by George McNeilly
ORLANDO, Florida – I’ve done 30-plus years of training C-Suite executives and famous athletes and celebrities on how best to engage with the media. The twin objectives are: honesty and clarity. My resume also includes supporting many major brands with publicity, content creation, new and traditional media, and issue management.
Along the way, I have worked alongside some icons in the field. In partnership with Jody Powell, former White House Press Secretary to President Jimmy Carter, I gave athletes competing in ESPN’s owned events interview and media training. After a particularly long day over a beverage, I recall Powell telling me a timely story about his work with NASCAR where he told then Chairman Bill France, Jr. that being angry was not a strategy. I would add that neither is hope. The kind of hope the PGA TOUR must have that the breakaway LIV Golf Invitational series will somehow run its course and things will go back to the way they were.
Candidly, I’m not feeling it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been associated with the PGA TOUR since I was a kid covering tournaments in Florida while attending University of Central Florida for my undergrad. I believe in what the PGA TOUR stands for and I applaud all it does for charity.
I’m just not certain that those closely advising PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan have a handle on that thing we call crisis management. “The PGA TOUR is moving on” is not a strategy either. Those were his words back in March when the PGA TOUR would not acknowledge that its business was being threatened by a new rival for the players’ allegiance. And a new rival with seemingly bottomless financial pockets.
Last weekend, I watched Monahan’s interview on CBS with Jim Nance and while he made some worthy points, the overall tone came off to me as bitter. It felt like Monahan had surrendered the high ground by verbally mud wrestling with the up-and-coming challenger.
The LIV Golf opener in the UK doled out a lot of prize money, but the focal point of professional golf last week was in Canada where a star-studded field competed for the RBC Canadian Open title. During his eventual champion’s interview, Rory McIlroy expressed a distinct pleasure in winning his 21st tournament, “one more than someone else” (referring to LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman). I thought that was a tacky approach and was most likely the result of someone whispering in McIlroy’s ear to just prior to the appearance.
I was also struck by all the coverage devoted to LIV Golf this week on Sirius XM’s PGA TOUR Radio and all the other platforms that would usually be celebrating last week’s winner and previewing today’s opening round of U.S. Open at The Country Club near Boston. Norman should thank everyone for all the earned media they are providing his new venture.
Read me clearly: people can and should support or root against anything they want, and I don’t have a horse in this race. This is not about Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) as much as it is about leaders who are supposed to lead and define the marketplace, while adjusting as and when needed.
I am not certain that all the cheap shots and negative media attention are sustainable or that they will be impactful long term. Ultimately it will be up to the consumer to decide who thrives and who survives. For me, I would much prefer that the PGA TOUR remain focused on the merits of its incredible brand and legacy.
Time will tell but it might just have been a crucial misstep by the PGA TOUR to suspend the 17 initial defectors for choosing to play tournament golf elsewhere. After all, in a federal court, one person’s defector is another one’s independent contractor.
George McNeilly is Managing Partner of McNeilly Communications (www.mcneillycommunications.com), teaches Sports Business Models at Full Sail University, is a former ESPN senior executive in charge corporate and consumer communications and has reported on most every major sporting event including the Olympics, Super Bowl, NBA Finals, World Series, FIFA World Cup, Motorsports and Professional Golf.