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The PGA-LIV Merger Was No Surprise: Neither Should Be What Comes Next, And Players Should Be Ready for It

The announced PGA-DP World Tour-LIV Golf “partnership” (read, merger) has reverberated throughout the sporting world, sending shockwaves across not only the golf industry but the sports world as well. ESPN reported players reacting with “complete and utter shock” at the announcement, as did, much of the sports media, calling the news “stunning”.

Let’s clear the air. None of this was surprising in the slightest.

The golf industry merger is but the latest example of, as the Propellerheads and the legendary Dame Shirley Bassey melodically put it, history repeating. Sports historians and economists have recounted the episodes of consolidation that have precipitated the modern-day U.S. professional sports leagues. These commercial joinders all share a common theme: a response by an entrenched, dominant entity faced with the threat of entry and the prospect of seeing its monopsony power diluted by the crucible of competition.

The real question with which golfers, as the primary interested party, should concern themselves is quo vadem: where do we go from here? This article aims to shed some light on that question by first recounting what has befallen athletes in other leagues following similar consolidation, evaluating what similar or differing conditions characterize this golf industry consolidation, then evaluating what path such conditions presage for current players. Finally, I address what steps players could take to protect their interests from any wage suppression that may result from the merger.

Wage suppression warrants concern here for the same reason it has in other sports cases (not to mention the broader labor market): the leverage of monopsony power. Monopsony power in a labor market reflects an entity’s ability to restrain wages below the levels that would prevail under competitive conditions. Such actions reflect worker exploitation, defined as the ability to reduce wages below the marginal revenue product (MRP) of labor (the marginal revenues generated by the next unit of labor). When faced with an upward sloping labor supply curve, a firm will set its wages at MRP, just as, under similar competitive conditions in an output market, a seller will set its price equal to marginal cost.

As the FTC has observed, the exercise of monopsony power in input markets reflects the mirror image of monopoly power in output markets. Historically, the PGA Tour has behaved like a monopsonist: it unilaterally set Tour members’ pay below competitive levels, reduced the input of labor, and excluded competitors. (Those familiar with the NCAA antitrust litigation will immediately notice its similarities to the PGA.)

The PGA Tour’s actions mirror those of other entities that held the same power over workers. Faced with the possibility of increased competition for labor, a monopsonist will commonly seek to either 1) prevent such entry or 2) acquire the entrant, and thus reduce or eliminate workers’ ability to choose among alternatives. Prior to the announced merger, the PGA Tour sought to do just that, by threatening golfers who considered joining LIV.

On that note, let’s start with a quick trip down memory lane to acquaint ourselves with how much this latest merger resembles previous sports industry consolidation.

In 1962, the AFL sued the NFL, alleging the latter had monopolized the market for professional football leagues; the district court ruled against the AFL, finding that the NFL did not have monopoly power. In the following year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s finding against the AFL, ending the litigation. In June of 1966, following a series of secret meetings, the two leagues announced the decision to merge. The September 1975, Congressional oversight hearings on the NFL labor-management dispute provide some details of the effects on labor. In his statement, Ed Garvey, Director of the NFL Players’ Association president at the time explained that, between the birth of the AFL and 1966, little if any bargaining between labor and management in the NFL occurred, noting that “Because of competition for player services, salaries nearly tripled, and the NFL was anxious to institute some fringe benefits to attract players to the NFL. When merger plans were announced in the summer of 1966, efforts were mounting within the NFLPA to oppose the merger, but Congress exempted the merger before there could be any serious opposition mounted.” The exemption refers to Congress’ statutory enshrinement of monopoly and monopsony power for major sports leagues in the form of 15 USC Ch. 32, §1291,Exemption from antitrust laws of agreements covering the telecasting of sports contests and the combining of professional football leagues.” The provision passed in 1966 amended the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 to exempt merging sports leagues from antitrust laws as long as the merger “increases rather than decreases the number of football clubs.”

