KAPALUA, Hawaii – Gambling and golf are like peanut butter and jelly. They go together perfectly.
Wagering has been part of the game since its early days. On the PGA Tour, practice rounds are like the green room in pool, with wagers flying constantly.
The PGA Tour’s first foray in officially embracing gambling came in November when Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods played in “The Match,” a made-for-TV, winner-take-all $9 million match-play event. As part of the competition, Mickelson and Woods made individual bets to help boost interest.
The first bet that Mickelson made during the pre-match news conference – for $200,000, that he would make a birdie on the first hole (he didn’t) – resonated with Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.
“To me, as I was with my family and I could only follow it on the Internet, I was really interested in that as much as I was anything else,” said Monahan, who spoke Saturday at Kapalua Resort, site of the Sentry Tournament of Champions. “In a weird way because I knew it would take a while, like any match does, to evolve to a place where you know whether or not you're going to have a really compelling last 6-8 holes. But I thought that was just something that was interesting and that it obviously was a match, it was between the two of them, and it was an interesting way to start off the day.”
Though Monahan didn’t pay for the $19.95 broadcast, he was interested not so much in the outcome as how the product performed and how it might be improved.
With almost 1 million viewers paying for the privilege, The Match was a success by just about any measure, except for delivery issues that prevented some paying viewers from receiving the online broadcast. Turner Sports reimbursed all paid subscribers.
Yet, the PGA Tour was involved with putting restrictions on the betting by Mickelson and Woods during the match, suggesting that if the players could continue to create wagers, it ultimately would detract from the competition.
In reality, many viewers were looking for more wagers, not fewer.
It’s just an example of how the Tour is adjusting to a new reality: Gambling is here to stay, but the Tour will seek to make it work within an organization that is responsible for its tournaments having donated $190 million to charities in 2018.
Gambling is not going to be a tremendous money maker for the PGA Tour as many might think, but it could enhance the brand and viewership.
In 2017, sports betting in Nevada totaled $248.8 million, but according to an Associated Press report, revenue from sports betting in Nevada accounted for roughly one half of 1 percent of the entire state budget.
New Jersey recently became the first state to join Nevada and legalize sports betting after the Supreme Court decided May 14 to allow sports gambling across the U.S. Since the first legal sports bet was placed in New Jersey on June 14, the state totaled $928 million worth of sports wagers through November. From that sum, the state received less than $8 million in tax revenue.
That $8 million would be even less if all sports leagues, including the PGA Tour, try to get a piece of the pie via so-called integrity fees.
“I've never once talked about the financial impact,” Monahan said of gambling revenue flowing to the PGA Tour. “For us, it's about fan engagement, pulling more people into our competitions, having them follow it for longer.”
Monahan went on to state the obvious: 156 players over 18-hole rounds that last from daylight to dusk makes the PGA Tour unique, with numerous betting opportunities for fans.
“When you look at the scale of our organization or the scale of other leagues, the financial impact isn't tied to the revenue necessarily associated with gaming,” Monahan said. “It's tied to your ability to bring your audience closer in for longer periods of time and to have them more interested with, in more players and more stars and more tournaments, and then that ultimately will have a financial impact down the road.”
Any financial impact is unclear mainly due to the fact that each state treats sports betting differently. How each sport or league would participate also would be difficult to quantify, which is why many of the sports, including the PGA Tour, are lobbying for federal oversight that would create a uniform landscape.
The PGA Tour has been preparing for the day when sports betting would be available nationwide, starting with ShotLink. The statistical network, which has been used on the PGA Tour since the start of the 2004 season, provides stats and information to the media and TV partners. It is a perfect source for gamblers to engage with the Tour.
The Tour continues spending on upgrading ShotLink, including expanding the data collection to second and third courses at events such as Torrey Pines, where the North Course is used for the first 36 holes of the Farmers Insurance Open, and Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula, the second and third courses at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The massive amount of available data will help expand and enhance the fan experience as well as create the underpinnings for gamblers to get interested in putting their money into golf.
ShotLink also will be a potential revenue source for the Tour, with gambling establishments and websites that gamblers would frequent.
“We think that gaming leads to more engagement, and so we're talking to betting operators, we're talking to daily fantasy operators, and internationally we announced a deal that IMG Arena will be distributing our data amongst other entities, betting operators,” Monahan said. “So, when you talk about growing and diversifying your fan base and keeping your fans engaged for longer periods of time, there's some real potential there.”
The Tour still has issues to iron out, including its support of draft legislation that would provide federal oversight of sports gambling, and potentially rewriting PGA Tour Integrity Program guidelines that prohibit players and virtually everybody associated with tournaments from betting at tournament sites.
“Ultimately so much of how we consume is through our phone or mobile devices,” Monahan said, “so at some point in time, given our fans have their phones on property and when it becomes legalized – and if it's legalized from a mobile standpoint in that state – then you're going to see it happening in real time. Does it make sense in some instances where there would be a place you would go to place a bet or wager? Potentially. But we're not just far enough along in our conversations on that front to say that I see it.”
As an aside, on Jan. 3, the NFL announced a partnership with Caesars Entertainment as the league’s first official casino sponsor.
It’s a lot to figure out, but the PGA Tour clearly thinks it is positioned well for what’s coming. Only time will tell, but the pieces seem to be falling into place.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli