Pars, birdies, and…independent contractors? If you’ve tuned into a golf telecast recently, you’ve likely heard the announcers talk about whether professional golfers should be considered independent contractors as often as 350-yard drives or when Tiger Woods will play his next tournament. So why has a term typically used to describe self-employed professionals like electricians and accountants become such a hot a topic on the PGA Tour?
Unlike most professional athletes, who are paid a regular salary and have expenses like their travel and meal costs picked up by the team they are employed by, pro golfers are essentially athlete freelancers. They pay all their expenses out of their own pocket, and only get paid when they play well and make tournament cuts.
Yet while typical independent contractors like plumbers or attorneys are free to seek out the best paying jobs and highest paying clients, the PGA Tour does everything it can to restrict when and where golfers can compete and earn their living, which is not only a violation of players’ rights, but may even cross the line into illegal, anti-competitive business practices.
For decades, the PGA Tour has been the most lucrative circuit for elite touring professionals. The Tour attracted the best players from around the world by offering the biggest tournament prize pools, and for top golfers, there weren’t any better options.
However, in the last year, the emergence of new global golf tours – such as Greg Norman’s recently announced LIV Golf Invitational Series – whose tournament purses are reported to eclipse the ones offered by the PGA Tour, and, crucially, will offer players appearance fees and guaranteed money, perks that have always been prohibited by the PGA Tour.
[su_quote]It is easy to see why the prospect of guaranteed prize money would turn the heads of top golfers. Consider that if Steph Curry has an off-night shooting three’s, he still gets paid by the Warriors. But if a pro golfer misses a tournament cut after a bad round on Thursday or due to crazy weather like we saw at the Players Championship, they go home empty handed, less the cost of their flight, hotel, meals, caddie fees, and a litany of other expenses.[/su_quote]
Purists argue that this meritocracy model is part of the charm of professional golf, and that players should only get paid when they perform. Yet as professional golf continues to cope with gradual ratings declines and an aging fan demographic, critics argue that golf would benefit from greater certainty in the entertainment product it delivers.
In a sports landscape that increasingly depends on superstar players to drive fan interest, the PGA Tour faces a weekly dilemma of uncertainty in which their biggest draws like Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, or Jordan Spieth could have one bad round, or even one bad hole, that would prevent them from even qualifying for a tournaments’ final and most watched weekend rounds.
While the inability to guarantee that broadcasters, sponsors, and fans will be able to see their favorite superstar players isn’t doing the sport any favors, the very top players can certainly afford to miss a cut here and there without taking too big a hit to their wallet. Yet as DeChambeau himself pointed out last year, the PGA Tour’s monopolistic, anti-competitive business model can make it very difficult for rank-and-file pros to earn a living. DeChambeau even speculated that players outside of the top 150 in the world rankings likely struggle to break even.
“We’re independent contractors. We’ve got to pay for all of our expenses. Every hotel, we have to pay on our own, food etc. You do everything yourself. And you’ve got a family to feed. And you’re missing cuts. And when you miss a cut, you make nothing,” DeChambeau told the Full Send podcast.
As independent contractors, golfers should be able to make their services available to the highest bidder. Yet to maintain their monopoly over pro golf, the PGA Tour requires that all players sign a non-compete agreement in order to be part of the Tour. This prevents players from playing in any other tournaments – in the U.S. or internationally – that conflict with a PGA Tour event. Then, to ensure that players have virtually no wiggle room to compete and try to win prize money elsewhere, the PGA Tour schedules tournaments in 50 of the 52 weeks a year, forcing players to get Tour approval if they ever want to play anywhere else.
[su_quote]In an attempt to double-down on their hardline, anticompetitive intimidation tactics, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan recently told players that anyone thinking about joining Norman’s tour should “walk out that door now” because they would be “banned,” a clear response to players who have asserted their status as independent contractors who should have the freedom to play where and when they want.[/su_quote]
While Monahan’s ultimatum resulted in some players pledging their loyalty to the PGA Tour, Norman responded with a letter directly to Monahan, accusing him of “bullying” and “threatening” players in a manner that violates the law, almost certainly setting the stage for a legal battle that will have major ramifications on the future of professional golf. Which is all to say that despite the Monahan’s best efforts, the independent contractor debate isn’t going away anytime soon.
Ricky Clemons is a lecturer of sports management at Howard University. He is also author of the book, INBOUNDS The Evolution of Black College Players in Professional Football.
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