Former PGA Tour golfers’ antitrust fight to play in upstart league LIV Golf without losing their PGA membership evokes similar battles undergone by rodeo cowboys and elite bowlers that intimate the legal path ahead.
A lawsuit brought by golf star Phil Mickelson and other pros in the US District Court for the Northern District of California challenges PGA Tour policies that led to their expulsion for playing for Saudi Arabia-backed rival LIV Golf. The PGA Tour allegedly maintains a monopoly over elite golfers by limiting their ability to play for other tours, according to the complaint.
The golfers’ suit bears a similarity to earlier lawsuits brought by players of niche sports, most notably elite rodeo cowboys and competitive bowlers. The parallels offer a useful window into understanding the golfers’ suit and how it may fare after they lost a request for a temporary restraining order Aug. 9.
“Fundamentally, you have an individual sport, and the incumbent organization doesn’t like the presence of a new organization,” said Doug Ross, an antitrust professor at University of Washington School of Law. “And it passes rules making it hard or impossible for members to participate in events for the new organization.”
The similarities among the sport antitrust cases go beyond causes of action and general context. In the cowboys’ case, The Elite Rodeo Association et al v. Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Inc., a judge also denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented the dominant rodeo league from expelling some riders who joined an emerging competitor.
The judge in the cowboys case said riders failed to show irreparable harm beyond monetary impacts. The judge who rebuffed LIV golfers’ request to play in a major PGA Tour event also cited the same reason.
The cowboys voluntarily dropped their case after the judge denied their motion for a preliminary injunction and, despite denying the defense’s motion to dismiss, said she doubted the cowboys would succeed on the merits.
Ross questioned the plaintiffs’ wisdom in both cases in moving so quickly for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction.
“I wonder if it was a tactical mistake, moving for quick relief like that,” Ross said. “Forcing the PGA to alter its rules to let players play would be a big step for a judge to take. On the other hand, the opinion illustrates—like the rodeo case—the various ways an association can defend itself.”
Mainstream sports tend to have a single dominant league, making such boycott and monopoly claims rare. But the landscape of smaller sports, such as bowling, is often in greater flux.
A renegade bowling league sued in 1986, alleging the established Professional Bowlers Association disrupted its efforts with a new rule to expel the bowlers who jumped ship, Ross said. He represented the PBA at the time.
The antitrust lawsuit was later settled, Ross said.
LIV Golf’s fast start so far may actually prove to be an obstacle in court.
The tour, with its Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund backing, has lured a handful of big names from the PGA along with over a dozen lesser-known golfers.
LIV has so far offered more prize money than the PGA Tour.
To succeed on its monopoly claims, the golfers must demonstrate that the PGA Tour operates or attempts to operate as a monopoly in the market for elite golfers. But LIV’s ability to attract big names could undermine the argument that PGA tour completely controls the market.
“The problem that the golfers and rodeo cowboys had is that they were able to compete without the auspices of established enterprise, and they created a situation where they could earn enough money so that they could not only make a living but be very well compensated in it,” said Helen Drew, a sports law professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law. “This is an emergency of their own making.”
“Economic success is not a good omen for an antitrust case,” Drew said.
The golfers would have to argue that they “took the plunge” in participating in LIV tournaments, with the expectation that PGA would change its rules to let them play.
Without PGA’s rule change, golfers would have to argue that they and LIV are “in deep trouble unless the court intervenes,” Ross said.
In effect, the players must argue they jumped to LIV despite the fact that the PGA Tour allegedly monopolizes the market and that LIV is doomed in the long-run, Ross said.
The situation is similar to the United States Football League’s antitust lawsuit in the 1980s against the National Football League.
The USFL alleged that the NFL violated antitrust laws through its control of television broadcasting rights. The move was widely seen as an attempt by USFL team owners like Donald Trump to force a merger between the two leagues after the USFL began hemorrhaging money.
“Basically, the USFL was formed in an attempt to win an antitrust case,” Drew said.
But the jury handed down an award of only one dollar after finding the NFL had violated antitrust laws, effectively placing the blame for the USFL’s financial issues on its own mismanagement.
“That sort of a result here would probably be fine with the plaintiffs,” Ross said. “They’d be awarded nominal damages but could get the injunctive relief they want.”