there at the beginning. It’s perhaps easier to cast a wide net initially — especially with Tiger in the mix — but when it comes to long-term sustainability, that’s not normally the right play. Ultimately, TGL must be built around substance, not just buzz.

The allure for enterprises like this one — the holy grail — is capturing both quality viewers (me and other golf nerds) and a quantity of viewers (sports fans but not golf enthusiasts) that a more traditional TV show might bring in. That’s extremely difficult to achieve, and usually chasing it leaves a product stuck somewhere in the middle, one not really for the sicko but also not entertaining and engaging enough for the non-sicko. 

One could argue that Netflix’s “Full Swing” sort of pulled this off in its first season. I’ve never had more non-golf people ask me about a golf-related piece of content, and everyone I know inside of golf obviously watched it as well. That’s rare, though, and seems to be more of an exception than a rule.

There will be plenty of think pieces written about TGL, particularly once it debuts. For now, though, let’s look at five reasons it could work and three why it might not. All of this, of course, is subject to change when the lights go on Jan 9.

A mockup of the TGL playing surface.

Why it could work

1. It’s actually different: TGL needs to lean into its unique qualities. One problem with LIV is that, despite all the bluster about teams and music and all the other window dressing, you still have a big group of adult males walking 18 holes of a golf course on a weekend. It is definitely different, but when you tune in, it looks the same. It’s just a worse version of an already average product. This is not dissimilar from sprint races in F1. They are ostensibly held to capture a younger demographic with a shorter attention span, but there is too little differentiation from the regular product, and they just come off as a less compelling version of the real race. 

TGL will not look the same as anything we have ever seen. That might not be a good thing, but it’s certainly a product differentiator that should help draw interest.  

2. Opportunity for nerds: “The Martian” is a brilliant book by an engineer named Andy Weir that later became a successful movie starring Matt Damon. In the book, Weir describes so many different aspects of space and rockets and space travel that I had no clue about. Surely, fellow engineers were delighted, but even as a novice, I was fascinated by the obvious knowledge and brilliance of the descriptive science. You know what would rule? Getting Tiger to look at Trackman data and talk spin rates, launch angles and what players are trying and not trying to do. That would rule.

It’s also something that cannot happen during a regular golf event, but a feature of TGL that golf sickos would go wild about. As for those tuning in who have never even heard of Trackman? I trust that Tiger’s enthusiasm in discussing the science of the swing and the ball and the club would attract even the most casual sports fan in the way Weir’s writing captured me.

3. Explanation of events: This is adjacent to the above point, but it’s clear what people want when they tune in to shows like this are sick burns and elite trash talk. What they should get, though, is an explanation of why a player is playing a shot in a certain way, what he’s trying to avoid and how he’s attempting to play the hole. Think about how many golfers trying to get from a 11 handicap to a 5 (raises hand) that would capture. We rarely get answers to extremely specific questions about why a player is hitting this shot or that one — think about how many options there would be on short game shots alone — and certainly not during a competition. Golf is a mind game more than anything else, and getting into the minds of the best players in the world while they play would be terrific television, simultaneously appealing to enthusiasts and potentially even serving as a good introduction to newbies.

4. Team golf is just better: One aspect of LIV that I have always loved is the team portion. Having a team to cheer is compelling. It’s something my kids wish existed with their favorite players, like Rory, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Now it (kind of) does. Regardless, introducing teams to the mix is always a positive, even if it’s not a trait the TGL’s success will hinge upon. As for tying those teams to regions of the country? The rollout has been pretty tough at times, but as Andy Lack pointed out here, tying them to something is better than tying them to nothing at all. Even more so, if TGL truly gets off the ground and is able to start traveling to different cities, there will be a natural level of excitement. Then the team aspect starts to get really interesting. It seems silly right now, but the city ties appear to be a longer-term play that could pay off down the road.

5. Sustainable business model: It’s clear the LIV model is unsustainable from a business standpoint. The league reportedly spent nearly $1 billion in 2022, and its revenue cannot be catching up to that with any speed. For TGL, though? Its modest $21 million purse plus operational expenses and building costs are already offset by both investment money (a double-edged sword) and its deal with ESPN as a broadcaster. That presents a far more optimistic future in terms of sustainability than LIV or, heck, maybe even the PGA Tour.

Why it might not work

1. It means next to nothing: This is a tough hurdle to overcome for any new sport, which it is probably fair to categorize TGL as a new sport. I don’t care about Thomas making another $2 million; I could not possibly care less about that. This is one of LIV’s flaws, too, the belief that normal people care about rich people becoming wealthy.  I also don’t particularly care what team wins nor who succeeds out of the individual matchups (though I suppose, over time, I might). 

People are not dumb. They can sniff out an artificial money grab when they see one. Most of the players in TGL are not dumb, either. They understand that, for this to work, they must entertain first and perform second. That has to be the order of operations, or this is almost certainly will not succeed. If you can entertain well early — particularly in the ways I outlined above — you could have a chance. If not, then the sickos won’t care and the initial intrigue will eventually fade. You will be left with indoor LIV featuring better players.

2. Taking itself too seriously: This is where it gets difficult to thread the needle. TGL must take itself seriously enough to be a massive functional operation, but it cannot take itself so seriously that it turns people off who keep staring at the product, thinking, “It’s just indoor screen golf, guys!” This is tough because there are a ton of different people and entities comprising the culture of TGL. It’s not dependent on one person or 10 people or 25 people but literally hundreds of folks over a period of time. Some of this will be dependent on luck. Much of it will be dependent on production and presentation. There is no way to calculate or engineer this formula. It just has to happen naturally, which will almost certainly be the hardest part of the entire endeavor.

3. Investor return: At the crossroads of sports and business, the utilization of the term “investor” when it relates to TGL is immensely concerning. Why does this make me wary? Because investors exist for a primary reason: to get a return on their investment. What this can mean is long-term sacrifices for short-term gain. This is worrisome as it relates to the PGA Tour, and it is similarly so for TGL.

The rebuttal is that many of the investors in this league are other athletes who might not care as much about short-term return. That is to TGL’s advantage. Building a league is difficult, though. So is building a new sport. There will be a learning curve that will require patience from everyone involved. There is a world in which TGL could actually become fun, interesting and entertaining. It’s probably a longshot that it works well and is a hit out of the gate, but it’s certainly a swing worth taking to see if they can get it right, land the sickos and hope the dominos fall from there.


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