A similar scenario played out in the history of professional basketball in the United States, in which the rise of the American Basketball Association (ABA) militated against the exercise of monopsony power by owners of National Basketball Association (NBA) teams. As sports economist David Berri observed in the Antitrust Bulletin, while NBA players received a wage share of approximately 27 percent in 1970, “By 1972–1973, the NBA had to increase salaries to prevent players from joining a league that clearly was a legitimate competitor.” At the time, the leagues considered merging; however the existence of a reserve clause that gave a team control over a player’s mobility represented an untenable situation for the athletes, who sued to block it in 1970. (Robertson v. National Basketball Association, 556 F.2d 682 (2d Cir. 1977). The 1976 settlement culminated in the Oscar Robertson Rule and resulted in the elimination of the reserve clause (also known as the “option clause”) and rise of free agency rules that exist today.

National Hockey League (NHL) player wages also benefited from inter-league competition. Like other professional sports leagues, the NHL included a reserve clause in player contracts, bestowing exclusive negotiating rights on the original team with which a player signed. In the early 1970s, the World Hockey Association (WHA) entered the market, seeking to fill demand for teams in various major cities that represented relatively smaller markets than those having NHL teams.

Like LIV Golf, the WHA attracted top players by offering greater mobility and the potential for more lucrative compensation. As a result, it signed sixty-seven players, including the legendary Bobby Hull, in its inaugural 1972 season; for the following year, the WHA also signed another hockey superstar, Gordie Howe. While NHL sued to block the players from leaving from the WHA (just as the PGA threatened potential LIV signees with expulsion), a Massachusetts district court denied injunctive relief, allowing two stars, Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson to join the WHA. Concurrently, a federal court in Philadelphia enjoined the NHL from taking legal action to enforcing its reserve clause. (In total, litigation between the WHA and NHL spanned four separate suits.)The following year, 1973, the NHL abolished the reserve clause, replacing it with a one-year option. The 1975 collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players’ association included additional modifications, including guaranteed contracts and enabling players to enter into contracts without an option year. Negotiations between the NHL and WHA culminated in the June 22, 1979 NHL expansion, where four WHA teams, the Edmonton Oilers, New England (now Hartford) Whalers, Quebec Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche), and Winnipeg Jets received NHL expansion slots and the rest of the WHA folded.

At this point, the common thread between the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball merits emphasis, as it highlights the dichotomy between the PGA Tour and other major professional sports leagues. While athletes in other leagues have the benefit of a union and a collective bargaining agreement between the players’ association and the league, PGA Tour athletes do not. (Somewhat ironically, the caddies themselves do: The Association of Professional Tour Caddies.) The presence of a union could have cautioned Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who apparently turned down a combined $1.5 billion from LIV only to now find themselves in the same position but sans the lucrative offer.

In response to the threat of entry, the PGA adopted a tripartite strategy that was one part carrot, one part stick, and one part a morality play. The latter, of course, referenced the source of LIV’s funding: a Saudi regime run by crown prince Muhammad bin-Salman, whom the US government found approved the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Of course, the merger exposed the lack of sincerity in such appeals. The carrot refers to the fact that the PGA Tour previously announced more than $100 million in purse increases for 2022, an apparent response to the threat of competition that resembles similar action by the NBA and NFL discussed above. Indeed, the PGA Commissioner acknowledged the treat to the Tour’s margins that LIV represented. As CBS Sports Adam Silverstein reported, Monahan explained that “f you just look at the environment we’re in, the PIF was controlling LIV, and we were competing against LIV.It felt good about the changes we’d made and the position we were in, but ultimately, to get the competitor off the board — to have them exist as a partner, not as an owner…” The PGA also leveraged its stick, banning golfers who participated in LIV tournaments.

The PGA Tour’s threats of lifetime bans against players who sought to avail themselves financially of LIV’s competition with the PGA Tour also bears close resemblance to the reserve clause that existed in baseball (and other major sports). The reserve clause in a contract bound a professional baseball player to a single team; prior to 1887, baseball contracts stipulated that the player agreed to “abide by the constitution and bylaws of organized baseball” a phrase remarkably similar to the language used by PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan in his letter to tour members reminding them that “You have made a different choice, which is to abide by the Tournament Regulations you agreed to when you accomplished the dream of earning a PGA TOUR card.”

