The shocking news that the PGA Tour agreed to form a new commercial golf empire with the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which launched LIV Golf in 2021, and the European DP World Tour brings to an end nearly two years of litigation between the professional tours but raises a whole other slew of legal issues.
LIV Golf, backed by one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, has drawn sharp criticism for “sportswashing” — when a government spends money on sports to overshadow corruption, discrimination, human rights abuses and other allegations — its public image.
Professional golfer Phil Mickelson summed up some players’ concerns about competing in the Saudi league in February 2022, when he called Saudi Arabia “scary mother******* to get involved with,” adding, “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.”
Mickelson apologized for his comments after sponsors cut ties with the popular golfer. But the merger reignites debate over the Saudi government’s human rights record and raises questions about the amount of money changing hands as a part of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying and influence efforts around LIV Golf.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act generally requires registration by any individual or firm providing services to or acting at the order, request or under control of a foreign principal and engaging “in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal.” Critics of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour have questioned whether firms advocating for its agenda in Washington should be registered under the FARA and whether lobbyists for the new super entity will need to register under FARA.
FARA reporting obligations for the new golf league will depend on “both the structure of the new league and the exact services provided,” Josh Rosenstein, an attorney with Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, told OpenSecrets in a phone interview.
The new entity may be able to avoid federal registration under the commercial exemption under FARA, which exempts companies engaged in purely commercial activities like selling tickets, unless it directly promotes the interests of a foreign nation or its activities are directed by a foreign government, Rosenstein added.
The recently-announced merger has also raised questions about the full extent of LIV Golf’s foreign influence operation. LIV Golf lobbyists have collectively reported receiving $370,000 for work on behalf of the tour since the second quarter of 2021, according to Lobbying Disclosure Act filings.
A new FARA filing reveals the firm Gitcho Goodwin retroactively registered to provide “public relations and media support services” to LIV Golf starting in March 2023. The organization paid Gitcho Goodwin more than $167,000 in fees and expenses from March 1 through May 26, according to the registration statement. A final, additional $55,000 payment was made on May 29, the day LIV Golf terminated its contract with the firm, according to a new supplemental statement Gitcho Goodwin filed under FARA.
While the firm had been working with LIV Golf since March, Gail Gitcho and Henry Goodwin, the seasoned political operatives who lead Gitcho Goodwin, registered retroactively as foreign agents for LIV Golf on May 25.
At the same time, Gitcho Goodwin was contracted for public relations work on behalf of LIV Golf, the firm was also consulting on the Republican presidential campaign of Vivek Ramaswamy, POLITICO reported. Ramaswamy campaign CEO Ben Yoho sent out a memo on April 25 announcing Gitch and Goodwin would join the campaign as “senior advisors.”
Ramaswamy fired Gitcho and Goodwin after the campaign learned they were registered to lobby for the Saudi-backed golf league from POLITICO reporters.
“We registered with FARA as working for LIV Golf because it was the right thing to do under US law: if Vivek Ramaswamy wants to fire us for that, that’s up to him. We wish him the best,” Goodwin said in a statement to POLITICO.
There are no laws barring foreign agents working for federal campaigns, though some similar arrangements have stirred controversy and prompted resignations in the past.
The opaque structure of firms hired as subvendors and compensated for work for LIV Golf through other entities raises questions about whether or not the entities paying the subvendors should be registering under FARA.
A subsidiary of the public relations giant Edelman Public Relations had also worked for LIV Golf in 2022, POLITICO reported. That work was also never reported under FARA, and Edelman claimed that it was contracted through a “golf-focused marketing firm,” Performance54.
Kate Meissner, an Edelman spokesperson, told POLITICO last year that the firm’s relationship with LIV Golf ended in March 2022. She confirmed that United Entertainment Group was also enlisted by Performance54 for a project that has since concluded but maintained that the project did not fall under FARA requirements.
Disclosed FARA and LDA spending by foreign agents of LIV Golf represents only a small sliver of Saudi Arabia’s overall influence spending in the U.S. Foreign agents reported more than $24 million in payments for lobbying and influence operations on behalf of Saudi interests in 2022, OpenSecrets’ FARA data show.
Saudi Arabia’s “sportswashing” PR campaign
LIV Golf has faced backlash from golfers as well as politicians on both sides of the aisle, with Democrats and Republicans alike accusing LIV of being a vehicle for “sportswashing.” The decision to merge came as a surprise to many.
“So weird,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said after the merger was announced. “PGA officials were in my office just months ago talking about how the Saudis’ human rights record should disqualify them from having a stake in a major American sport. I guess maybe their concerns weren’t really about human rights?”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) previously described Saudi Arabia’s LIV league as a “desperate attempt to clean up its image” and equating it to using a “golf glove [to] try and cover a blood-stained hand.”
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund — which is chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia who is colloquially known as MBS — has reportedly poured nearly $1 billion into LIV Golf.
The Public Investment Fund will reportedly be the exclusive investor in the new enterprise and have the “exclusive right to further invest in the new enterprise, including a right of first refusal on any capital invested.” Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, is slated to join the policy board of the PGA Tour and will also serve as the chairman of the new for-profit enterprise.
