LIV Golf players' antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour could come down to 'predatory behavior,' legal analyst says
- 11 LIV Golfers are bringing an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour.
- Legal analysts say that the LIV side must prove the PGA Tour had control over a market, and took part in anticompetitive practices to stay in control of that market.
Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, and nine other members of LIV Golf have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour.
The suit comes after the PGA Tour has suspended those players who have left to join LIV Golf, and kicks off a legal fight that could last years.
In the lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California Wednesday, the LIV golfers allege that the PGA Tour took part in anti-competitive practices while attempting to thwart LIV's progress.
"The Tour set out to destroy competition in its infancy by doing everything in its power to lock up its members (including Plaintiffs) and deny them the opportunity for true sustained competition for their services," the lawsuit alleges.
Legal analysts explained to Insider that the case would come down to determining two factors: if the PGA Tour holds control over a relevant market, and if they used anti-competitive practices to maintain control of that market.
"When you have a rule-making body such as the PGA that imposes sanctions on people going to a different competitive group, that always should raise the concerns of antitrust," Martin Edel, chair of Goulston & Storrs' College Sports Law Practice, told Insider. "Whether it passes antitrust muster is another question entirely."
"Is professional golf a relevant product market? I think there's some question about that," Edel said, noting that the PGA could argue that it has competition not just in the world of golf, but from across the sporting and entertainment worlds.
Should the LIV golfers be able to prove that the PGA Tour held control of a product market, the antitrust questions become relevant, at which point the Tour may have a tougher time making their case.
In the lawsuit, LIV argues that the PGA Tour is willfully giving up the opportunity to provide fans with the best product by restricting LIV players from entering its tournaments, with the purpose of hurting its new competition.
"Banning Plaintiffs and other top professional golfers from its own events degrades the Tour's strength of field and diminishes the quality of the product that it offers to golf fans by depriving them from seeing many top golfers participate in Tour events," the lawsuit reads. "The only conceivable benefit to the Tour from degrading its own product in this manner is the destruction of competition. Indeed, the Tour has conceded its nakedly anticompetitive purpose in attacking and injuring the players."
According to Penn State law professor Stephen Ross, that could present a problem for the PGA Tour.
"Predatory behavior is, in terms of antitrust cases, is sacrificing short-term profits for long-term monopoly gain," explained Ross, the executive director of the Penn State Center for the Study of Sports in Society. "The Sherman Act says you cannot degrade your product in the short run for long-term monopolistic gain.
"If the PGA Tour says, we're going to sponsor an event, but we're not going to let 10 of the best golfers participate even though it would result in more people watching and greater interest in the event if the LIV golfers would participate, why would the PGA Tour do that?"
Further complicating matters is the fact that golfers on the PGA Tour are independent contractors, rather than outright employees.
"To me, the PGA Tour is on iffier grounds if you don't buy the narrative that the PGA is like a league and it's perfectly reasonably to expect the golfers to work exclusively for them," Ross said. "[But that's harder to argue] when golfers aren't actual employees of the PGA Tour."
While the antitrust aspect of the lawsuit could take years to suss out, three players — Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford, and Matt Jones — have also called for a "temporary restraining order" which would allow them to play in the upcoming FedExCup Playoffs. All three players had previously qualified to take part in the playoffs, which offer the biggest potential winnings of any event on the PGA Tour calendar, but were removed from contention after their suspensions due to their move to join LIV.
In the suit, the players argue that Gooch, Swafford, and Jones could suffer "substantial and irreparable" harm if forced to miss the playoffs, as it could lead to missed opportunities to play in majors in the future.
"I think it's a tough road to hoe for one of these players to claim that there's a likelihood that they will be irreparably harmed because of this one factor at this point," Edel said.
In a statement, the PGA Tour expressed confident in its case.
"We have been preparing to protect our membership and contest this latest attempt to disrupt our Tour, and you should be confident in the legal merits of our position," the statement read. "Fundamentally, these suspended players — who are now Saudi Golf League employees — have walked away from the Tour and now want back in. With the Saudi Golf League on hiatus, they're trying to use lawyers to force their way into competition alongside our members in good standing."
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