On Nov. 23, at Shadow Creek Golf Club in Las Vegas, Tiger Woods will play Phil Mickelson in a one-off round of golf with a winner-takes-all prize of $9 million awaiting the victor. Billed as “The Match,” this made-for-TV contest represents something of a gamble for the producers, Turner Sports, not least because golf’s biggest events are, ordinarily, free to air on network television and, also, because pay-per-view events are usually confined to men bashing each other’s heads in.
Now, though, they’re asking golf fans to hand over $19.99 to watch two past-their-prime forty-somethings going head-to-head for what is, let’s face it, an obscene amount of money.
The trash talking has already started — Mickelson told ESPN it would be “the easiest $9 million” he’s ever made — but you can’t help think it’s all a bit, well, phony. And that’s because it is. Ten years ago, you might have made a case for it. Woods had just won the 14th major title of his career at the US Open at Torrey Pines while Mickelson had long since overcome his major hoodoo, having scooped two Masters titles and the PGA Championship and finished third in that year’s money list. Back then, the fact that they couldn’t stand the sight of each other would have made it all the juicier.
Fast-forward a decade and Woods’ woes, personal and professional, may appear to be at an end but his aura of invincibility is gone for good. Mickelson, meanwhile, is a shadow of the player he once was. Just look at how he played at the recent Ryder Cup. Woods wasn’t much better.
But in the warped world of pay-per-view, none of this seems to matter. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if the participants play the same sport.
Look at boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his recent forays into PPV. In August 2017, aged 40, he reentered the ring to fight the Irish mixed martial arts champion Conor McGregor, and over 4 million people in the United States paid for the privilege. Last week, Mayweather announced he was coming out of retirement — yet again — to fight a 20-year-old Japanese kickboxing sensation, Tenshin Nasukawa, in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve. It’s a decision that recalls Muhammad Ali’s humiliating pay- per-view bout with Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976, a contest that was more farce than fight, with Ali landing just six punches over the course of 15 largely uneventful rounds.
Very occasionally you will get a contest worthy of the money but they’re few and far between. Even Mayweather’s 2015 “Fight of the Century” against Manny Pacquiao was a dud, albeit one that grossed over $600 million thanks to a record 4.6 million US households paying for it. Increasingly, though, pay-per-view is a domain where credibility is stretched and where the action inevitably fails to match the hype.
That’s how you end up with Woods taking on Mickelson, even though there are no genuine reasons (other than the 9 million obvious ones) for them to tee it up against each other. All of which begs the question: Why do sports fans fall for it, time and time again?
Well, for one, broadcasters are brilliantly adept at selling PPV events as an experience, rather than just another game or a fight, enticing sports fans to sign up lest they miss out on something special. Factor in the fans’ tendency for swallowing promotional puff, and it’s not difficult to see why there’s always a viable market for pay-per-view, irrespective of the actual quality of the proposition.
Turner Sports won’t care what drives people to “The Match” as long as they show up. Recently, Neal Pilson, a former president at CBS Sports, told Reuters, “The event should appeal to more than just the golf audience with its star power,” before adding, “but I have no plans to watch.”
It’s a hard sell and true golf fans will, you would hope, see through it for the tawdry cash-in it clearly is. And while it’s relatively cheap in pay-per-view terms — Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was $89.95 for standard definition and $99.95 for HD — the fact that it’s been pitched at a $20 price point tells you all you need to know. Apart from the cash prize for the players, there is literally nothing at stake.
No world titles, no green jackets, nothing. They don’t even hate each other any more. It’s just two rich men playing a game of golf to get that bit richer. It’s the flimsiest of concepts, a cynical exercise in futility dressed up as a genuine sporting contest. And I don’t — and won’t — buy it.
Gavin Newsham is the co-founder of Golf Punk magazine and has also written for Golf Monthly and Golf World.