PGA Tour-LIV Golf Deal Bolsters Saudi Arabia’s Global Ambitions

The shock news that the PGA Tour plans to join forces with LIV Golf, the upstart circuit that it has spent the past year feuding with, rattled the normally staid world of golf. But the ramifications extend far beyond putting greens and 9-irons.

Saudi Arabia, LIV’s backer, now stands to hold enormous sway over golf, as it invests billions to extend its presence throughout pro sports — and beyond. It’s an additional sign of how the kingdom is seeking to assert its role as a growing geopolitical and global business power.

Covert jet-setting talks led to the golf deal. Even as the PGA Tour waged a fierce public fight with LIV, the two sides held secret meetings on two continents about reaching what’s being called a “framework agreement.” The PGA Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, said yesterday that it wasn’t “right or sustainable to have this tension in our sport.”

High-profile advisers worked on both sides. For the PGA, they included Ed Herlihy of the elite law firm Wachtell and Jimmy Dunne of the investment bank Piper Sandler (both of whom are on the tour’s board), as well as the investment bank Allen & Company. Those on the Saudi side included the banker Michael Klein, a longtime adviser to the kingdom.

It’s only the latest sign of Saudi Arabia’s expanding power, as the country spends billions abroad in what it says is an effort to diversify its economy away from oil. (Skeptics say it is trying to cleanse its reputation and shore up higher oil prices.) Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince, this week in an effort to repair strained ties.

Meanwhile, deal makers say that Saudi Arabia has become a looming presence across the M.&A. and investment landscape. Private equity and venture capital firms have also flocked to the kingdom, hoping to tap its oil-rich coffers for new capital, particularly as raising money from China has become dicier (more on that below).

Sports is a sector where Saudi Arabia has bought new prominence. The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund — whose governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, will be the chairman of the combined PGA-LIV organization — bought Newcastle United soccer club in England’s Premier League, and has ties to Formula 1 racing, boxing and W.W.E. pro wrestling. Just yesterday, the Saudi soccer league recruited Karim Benzema, one of the world’s top players, in an effort to become a world-class competition.

The golf merger prompted deal makers to speculate over whether the Saudis could aim at even bigger targets, including a team in the N.B.A., which recently changed its ownership rules to allow for sovereign fund investment, or another American sports league.

The golf deal isn’t done yet, however. PGA officials have been meeting with players, many of whom rejected big payouts from LIV to stick with the competition. Antitrust investigators had already been scrutinizing the PGA Tour over whether it was undermining the golf labor market. (Its tactics against LIV are a factor in the case, but not central to it.)

It’s also unclear whether the deal will require sign-off from mergers regulators or CFIUS, an interagency panel that reviews transactions for national security concerns.

We have more questions about what comes next:

  • Will sponsors stick around? Brands have liked the PGA Tour’s general lack of political controversy, but the entrance of the Saudis could change that: “The PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation,” said Terry Strada of 9/11 Families United.

  • What will happen to golf TV rights? While the PGA locked up multibillion-dollar agreements with CBS and NBC, LIV only struck a deal with the CW Network after bigger potential partners reportedly said no.

  • Will U.S. regulators move to protect other American sports franchises, arguably some of the country’s most important soft-power assets, from Saudi investments?

New reports weigh in on the global economy’s health. The World Bank called it “precarious” and warned of sluggish growth, while the O.E.C.D. offered muted optimism and foresaw a “long road to recovery.”

China’s exports plunge. Worse-than-expected monthly trade data from Beijing today suggested that the country’s Covid-19-related recovery had stalled. The report, which initially sent crude oil and commodity prices lower, comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reportedly set to travel to China in an effort to lower tensions between the two trading powers.

A top deal maker heads back to the law. Rob Kindler, one of Wall Street’s top M.&A. bankers, will move to the law firm Paul Weiss from Morgan Stanley this fall. It’s a return to roots for Kindler, who began his career at Cravath before jumping to investment banking, and a chance to reunite with his protégé Scott Barshay.

Tucker Carlson’s new show makes its debut on Twitter. The former Fox News host posted a 10-minute video on the social network, which featured no guests but took aim at familiar targets, including the mainstream media and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. As of 8 a.m. Eastern, his post had nearly 59 million views.

Sequoia surprised the investment world yesterday when it announced that it would split itself into three: a U.S.- and Europe-focused business, another targeting China and one to invest in India and Southeast Asia.

