News & Opinion

European Tour faces a hard bargain for survival

Coronavirus pandemic leaves tour even further behind the well-funded PGA Tour, which could lead to a trans-Atlantic lifeline

The European Tour is in deep trouble, and it appears that the PGA Tour will come riding to the rescue. But at a price.

Since March, the European Tour has been canceling tournaments because of the coronavirus pandemic. In all, 16 events have been postponed or canceled, including the first scrubbing of the British Open since World War II. The tour has set July 30 as a date to resume play, at the Betfred British Masters.

Keith Pelley
Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, faces some tough decisions regarding the tour’s future.

Tour chief executive Keith Pelley is said to be working frantically to put together a schedule of 26 events to salvage a season, which would end in November at the DP World Tour Championship, the conclusion of the season-long Race to Dubai.

However, according to multiple published reports, the coronavirus pandemic will affect the European Tour much more deeply than originally thought. Pelley circulated a memo to players in April.

“Our tour has enjoyed a significant period of growth in recent years, in terms of prize funds, playing opportunities and the overall standard of our events, as well as our broadcast product," he said. "The impact of the coronavirus has stopped this rapid momentum in its tracks, and it will, in fact, require us to reassess many elements. You should therefore be prepared that when we do resume playing, the schedule and the infrastructure of tournaments could look radically different from what you have been used to. Many of the things you have become accustomed to, such as top-class players’ lounges or courtesy car services, will most likely assume a different appearance, if indeed they are present at all.

"Prize funds will also most likely be different. … The reality is, the pandemic is going to have a profound impact on the tour financially, as well as many of our partners, both in sponsorship and broadcast areas."

Neither Pelley nor PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has been quoted for publication on the subject. But according to reports, both men are talking daily about forging some sort of arrangement – perhaps a partnership or an outright merger – in which the European Tour would receive at the very least significant financial help to remain afloat and viable. At most, it is speculated that the Euro Tour would become a subsidiary of the PGA Tour. If anything has been decided, it has not been made public.

But what’s the potential for such a partnership?

While talks between Monahan and Pelley perhaps were begun out of the European Tour’s financial necessity, it also appears to be an effort to fend off organizers of the proposed Premier Golf League. The PGL has been floated by backers with deep pockets as an alternative global tour, consisting of 18 worldwide events featuring 48 of the game’s elite players. The proposed tour would start in 2022, with a total purse of $240 million.

If the Premier Golf League were to siphon off the best players from both tours – which appears unlikely at this point due to several prominent players’ having dismissed it – the European Tour has the most to lose. Trying to sell sponsors on a tour minus the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, et al., would result in much smaller purses, which would lead to a much less viable European Tour.

Perhaps the two tours could drive the final nail into the PGL’s coffin with the creation of a super tour for the elite players on both sides of the Atlantic, similar to what the renegade operation had in mind.

However, a Premier Golf League-type tour that extends beyond the U.S. probably would not fit neatly into a schedule that the PGA Tour would prefer to end by Labor Day. The question then would be: What to do with the FedEx Cup and the playoffs?

The answer might be more than obvious: The FedEx Tour, a name which might fairly roll off Monahan’s tongue. The package-shipping giant’s reach is global, in 220-plus countries and territories. FedEx, based in Memphis, Tenn., no doubt would like nothing more than to expand its market share in many parts of the world. Its name on an elite super tour featuring the world’s best players might look like gold to the company’s executives in Memphis, London, Shanghai and beyond.

But there’s an even bigger prize. The PGA Tour would like to get its hands on at least a portion of the Ryder Cup, which is held jointly between the PGA of America and the European Tour.

The Ryder Cup is the Euro Tour’s cash cow. In fact, according to The Times newspaper of London, the tour makes a profit only every fourth year, when Europe hosts the biennial Ryder Cup. A partnership would give the PGA Tour access to a Ryder Cup marketing strategy, at the very least, and at most, a renegotiation with the PGA of America as to how money is generated and profit is distributed. With the PGA Tour and European Tour supplying the players for the Ryder Cup, the joint tours seemingly would hold a significant bargaining chip.

In the first year or two of an arrangement between the tours, the European Tour could carry on under its own flag as the PGA Tour underpins the Euro operation. But you’d have to think that sooner than later, a rebranding would take place as PGA Tour Europe.

As much as Europeans would dislike a perceived takeover of its tour by the Americans, they might not have another choice. The post-COVID-19 world is bound to be full of compromise in all parts of business, sport and life. If it means that European tournaments largely survive, do you want the name or the money?

It would appear to be a simple, if not palatable, choice.

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