Professional wrestling, and how the PGL could force the PGA Tour to change

Growing up in the 90’s, I was like a lot of kids in one very specific way: I loved professional wrestling. I had all of the action figures, my parents had VHS tapes delivered to our door with regularity, and whenever it was on TV, it was a guarantee that my brother and I were on the couch watching. And that was even before it became way more mainstream in the mid to late 90’s.

I’m sure you’re wondering what on earth this has to do with the proposed Premier Golf League, and I don’t blame you. The key is that last line about how mainstream professional wrestling became in the second half of the 90’s, and while I’m not suggesting that golf will achieve the same level of mainstream attention, the blueprint is there for something golf has been lacking for a very long time: a breath of fresh air at the highest levels.

Up until the mid-80’s, professional wrestling was largely a regional affair. Individual territories, largely under the umbrella of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), operated locally all over the United States, with some affiliations stretching out to other countries all over the world. These promotions would all have their own champions, storylines, and local broadcasts, but they also recognized an NWA champion that would go from territory to territory, defending that championship. As a fan, it was a big deal when Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, or Ric Flair would come to YOUR territory to fight YOUR champion.

A lot of this changed when Vince McMahon bought the World Wide Wrestling Federation from his father in 1983. The younger McMahon didn’t believe that the territory system that was in place for decades was in the best interest of his company, so he withdrew from the NWA and started to work on moving the company out of the regional confines of the Northeast where he operated, believing that there was a market for a national, and eventually, international wrestling company. McMahon may have had the vision of a worldwide brand in his head, but he also knew that without a proper roster of talent behind it, he would fall flat on his face. It would be like staging the Ryder Cup, but doing it with a bunch of 12 handicaps: no one would care.

So, McMahon went on a hiring spree, poaching the top talent from the other organizations in the NWA; wrestlers that would become household names in a short period of time like Hulk Hogan, Ricky Steamboat, Roddy Piper, and Jimmy Snuka. This was looked at as an act of betrayal on McMahon’s part. After his father had faithfully served the NWA for so long, the promoters in the other territories looked at his son like a man who was only out for himself, and who didn’t care who he hurt as long as he got what he wanted. McMahon didn’t disagree. What he wanted was ultimate power, and with the moves he was making, he would soon get exactly that.

There’s a lot more fascinating history to go over, but a couple of years later, McMahon would create WrestleMania and with the power of his roster and a new national reach, the World Wrestling Federation was exactly what McMahon always wanted: a powerful, popular behemoth. The other territories would keep going of course, but it wasn’t the same as it was before McMahon’s pillaging. Some of the territories would fade away quickly, while others hung on for a little while before having to close up shop. One of the more successful ones, World Championship Wrestling, would also leave the NWA in the early 90’s, with the goal of going national just like McMahon and challenging his stranglehold on the industry.

McMahon was the top dog, and it was also very clear that he had established the market he was going after: with stars like Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart and Randy Savage, not to mention an undercard of laughably cartoony characters, McMahon’s WWF was a decidedly kid-friendly product, meant to be consumable by the entire family. That, McMahon believed, was one of the keys to creating a sustainable, long-term product on the national stage. The territories had never been about that, of course. So much of their success was pinned on more realistic portrayals of the world at large, and specifically how it related to the area they were in, but with the volume turned up just a touch. When WCW decided to break free from the NWA, they were attempting to do it their way, with a focus on more adult friendly entertainment, something which McMahon had steered away from for years.

Much like McMahon though, WCW felt the need to go on a spending spree to bring in big names. Hogan was the first megastar to jump ship. Savage, Lex Luger, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and many others of varying degrees of stardom would follow, giving WCW a decided edge in star power, as they joined an already powerful roster featuring the likes of Flair and Sting. When WCW decided that the best way forward was to have Hogan join up with Hall and Nash to form the nWo, marking the first time that Hogan had ever been portrayed as a bad guy on a national stage, professional wrestling changed. In addition to incredible feats of athleticism lower on the card thanks to an influx of international talent that the WWF would never be interested in bringing on board, WCW had a mature, adult oriented main event scene, with Hogan leading the way in a brand new light.

It took a little while, but WCW had established themselves not only as a legitimate threat to the WWF’s status at the top of professional wrestling’s mountain, but were now being looked at in a lot of circles as the number one promotion in the world. The two companies would go head-to-head on Monday nights, forcing wrestling fans to pick which program they would watch, and for a long time, WCW was clearly ahead as the victor, with ratings of their Monday Nitro program dwarfing that of the WWF’s Monday Night Raw.

