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Senate hearing will scrutinize PGA Tour's deal with LIV golf

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

U.S. senators plan to hold a hearing today on the proposed merger between golf's PGA Tour and its biggest competitor, Saudi-owned LIV Golf. Many golf fans were stunned last month when the deal was announced between the two rival organizations. And U.S. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is the ranking Republican on the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He joins us now.

Senator, first, you said that Congress should not get involved in this deal, but now Congress is. So what will your role be in this inquiry?

RON JOHNSON: I'll try and play a constructive one. I think this hearing could give the PGA a really good opportunity to, first of all, lay out just the challenge it faces trying to manage professional golf. It's not easy thing to do. You know, how do you keep all the players satisfied, properly compensated, showing up at your tournaments so you have the revenues to keep your league growing and providing the type of golf that fans expect to see? Then on top of that, the creation of the LIV, which really represented an existential threat to the PGA - the PGA's net worth in 2021 was $1.25 billion. The Saudi Public Investment Fund is worth somewhere between six and seven hundred billion dollars, about 500 times the size of the PGA. And they're just not - you know, they're not competing with general market forces. If they want to get involved in sports around the world, they're going to get involved. And you have to deal with that reality.

MARTÍNEZ: If Saudi Arabia was not involved in this merger, would Congress still care?

JOHNSON: Probably not, although Congress probably has a role just in terms of sorting out the confusion of antitrust laws as they relate to sports teams. It really is a very muddled, very confused, unsettled area of law that, at some point in time, Congress could take a look at. But generally, I'm not a real fan of some of the solutions Congress comes up with, but it's a legitimate area of concern.

MARTÍNEZ: So even with Saudi Arabia's human rights record, that wouldn't be that big of an issue if they weren't involved in this.

JOHNSON: I'm not exactly sure I understand the question. You know, I would point out that it'd be grossly unfair to expect the PGA Tour to bear the full burden of holding Saudi Arabia accountable, for example, for the assassination of Khashoggi. I'd also point out that anybody who drives a car or, you know, use oil-based products - I mean, we're involved in filling up the Saudis' coffers. So there's complicity there. And, you know, I would also argue if Saudi Arabia - if investing in global sports, including golf, if that helps them modernize and offer more rights to women, I mean, isn't that a good thing as opposed to a bad thing? So, listen, it's a complex world. You have to deal with the realities that you face. I'd rather have the Saudis invest their oil wealth in America as opposed to adversaries like Russia or China.

MARTÍNEZ: Can your committee nixed (ph) the proposed merger? Can it get in the way of it?

JOHNSON: Well, that's one of my concerns. That's why I would not be holding this hearing. You know, we don't have - there's no deal there yet. And, you know, negotiations generally are conducted in private for a good reason. You know, their ID is thrown out, rejected. And, you know, I would prefer that Congress wasn't making public very delicate negotiations. This is not a done deal yet.

MARTÍNEZ: What are you hoping to hear from the people that are going to be testifying today, people from the PGA Tour?

JOHNSON: Again, just really lay out, here are the challenges we face just running golf. Here's the added challenge with the PIF. This is why we were forced to try and come to some accommodation for the good of the game of golf.

MARTÍNEZ: Isn't the good of the game of golf to have all its competitors all in one league? That's the way other sports work.

JOHNSON: If you want the absolute best competition, that's true. And that's the - really, the threat that the LIV posed to PGA. It looks like they may have the possibility of combining these leagues. And as a golf fan, I would think that'd be a good thing.

MARTÍNEZ: U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, ranking Republican on the Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigation. Senator, thanks.

JOHNSON: Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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