The storied venture capital firm stressed that it was a logical step because its overseas business had become complicated to manage. But the move is also emblematic of a sector struggling to handle an increasingly difficult U.S.-China relationship.

Sequoia said the move came after years of discussion. “The scope of the investment activities in China and India have changed significantly since we first opened those businesses,” Roelof Botha, Sequoia’s managing partner, told DealBook, adding that it was causing “brand confusion” for founders. Still, the model had worked well for years and was widely seen as a model U.S.-China investing alliance.

Geopolitics has made things harder for investors. Washington has imposed tough restrictions on sensitive Chinese tech sectors forcing inventors to adjust. The head of Goldman Sachs’s private equity business in Asia has reportedly stopped seeking American investment. And big global funds — including APG, a Dutch asset manager, two big Canadian pension funds and G.I.C. of Singapore — have slowed investments in China.

Sequoia had done well in China. The business there was founded and managed by Neil Shen, one of the country’s most connected investors, as an arm of Sequoia Capital in 2005. Early winning bets included the e-commerce company JD.com and the food delivery platform Meituan. The China unit raised billions as recently as last year, including from investors in the United States.

TikTok may play a role in the move. Sequoia has a big stake in ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of the video app. Sequoia might be taking the view that the Chinese authorities would be more willing to green-light an eventual Hong Kong listing of ByteDance if a U.S. group isn’t on the books as one of its biggest investors, according to The Information’s Jessica Lessin. (Sequoia China will be rebranded as HongShan.)

Could other big investors follow suit? Venture capital and private equity firms with money in China include Blackstone, Carlyle, Bain Capital, Silver Lake, General Atlantic (another investor in ByteDance) and Warburg Pincus. A similarly designed split could work for other partner-based firms.

Scrutiny is expected to intensify. The White House is weighing more restrictions on investments into China, including in sectors such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.


The S.E.C. has unleashed an intense legal crackdown on crypto’s biggest players, accusing the publicly listed exchange Coinbase and Binance, the world’s largest crypto trading exchange, of breaking securities laws. The clash seemed inevitable for months, and Coinbase is vowing to fight the agency in court for the good of the industry.

The S.E.C. said yesterday that Coinbase failed to register as a broker. On Monday, it accused Binance of mishandling customer funds and lying to regulators about its operations. Adding to Coinbase’s legal trouble, securities regulators in 10 states, including California and New Jersey, filed their own actions to prevent the exchange from selling unregistered securities to investors in their states.

The stakes are huge. The two exchanges account for half of the global trading in digital assets; the United States made up more than 80 percent of Coinbase’s revenue last year. Investors are getting jittery: Coinbase’s stock has fallen 18 percent over the past two days, and some of the tokens the S.E.C. targeted in the lawsuits — Cardano, Polygon and Solana — initially fell in value. Bitcoin, however, rallied.

“We’ve been expecting this for a long time,” Paul Grewal, Coinbase’s chief legal officer, told DealBook. Still, the accusations came as something of a surprise; he received the news yesterday morning ahead of his congressional testimony, in which he called for regulatory clarity.

Coinbase has taken a lead in lobbying for new legislation to cover the trillion-dollar market in digital asset trading. Last year, the company petitioned the S.E.C. for new rules, and sued the agency in April to speed up the matter. Yesterday, a federal court gave the agency seven days to respond to the petition for drafting new crypto rules.

The S.E.C. argues that existing securities rules cover crypto, too, adding that Coinbase has been flouting them. Coinbase sees the courts as its best venue to resolve the matter. “As of today, it’s no longer just what the S.E.C. says that goes,” Grewal added.

After yesterday’s suit, conservative lawmakers again accused the agency of being heavy handed in its dealing with crypto firms. But, with a divided Congress, few are pinning their hopes on a legislative breakthrough.

The twin enforcement actions are no coincidence, experts say. “It would make no sense to go after Coinbase while continuing to allow Binance to operate unscathed,” said Brett Redfearn, a former S.E.C. division director and briefly a Coinbase executive in 2021.

Deals

  • Sam Altman, the C.E.O. of OpenAI, said the company behind ChatGPT planned to stay private so it could make decisions that stock-market investors might “view very strangely.” (Bloomberg)

  • Delaware’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that Tesla paid a fair price for SolarCity, despite Elon Musk controlling both companies. (Reuters)

Policy

  • Hard-line Republicans hijacked the House floor yesterday, in retribution for Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s work in crafting the debt ceiling deal. (NYT)

  • Merck sued the government over a federal law that allows Medicare to negotiate prices directly with drugmakers. (NYT)

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