Professional wrestling is weird for a number of reasons, but the number one reason is probably that even though we all know it’s scripted, it can still be oddly compelling. While McMahon’s WWF may have been the established national name, a lot of wrestling fans were taken by the more brash, adult forward content that WCW was putting out because, frankly, it was just more geared towards them. Instead of clowns, garbage men, and guys pretending to be hockey players, wrestling fans tuning into WCW programming got more of that territory feeling, where the wrestlers were allowed to be more like themselves, but just amplified. Wrestling fans could live with the idea that the show was scripted, but they didn’t want their intelligence insulted by watching a guy try to fight in the ring while pretending he was a Canadian mountie.

It’s hard to imagine now given the sheer size of their company (nearly $1 billion in revenue annually), but for a long time in the 90’s when WCW was running them over, the WWF almost went out of business. Interviews with many of the WWF’s key players at the time, including McMahon, have talked about how the combination of WCW paying wild sums of money for talent, along with other factors like WCW giving away the WWF’s results live on TV because Raw was taped while Nitro was filmed live, contributed to an uncertain future for the company. McMahon had to adjust. The kid-friendly experience was not getting it done anymore, and with WCW convincing so many of the established names to jump ship, the WWF had no choice but to create new stars that fans would grow to love, much like they had done with Hogan, Piper, and the Ultimate Warrior years prior.

Enter the WWF’s Attitude Era.

The WWF took a cue from WCW, going more adult, and in all honesty, did it better and went further than WCW ever did. Established WWF names like The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels were given adjustments to be more more modern and aggressive, while the company worked on creating new ‘stars’ like Triple H, The Rock, Mankind, and Steve Austin. They also went the opposite direction of WCW by their stealing younger, under-utilized talents like Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero, allowing them to grow with the company, unlike the established names WCW had been poaching for years that may not have had as much time left.

What ended up happening was that for a stretch of about five years, wrestling fans were treated to two companies going head to head, and trying their absolute best to put on a product that fans wanted to watch. It wasn’t always successful of course, especially as WCW wound down and started doing a whole bunch of weird shit that even wrestling fans couldn’t stomach, but it was fun because there was a genuine effort being made to put on an entertaining product. The companies succeeded, the wrestlers got paid more money, and the fans were the biggest winners of all, as they got a seemingly endless supply of entertainment during those years that they didn’t even know was possible.

McMahon would end up victorious in the war, buying WCW in 2001, and while some attempts have been made over the years to start up a new company to challenge his reign on top of the industry, his status is as secure as ever. Wrestling fans, though, have been watching a company with no real motivation to improve the product or try something new, as its been so long since they had to worry about any competition.

Now, what the hell does all of that have to do with golf? News of the upstart Premier Golf League has been making the rounds over the last few weeks, with Geoff Shackelford being the primary news breaker on the whole thing. If you’re not caught up, I highly recommend reading all of Geoff’s coverage here because, hoo boy, it’s an interesting bit of business and Geoff has done a great job piecing all of it together.

So, let’s talk about this idea. As I’m writing this, I’m watching the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and as I’m sure many of you are, I’m bored out of my skull. As it is every year, Saturday at Pebble is the worst broadcast of the year, and CBS has made little to no effort to change that. While Sunday’s broadcast will be better, as will the next few weeks,* one thing has been clear for a long, long time: the PGA Tour puts on a good product when you’re at the venue, but frequently on TV, regardless of who is at the controls, it is a difficult watch. Golf is without question a difficult sport to broadcast, with essentially, eighteen different playing fields to keep an eye on all at the same time, but frequently when watching a PGA Tour broadcast, it feels far too arduous to just watch golfers golf.

*Editors Note: Clearly written before Riviera, which, yikes.*

Why is that the case? There’s no flow to the tournament. Frequently when I’m watching, it feels like the tournament and the leaderboard are really just a means to showing me ads for products and companies that I’m never going to be interested in, or can’t afford. That’s a function of the target audience, which I’m likely not part of, but it definitely makes it difficult to attract a new audience, like that much ballyhooed younger demographic, when it feels like Jim Nantz’s role is to tell me what segment is sponsored by who instead of talking about the actual leaderboard.

Now, contrast that with the magnificent broadcast of the last few days at the Vic Open from Australia, and you see the way a golf tournament can and should be presented, purely from a fan’s perspective. The Vic Open is a joint men’s and women’s event, with two separate leaderboards. Conceptually, it’s a step in the right direction towards having a different feel for tournaments, and the broadcast itself was magnificent for a few reasons: first, seeing the differences between how the men and women play the course was entertaining, as it paints such a different picture on how everyone has to get around to create a good score. Second, the course was fun and the conditions were tough, with high winds forcing the players to hit different shots, like the men taking out an 8-iron to play a 110-yard par-3 because of how much it was swirling. Lastly, there was no fluff on the broadcast. Nothing was presented by a random hedge fund, nor were there any needless graphics that had nothing to do with the tournament at hand. The only segment I saw on Saturday night that wasn’t directly tied to the tournament was about the devastating fires that have taken over the country. It was a great example of a tournament that didn’t have the biggest names, but was still way more enjoyable from a TV perspective than the one at Pebble Beach that had significantly more star power.

In other words, it was different than what most golf fans are treated to on a weekly basis. This is where the Premier Golf League comes in. For all of the cool stuff that the European Tour attempts to do, the PGA Tour hardly views them as a threat to their business, and why would they? A few decades ago when the best European players largely played on the European Tour, you could argue that the two tours had a pretty even share of the best players in the world, but that hasn’t been the case for a while now, with the gap in purse sizes being so large that the top players have flocked to the PGA Tour, regardless of what it says on their passport.

There’s a whole lot of talk right now about where the PGL plan on differentiating themselves, from the team aspect to player ownership, to different tournament formats, and how essentially, they are trying to treat the league more like a traditional team based sport than what golf has been since the beginning of time. Is any of that interesting? Will any of it work? It’s obviously far too early to say, but at least it’s different and fresh. Golf at the professional level really hasn’t seen any meaningful change in any of our lifetimes, and while that works on some level, there’s also very clearly some room for improvement. As a golf fan, you should be excited that someone is proposing something that is radically different because at the very least, it allows us to see a different picture of what golf at the pro level could be. When you combine that with a potential roster of big names, there’s a chance this thing could be more entertaining than what we’ve been seeing from the PGA Tour in recent years.

I’m not here to sell you on the idea of the PGL. There are, without question, issues that could sink the whole thing, from the idea that this could just be a series of 18 WGC events, to how they are going to cultivate new talent, to the most obvious one around how much dirty money may be flowing into the coffers of the already wealthy players. I’m on the record with my feelings on the Saudi International, and how Keith Pelley and the European Tour should be ashamed at the way they’ve sold out to them. That event shouldn’t exist, and the players who are going over there are clearly only doing it to pad their bank accounts, which is obviously their right, but it’s also not something that reflects well on them and their standing outside of the game that already made them rich. I don’t feel great about the same thing propping up the PGL, and some players have already been on the record about that as well. It’s clearly an issue that could bury the whole tour before it even gets off the ground.

What I am here to do is tell you that the PGL being a thing might just be what the PGA Tour needs to get some creative juices flowing. For the longest time, they’ve been the only game in town, and that’s how you end up getting things like #LiveUnderPar and a Tour Championship where the tournament starts with a leader already at 10-under par. The real innovations, whether they are new tournament or team formats, a broadcast that doesn’t insult the viewer, different courses, or a new system to infuse the tour with the talent that clearly isn’t getting enough of a shot, are only going to come if the PGA Tour feels like they have to do something to change. While I don’t think we’re at a point where the PGA Tour is in danger of going bankrupt or disappearing any time soon, it’s obvious that many top players are listening to the conversation, which does nothing but harm the PGA Tour and everything they’ve built to date. If those top players were to jump ship, it would force the PGA Tour’s hand.

They would have to create new stars for fans to follow, and they would have to give fans more of a reason to attend their tournaments or watch on TV. At a first glance, the stars are going to attract the attention, and aside from the super hardcore golf fans out there, there’s only a certain amount of time in the day that most people are going to spend in front of the TV watching hours and hours of golf. What will the PGA Tour lean on to get people to tune in if they know they also want to watch the PGL? There needs to be a hook, and right now, I’m not sure that there’s enough of a hook. The ratings also seem to suggest the same thing.

Vince McMahon came out, fought and innovated to save his company from a very real threat. If the PGL is anywhere near as real as WCW was, the PGA Tour would be well advised to try and do the same thing.

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