The 1889 version of the baseball contract included a clause that permitted a team to “reserve” a player for the following season at a rate at least as high as the player’s current-year compensation. As economists James Quirk and Rodney Fort explained in their book “Pay Dirt: The Business of Professional Sports Teams”, interpretation of the clause effectively granted the owners a perpetual option to retain a player’s services over his entire career, particularly considering that owners agreed not to hire players from other teams’ reserve lists. Subsequently, following the Supreme Court decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, 259 U.S. 200 (1922), which granted baseball’s antitrust exemption, the following clause was incorporated in every player contract from the 1920s into the 1950s:

[If] the player and the club have not agreed upon the terms of such contract [for the next playing season], then … the club shall have the right to renew this contract for the period of one year on the same terms, except that the amount payable to the player shall be such as the club shall fix in said notice…

This incarnation of the reserve clause lasted nearly a century, binding a player to a team and prohibiting his ability to obtain better wages elsewhere. During the 1957 Congressional hearings on organized professional team sports, Major League Baseball reported revenues from the previous five years. In a recent paper, sports economist David Berri analyzed these data, showing that, during this period, MLB paid less than 25% of the revenues to players, a clear indication of the wage-restraining effects of the reserve clause. The first major cracks in owners’ hegemony over labor came at the hands of Golden Glove winner Curt Flood in 1969. Upon being traded from St. Louis to the Philadelphia Phillies and told that he had no say in the matter, Flood filed suit, Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972), telling Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that “I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold.” While the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in 1922 to exempt baseball from the jurisdiction of the Sherman Act, an agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union granted free agency to players with at least six years of tenure beginning after 1976. This agreement accorded greater bargaining power to players and permitted them to capture a higher wage share. The eponymous 1998 Curt Flood Act revoked baseball’s antitrust exemption as it related to the employment of players, allowing them to enjoy the fruits of competition for their services.

More recently, a group of approximately 1,200 fighters who sued the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion company, won class certification. The Plaintiffs alleged that Zuffa, Inc. (d/b/a, UFC) sought to exclude competition from other promoters in an attempt to exert monopsony power to restrain fighters’ wages. In doing so, Plaintiffs claimed that 1) Defendants’ use of long-term exclusive contracts prevented them from competing elsewhere, 2) Defendants leveraged market power over the labor to force fighters to resign contracts, effectively locking them into perpetuity, 3) acquiring and terminating rival MMA promoters. Documents revealed in the litigation indicated that fighters’ wage share is only approximately 17 percent. Critically, this figure represented a substantial drop from the approximately 29 percent wage share that existed prior to the UFC’s acquisition of Strikeforce.

So what does all this presage for golfers’ futures? Absent potential regulatory intervention, nothing positive.

Two primary external forces counteract the exercise of monopsony power: 1) competitive entry and 2) collective bargaining. While lacking the latter, golfers benefited from the former in the form of LIV, which exposed the PGA’s ability to restrain compensation below competitive levels as evidenced by the purse increases once LIV became a viable competitor. Post-merger, golfers have neither and now find themselves facing an even stronger monopsonist. If golfers hope to maintain any semblance of a fair wage split with the newly formed industry leviathan, their primary recourse is organization into a Professional Golfers Union that can bargain collectively on their behalf. Otherwise, the outcome will mirror the UFC and the state of inequality in American society generally: a small cadre of patricians surrounded a multitude of workers fighting over table scraps. Of course, the newly merged entity will fight tooth and nail against such organization; those with market power seldom if ever concede it willingly. Nonetheless, one would do well to remember that the NBA has crossed swords with its Players’ Association numerous times, yet both sides have prospered. And so has the game.

Ted Tatos teaches econometrics at the University of Utah and regularly consults on economic issues involving antitrust, intellectual property, labor issues, and others. He can be reached at ttatos@eaecon.com.

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