Breakaway Leagues: Legal Challenges suspending LIV-Golf Players

Breakaway Leagues remain at the center of attention. While the dust around the European Superleague has not settled yet, a new high-profile breakaway league is now the talk of the town. This time in golf. A Saudi-backed initiative, named LIV golf, contracted some of the leading players in the world to compete in a new golf format. These players, not unlikely attracted by the huge sums of money offered, decided to play various invitational events. The established sport’s governing bodies (SGB’s) responded furiously. The PGA Tour and European Tour (now DP World Tour) suspended the LIV-golfers and imposed serious fines. These actions already led to various legal proceedings. And with different outcomes, PGA Tour players remained suspended, where the suspension of several European Tour players is stayed, allowing them to play.

The defections to LIV-golf and following suspensions led to great turmoil among the PGA players. So much, that even golfing legend Tiger Woods flew in to discuss these issues with the players before the BMW Championship in Wilmington. The question is however, if suspensions are allowed in these types of cases. In this blog I will dive a little deeper into the legal challenges faced by SGB’s when confronted with breakaway leagues.

Breakaway leagues

Sports are predominantly governed by only one governing body in each sport. Of course, with exceptions, especially when it comes to combat sports like boxing. In particular in Olympic Sports, certain SGB’s are given the authority to organize the sport, most of the time giving them a monopoly on the organization of the sports. Often this goes hand in hand with the economic exploitation of the sport and organization of events.

Prior Breakaway Leagues

Breakaway leagues are new competitions, organized outside the traditional structure of the sport and without the authorization of the SGB. The main goal behind these leagues seems to be to enhance the sport, to make it more attractive for spectators and increasing the economic value (and thus the revenues) of the competitions.

Breakaway leagues are also not new. Already in the sixties several female tennis professionals, including the legendary Billie Jean King, parted from a USA tennis circuit, resulting in bans from this circuit. In various other sports new competitions are organized. Some more successfully than others. A few examples:


  • Football (soccer): The announcement of the breakaway of 12 leading European Club teams to a so-called European Superleague left the football world in turmoil. Nine of these clubs eventually backed down after inter alia protests by supporters. This case is currently pending before the European Court of Justice as a Spanish court has requested a preliminary ruling on antitrust law after the UEFA threatened with suspensions for the participants.
  • Swimming: Starting in 2017 the International Swimming League – a team-based format with large prize pool – caused a dispute with the swimming SGB FINA. Eventually the FINA decided not to ban athletes participating in the International Swimming League.
  • Cycling: A group of professional cycling teams (acting under the name Velon) started races under the name Hammers Series. This caused a dispute with the cycling SGB UCI who refused to authorize several of the races and forbid to use the word “series”. This case has now been brought before the European Commission by Velon.
  • Darts: in the nineties, 16 leading players broke away from the darts British Darts Organisation and started (what is now named) the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC). At this moment the PDC is the leading organization and the BDO ended up bankrupt in 2020.



To protect their competitions (and economic interests) SGB’s often try to break down a breakaway league as soon as it emerges. The first response by the SGB’s is then to suspend the participants of breakaway leagues. Considering that most of SGB’s are monopolists (or monopsonists), this is a clear method to deny competing leagues (and businesses) of high-level participants. Often resulting in an unattractive and therefore (economically) unsustainable league. Thus, a perfect way to kill the competition. As PGA tour commissioner Monahan allegedly wrote in a memorandum:

The impact that [the new league] could have on the PGA TOUR is dependent on the level of support it may receive from these players. Without this support, [the new league’s] ability to attract media and corporate partners will be significantly marginalized and its impact on the TOUR diminished

J. Monahan, according Complaint in Case Mickelson & Co vs. PGA Tour (Case No. 3:22-cv-04486)

Antitrust law

Normally parties should be free to whom they include and exclude from their organization, of course considering that one may not be discriminating. This may however be different when the business or with sports, the SGB, is the sole party organizing events in a certain market. E.g. for the PGA Tour the market for hiring elite-golf players in North-America. The PGA is the sole party buying the services of elite-golfers and excluding them may lead to so-called antitrust infringements.

Antitrust law comprises of various rules that are designed to assure that businesses are competing fairly and these should prevent markets from anti-competitive behavior. In the United States these rules are adopted on a federal level. In Europe these rules are mainly enforced on EU-level.


Within the EU there are already several examples of cases where the European (judicial) authorities dealt with antitrust infringements by SGB’s. The most recent case law shows that the main challenge SGB’s are facing are:

  1. pre-authorization for third-party events and for participation in unauthorized events;
  2. sanctions for participation in unauthorized event.

Lately such became very clear in an EU-case (T-93/18) engaged by several speedskaters against the International Skating Union (ISU). In that case the rules of the ISU lead to discrimination of third-party events and the possibility of serious suspensions for participation in unauthorized events. The European Commission ruled this as a breach of European Antitrust Law. This decision was (largely) upheld by European General Court in 2021.

In general the court ruled that there may be legitimate objectives to having very strict eligibility rules (para 101), such as the protection of the sports integrity. Protection of economic interests may also be a legitimate interest, considering that these are an inherent feature of any undertaking when it carries out an economic activity. So far, what may be legitimate. What is not legitimate however are rules (as the ISU’s) that (para 110):

  1. go beyond what is necessary to pursue the stated objective also in light of the severity of the sanctions (para 91);
  2. Are discriminatory;
  3. Are non-exhaustive and can be applied at the SGB’s own discretion.

The LIV-Golf case

Although the LIV-Golf case against the PGA Tour takes place in the United States and not in Europe, the main challenges that play a role in that case are comparable to the ISU-case. It is also not unforeseeable that also the European Commission or the ECJ may take a look at this case, as the European Tour stands together with the PGA Tour by suspending LIV-Golf players. It would not be unlikely that the European Commission rules that actions of the European Tour (or perhaps maybe even the PGA) infringe antitrust law. However, such European Procedures tend to take a lot of time.

As for the US antitrust case, the US District Court (Northern District of California, San Jose Division), denied a request from several elite golfers to stay their suspension pending an appeal procedure under the PGA Regulations. Therefore, these golfers could not participate in the FedExCup Playoffs. Notably, this judgment is particularly based on the failure of the golfers to provide proof of irreparable harm. The underlying case of inter alia Phil Mickelson, relating to antitrust infringements is not dealt with yet. The court did however acknowledge that the antitrust issues raised are “facially appealing”.

On the European Tour the opposite happened. Three golfers, star golfer Ian Poulter being one of them, won a stay of their suspensions and are free to participate in European Tour events in the foreseeable future.

Ever since the incorporation of the breakaway league by LIV Golf, we see a lot of tumoil in the world of golf. It will be interesting to see how this pans out. I will keep following these cases for you on this blog.

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