Wednesday, February 6, 2008

PGA Tour Players Union - What's the Point?

Bob Verdi had his game story for the FBR Open contain a very tasty (I originally typed testy, which may also apply) tidbit:

Concluded Tim Herron, "We need an association." He added, however, that the means toward that end requires a certain consensus among independent contractors with differing agendas. Meanwhile, at least one tour player has contacted a legal eagle about representing a group of the disenchanted. Ten years ago, there was an effort to organize a Tour Players Association, but it enjoyed a very short shelf life. Whatever happens, David Toms, one of four player directors on the PGA Tour Policy Board, supposes the next meeting will be "lively."
The discussion of a players union has increased dramatically in recent months. The mention of the word union seems to go hand in hand with recent rules that player representatives on the PGA Tour Policy Board had a hand in approving - or at least not stopping: the new cut rule and the drug testing set to begin on July 1.

I suppose the players that do not read the memos, participate in the policy process that is most favorable to the players in all of pro sports, or just like to complain, want to be able to organize and do the exact same things. Still, what would the benefits be of organizing a player union?

The benefits of unionizing - in concept - are that the voices of over 200 card holders (Tour card holders, not AmEx cardmembers) would be much more powerful if they are compelled to act together by union. As it is today, it can be very difficult to unify positions among Tour players because there is no compelling reason for them to care about what is happening or to agree with their fellow independent contractors.

Perhaps that unionized concept would have been able to prevent the PGA Tour Policy Board from implementing its testing policy that seems so egregious to the players or the new cut rule that upsets a lot of B and C list players. Regardless of your opinion on drug testing (it's about time), a hypothetical PGA Tour union would go a long way in guaranteeing representation for players if they were to provide a positive test for a banned substance from the WADA list. (For what it's worth, I think the WADA list is insane.)

What else would players try to fight for in this new, hypothetical union? I think the best place to turn is to the past. This idea has been pitched before and it had some modest early success before fading from view. In 1998, Tour player Danny Edwards for the Tour Players Association. His motivation for creating the TPA was that he felt the 4 player representation on the 9 player Policy Board led to intimidation and quelling the voices of all Tour players.

He championed several issues. Edwards sought to meet player requests to be paid regardless of making the cut - guaranteed money. He sought player bonuses that match the salaries of the PGA Tour executive staff in Ponte Vedra Beach. (If he thought they were bloated then, I hope he didn't read the Annual Report this year!) That came on the premise that he felt the Tour returned less than 15% of total revenues to the players. In the linked piece, Finchem then claimed that number was closer to 60% - mirroring other major professional leagues of the day.

Money matters still prevail ten years later. From increasing numbers of limited field events to the lack of viable alternatives to those limited field events, players are unhappy with how the Tour is rewarding the upper echelon with free money.

A PGA Tour union would likely seek collective bargaining on the issues of cuts, drug testing, payment to players weekly and to their pensions, and other issues that come up from time to time. The PGA Tour executives, though, would likely make demands of the player union. They would probably bump up the number of required events, put into place required appearances at certain events, and ask for more from the players in terms of personal appearances, media time, etc. While there may be benefits to unionizing, they very well could be offset by necessary concessions to the Tour brass.

The beauty of life for the PGA Tour players today is that they are all considered independent contractors and have no specific contractual obligations to the Tour outside of the rules of membership - things like playing a minimum of 15 events, playing outside of the PGA Tour sanctioned schedule 3 times in a season, etc. That means that players are not compelled to appear at an event they don't like. It means that they have the freedom to pursue joint membership in the PGA Tour and another tour of their choice. They are not really required to make personal appearances on the Tour's behalf except when they want. And, most important, the independent contractors can trash the Tour executives in Ponte Vedra Beach without the threat of a fine or suspension.

Another dose of truth is that it is extremely unlikely that all PGA Tour card holders would actually come into the union. There is really no compelling reason to do so. Purses are high, requirements are fairly low, and the players that seem most openly calling for it are those that annually fall outside of the top 30 on the money list.

When asked for comment about the new PGA Tour cut rule at the Buick Invitational, Tiger Woods seemed completely unsympathetic to the cause and told the whiners to simply "play better." Phil Mickelson refused comment on the issues at the FBR Open and said that he did not have enough information on the subject. Basically, neither of these guys really care about either drug test or the new cut rule. In fact, it was Woods who was quoted as saying back in the past that he would accept drug testing if it started the very next day.

Summoning a Tour union would only have a limited positive impact. The concessions that would have to be made by players might violate the sanctity of what they have today. The likelihood that the top ranked players would prefer to remain independent contractors with the Tour - and be able to collect huge appearance fees abroad without problem - is high.

In the end, this may be a whole lot more service than deserves being given to whiners that are not engaged enough in the Tour. It may not be, though. As the Tour is shaping policy for the future, the players may ultimately decide that they would rather give up some things to maintain some other key components of their way of life. A pretty good life, I might add.

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