Weirdly, it could have been a good news cycle for the kingdom: The US Secretary of State was literally in Riyadh to chat with a government Washington once vowed to avoid. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had just earned plaudits for bringing Ukraine’s heroic president to an OPEC meeting. In a country that hadn’t received much media love, it was a rare bounce.
And then they had to go buy PGA.
Amidst a torrent of headlines, the dynamics of the world’s worst sportswash campaign asserted themselves again: LIV may have pulled off an upset victory, but the news was filled with things the kingdom would rather not discuss. And now the long-dominant American golf organization was also being belittled.
This begs the question: Is this the dumbest PR campaign in the history of the Beltway flu industry?
LIV, of course, has always denied that his goal had anything to do with Saudi Arabia’s international reputation: it was always a business opportunity, not « sportswashing, » an effort to soften the reputation of a country through association with an enjoyable and apolitical pastime. Either way, as the two sides spent heavily on DC media professionals and legal stars, the conversation inevitably turned from golf to refrains about terrorism, national sovereignty, and foreign meddling.
Which has been consistently bad news for the Saudis, whatever their agenda.
The immediate consequences of the merger, in fact, have worsened the spotlight. In addition to references to 9/11 and the murder of a journalist, this week’s stories also include a new theme: betrayal. An infinitely wealthy foreign entity has caused an American institution to abruptly reverse itself, disappointing golfers who had nobly rejected Saudi money while lying to the commissioner who begged them to stick with PGA in the name of all that is decent It is true.
It is short-term thinking to assume that this will always be the case – that, now that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has acquired a huge stake in PGA, All Will golf stories, not just LIV stories, contain references to the more troubling parts of the Saudi reputation? Probably. Memories are short, and who knows, maybe the ruling Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will turn into one of those American robber barons who buys the local soccer team, wins a Super Bowl, and turns into a man of the people.
But first, it’s worth noting that the golf mishap was also a huge Washington story, showing both the promise and the pitfalls of using a real-life trade battle to promote non-financial things like rights human rights, transparency and national policy. pride.
Ever since LIV’s launch, the PGA face-off has felt a bit like an economic stimulus program for Washington’s power influencers. Engaged muscle on behalf of LIV has included PR giant Edelman, the former lobbying firm of GOP Representative Benjamin Quayle, Ari Fleischer, Bush-era White House spokesman and McKenna & Associates, the consulting firm that previously worked with the National Rifle Association. A New York Times December report he said McKinsey & Co., which had been working on the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Saudi economy, also did a lengthy study of the golf pattern. Second in 2021 START filingconsultancy Teneo also contracted that year with the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund for early work on Project Wedge.
Last week, communications firm Gitcho Goodwin registered as a foreign agent for their work representing the LIV, something that contradicts the league’s claim that they were not part of an overseas government. The company’s relationship with the league ended shortly thereafter.
The PGA also spent big. It increased its lobbying expenses by 50%, through the DLA Piper firm. It also involved Jeff Miller, the Republican power broker and close associate of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The ironic upshot: For Saudi Arabia’s critics, the golf war of the past 18 months has been like a surfer catching the perfect wave. Suddenly, there was an entire industry promoting the kind of stories they’d long struggled to highlight.
The manual work of the various professionals and activists involved was impressive. When LIV players made their rounds on Capitol Hill, they were followed by 9/11 families. A congressman has called for a federal investigation into whether the new league violates the Foreign Agent Registration Act. As the legal battle became more convoluted, the PGA side got into the habit of referring to Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime and human rights record in their documents.
In normal times, in the absence of a horrific story like the cold-blooded murder of a Washington Post working in a foreign consulate, it is difficult for a human rights activist to plant stories about repression in a distant country in the US media. But when those stories further the business interests of a multibillion-dollar sports behemoth, allies seem to step out of the carpentry, directing reporters and congressmen and other troublemakers to just the right source or delightfully journalistic legal depository.
Anyone who has covered the capital knows that stories about vile FARA violations or appalling foreign governments often come not from the brave human rights chap or good governance activist quoted in the article, but via the much more generously comms person rewarded who made the connection or suggested someone look for the potentially incriminating legal notice.
Funding for that essential, off-camera work typically materializes when someone is about to make money on the news.
Until those lenders’ calculations change and the behind-the-scenes players vanish.
This week, the perfect wave has turned into a storm, and Saudi Arabia’s critics have seen the flip side of what happens when you advance a noble cause like human rights through a real-world trade battle involving motive of profit. Instead of drawing attention to the kingdom’s shortcomings, the merged company that will succeed PGA will be chaired by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund’s chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan. You can bet he won’t pay for PR folks and lobbyists to smear Saudi Arabia in the media and Congress.
It turns out that much of that PR effort may have just been to help the PGA get a better deal.
« So weird, » Senator from Connecticut Chris Murphy tweeted. “PGA officials were in my office just a few months ago talking about how the Saudis’ human rights record should bar them from having a stake in a major American sport. I guess maybe their concerns weren’t really about human rights?
This was also the question on the mind of Brett Eagleson, who runs 9/11 Families United, which represents survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as family members of those who perished. One year ago this week, when PGA and LIV were battling it out, Eagleson hit the established golf tour.
“I wrote the initial outreach email and said we have a lot to talk about,” he told me this week. “We have some experience with your enemy. We have some information to share with you. Eagleson said his email led to a phone call and a meeting. « They listened with an understanding ear, » he said. « But I think everyone in the room knew what was good for us was good for them. »
Among other things, he said, he sought out Clout, the Washington public relations firm that represented the PGA, and also hired them to represent 9/11 Families United. “We knowingly injected ourselves into PGA and LIV,” she said.
For a year, an organization struggling to keep the legacy of a 2001 event alive suddenly had a group of allies who focused on the news that was happening, right now. The LIV-PGA battle allowed Eagleson to get his group’s story out to people who might not otherwise have listened.
Now the largest of those allies has gone ashore, having merged with the same people they had criticized along with Eagleson.
In good Washington fashion, it’s not just the PGA side that has been sweeping away its Beltway agents’ talking points. One of LIV’s noteworthy arguments was the David and Goliath claim that the established golf tour was a monopoly seeking to undo the new alternative. But the merger means the creation of a larger behemoth than existed before. So much for antitrust.
« Was it all, for lack of a better term, BS? » Eagleson asked this week. “I don’t think he really gave a damn about Khashoggi or the carpet bombing of Yemen or women or 9/11. As soon as they were offered a deal, they folded like a deck chair. A bit of news that pleased him: Clout has announced that they are dropping the PGA and keeping 9/11 United – a somewhat surprising move given the depth of the two sides’ respective pockets. But he is under no illusions that many of the PGA-aligned people who have so vehemently criticized the Saudis will continue to do so.
Whoever her allies are, they’ll have their work cut out for them. The end of the LIV-PGA battle is like turning off a music box that everyone has been dancing to. Without a big money battle to wage in the court of public opinion, there’s less reason to push or chase stories about LIV’s ownership situation, which in theory could mean less attention to things the Saudi government would rather not talk about.
That’s why Eagleson hopes Congress will investigate the merger and provide new opportunities for crap. Within a day, there was legislation for remove the PGA’s tax-exempt status. An effort to somehow stall the merger could keep the story in the news for even longer. Golf enthusiasts would be paralyzed by the hearings, and as a fringe benefit, Eagleson’s group would have a new opportunity to tell their story.
It’ll just be a lot harder when no one on his side profits from messing up the sports wash.