The PGA Tour intends to maintain its status as a tax-exempt organization operating under section 501(c)(6) of the U.S. tax code and it will continue to oversee the tour’s management, administration and rule enforcement.
The PGA Tour also ramped up its lobbying last year, including on spending targeting LIV Golf.
DLA Piper lobbyists started disclosing lobbying for the PGA Tour related to the Saudi golf league during the second quarter of 2021. That year, the PGA Tour paid DLA Piper $380,000 to lobby on its competitor, among other issues. Since the start of 2021, the PGA Tour has paid the firm $690,000 for lobbying related to the Saudi league and other issues with $80,000 of that in the first quarter of this year.
The PGA Tour has also paid Miller Strategies, a firm formed days after former President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration by top Republican lobbyist and Trump campaign bundler Jeff Miller. While lobbying disclosures vaguely describe the firm’s work on “[i]ssues relating to the professional sports industry,” Miller previously told Axios that the firm’s work for the PGA Tour would include “shining a light on the competition.”
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman visited Congress as part of a lobbying blitz in 2022. This was not Norman’s first attempt to form his own global golf league. In 1994, when Norman was the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer, he teamed up with Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch to create the World Golf Tour. The tour sought to entice players with multimillion-dollar prize money that dwarfed the PGA Tour’s purses, though the effort was ultimately quashed by the PGA Tour.
“We need to get out of bed with these people. They are bad actors. We need to keep them at arm’s length,” Burchett told the Guardian, citing September 11 attacks on the US, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom’s treatment of LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights, which he called “just unacceptable.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pledged to “to dive into every piece of Saudi Arabia’s deal with the PGA,” adding, “U.S. officials need to consider whether a deal will give the Saudi regime inappropriate control or access to U.S. real estate.”
But some lawmakers are waiting to see how the merger plays out.
“While the extent of [Public Investment Fund] and Saudi Arabia’s influence is concerning, LIV has shown an ability to be at the forefront of creative ways to grow the game which could be monumental to the future success of the golf industry as a whole,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), co-chair of the Congressional Golf Caucus, said in a statement to POLITICO.
LIV Golf has paid at least $370,000 to Quayle’s firm, Hobart Hallaway & Quayle Ventures, according to Lobbying Disclosure Act filings. The firm, which also goes by HHQ Ventures, noted it would lobby on “education and issues related to the game of professional golf in the United States and abroad.”
More presidential campaigns share ties to LIV Golf
While Gitcho and Goodwin are no longer working for Ramaswamy’s campaign, other 2024 presidential contenders also have connections to LIV Golf, and its foreign agents.
Phil Cox, who worked as a top adviser to the super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign before recently stepping down, was a leader of GP3 Partners, the consulting conglomerate that contracted Gitcho Goodwin to work for LIV through its subsidiaries.
Another DeSantis-linked public relations firm dropped the PGA Tour as a client after its announcement of the merger with LIV Golf. Clout Public Affairs — a division of Axiom Strategies, which was founded by pro-DeSantis super PAC adviser Jeff Roe — cut ties with the PGA Tour but continues to represent 9/11 Justice, an organization advocating for the families of 9/11 victims, according to POLITICO. The families of 9/11 victims are currently requesting to meet with the leadership of the Saudi Arabian Private Investment Fund in the wake of the PGA Tour’s merger with LIV Golf, which is backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.
Trump also expressed support for LIV Golf, which has held several tournaments at his business’ clubs, though neither Trump nor his businesses have disclosed the amount of money made from the events. Trump also lauded LIV Golf’s merger with the PGA Tour as a “big, beautiful, and glamorous deal.”
The former president has a history of business dealings with the Saudis. In the four months after Trump won the 2016 election, Saudi Arabia’s government reportedly spent more at Trump International Hotel than the entire Trump Organization donated to the U.S. Treasury to cover all foreign profits during any year of his presidency.
Saudi foreign agents and lobbyists came under fire for spending more than $270,000 to put up a group of veterans at Trump International Hotel in December 2016. The vets were lobbying for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act — legislation that enabled 9/11 victims and families to file lawsuits against the Saudi government. But the veterans claimed they did not know their trip had been organized and financed by the government of Saudi Arabia.
A report to Trump Hotel Chicago investors obtained by the Washington Post showed a 169% increase in Saudi Arabia-based patrons during the first two years of his presidency. The Saudi Crown Prince’s “last minute” visit to Trump International Hotel in Manhattan also drove the hotel’s room revenue up 13% in the first three months of 2018 following a two-year decline. By the end of 2018, the Washington Post reported that the Saudi government had paid for more than 500 nights in Trump hotel rooms.
“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump said at a 2016 campaign rally. “Am I supposed to dislike them?”
The league also has other ties to Trump’s orbit. Saudi Arabia’s Private Investment Fund, which funds LIV Golf, invested $2 billion in a firm that the former president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, controls. The fund was also a “presenting partner” for a women’s golf series at a Trump club in 2022.
Biden denounced Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” during the 2020 election for the country’s role in Khashoggi’s killing. But after Saudi Arabia ramped up lobbying and influence spending targeting the U.S. during the first year of Biden’s administration, the president warmed to the kingdom to the point of fist-bumping Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence agencies found approved the operation to kill Khashoggi.