A couple months ago a noted economist predicted that LIV Golf, the rogue tour backed by funding from the Saudi Arabian government that’s poached players from the PGA, would fold within two years. LIV apparently failed to get that memo, and are actually discussing expansion into a very unlikely category: women’s sports.
According to Front Office Sports, LIV CEO Greg Norman said the league’s leaders have engaged in internal discussions about a spinoff women’s competition, something that has been rumored for about a year. Added Norman: “I have had discussions with individual lady players, professional players.”
From a business perspective this makes a ton of sense, even if the league is struggling financially. (In spite of the forecast from Steve Levitt, the aforementioned economist who co-authored the Freakonomics book series, it’s hard to imagine LIV folding due to a lack of finances, given the Saudi government’s formidable wealth.) Not only is a women’s league a means of diversification, but just generally a smart investment. Women’s sports are experiencing exponential growth globally, in terms of popularity and financial backing.
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But political motivations are also probably at play here. The Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has thrown billions the way of LIV Golf, has been criticized for what many believe are “sportswashing” tactics — sanitizing the perception of a political regime through sports to make it seem less harmful and immoral. What better way to seemingly reverse long-term oppression of women than by founding a women-only golf league?
I guess having a democratically elected government in which women have the right to run for office, but that would be insane, especially in a country where, as The Week reported, “A male relative is still required to give permission for a woman to marry, start certain types of business, leave prison or leave a domestic abuse shelter.” So in the meantime, in Saudi Arabia, where, as a New York Times opinion writer, Megan K. Stack, pointed out, “a Ph.D. student and mother of two [can be] sentenced to 34 years in prison for using her Twitter account in support of dissidents,” we may instead get a women’s golf league.
In fact, the Saudi Arabian government is already using women’s golf in its sportswashing efforts. Writes Front Office Sports: “Aramco, the oil company controlled and majority owned by Saudi Arabia, has sponsored a Ladies European Tour series since 2020.”
So far there hasn’t been any outright rejection of a LIV Golf women’s league, as there was when the men’s tour was announced and drew PGA defectors. When asked about the prospective LIV women’s league, the world’s number-one-ranked women’s golfer Lydia Ko told Golf.com, “To talk about anything that isn’t really here yet is all speculation. So I’m happy doing my own thing right now.” Mollie Marcoux-Samaan, the LPGA commissioner, said in July 2022 she would listen to pitches from LIV if “it would achieve our aim of promoting women’s golf” and if there was “input from players and sponsors.”
The women’s golf league would be another potential step toward more inclusive social reforms in Saudi Arabia, which the country’s leadership has increasingly leaned into in recent years.
“Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, women have had the right to get their own passports, as well as travel abroad and live independently without the permission of a male guardian,” The Week wrote. “The changes are part of the crown prince’s plan to moderni[z]e the Middle Eastern country. The reforms, alongside his diversification strategy, known as Vision 2030, would help Saudi Arabia to ‘eradicate the remnants of extremism’ and embrace a more ‘moderate’ version of Islamic law under his leadership, he said in 2017. A year later, a change in regulations meant women could drive for the first time in the kingdom.”
But in the minds of many, these steps have hardly undone Saudi Arabian history. They might not even mean much to the women living in the country right now.
“The recent reforms mean that if a woman has been born or married into a clan of freethinking men willing to let her do things, the state will not interfere,” Stack wrote for the Times. “But for the many Saudi women who lack a benevolent male guardian, there is no remedy. If, for example, a woman’s husband or father doesn’t think she should get her driving license, she is still compelled to obey his dictate.”
As we continue on in this era of increased economic globalization, look for more of these smoke-and-mirror policy shifts from similarly oppressive authoritarian governments that look good on paper — especially to officials trying to sell partnerships with such countries to its citizens — but have little to no practical application. Whether or not athletes and sponsors, not to mention fans, continue to ignore the twisty politics wrapped up in these sporting endeavors will be the biggest deciding factor in their success or failure.