It’s probably unfair to compare Ivan Khodabakhsh, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ladies European Tour, to Michael Whan, Commissioner of the LPGA Tour, but that is probably the best yardstick.
The 48-year-old Khodabakhsh, a mechanical engineer by training who switched to sports marketing very early in his career, is chartering a completely different boat to Whan.
While the LPGA is experiencing exponential growth in the last couple of years, the numbers have been sluggish for the LET.
But then, the LPGA has a couple of massive advantages over LET. To begin with, they attract the best talent, and that makes a huge difference to all the related numbers – whether it is the sponsorship dollar or the TV ratings.
And while the LPGA Tour operates in an established golf market like the USA and are also reaping the rewards of moving overseas and benefiting from the booming economy of Asia, LET is taking a hit because of the economic and political situation in Europe.
After being down to 23 events and $40.5 million purse in 2011, the year Whan took over as commissioner, the LPGA Tour has now announced a schedule of 34 events with $63.1m total purse.
On the other hand, there were 22 events on the LET schedule in 2013, the year Khodabakhsh took charge, but the number is down to 20 in the 2016 calendar.
However, Khodabakhsh is confident of not only adding a few more events to the schedule, but also about LET being on the right track of growth. Speaking to Sport360, he said he would rather have high-quality events like the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters than quantity.
“This tournament has always set standards. The way the tournament has been promoting itself this year has been fantastic. We can see the impact in the print media worldwide and in the interest of our broadcasters,” said Khodabakhsh.
“If you compare, in the past, Dubai used to be the biggest tournament at half a million Euros. This year, we already had seven tournaments at half a million Euros.
“For me, that is more quality than quantity. Yes, we could put a number of other tournaments at maybe €200,000 with non-live TV, small events. It’s good for the girls but that doesn’t grow the game. As you see, we now have a great number of tournaments which have prize money that shows the status of the Tour.
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“Secondly, these tournaments invest in live television. We need to showcase women’s golf to the world. So, we went from having only Dubai as a live TV event in the past, to I believe 11 or 12 tournaments with live TV this year and 16 live tournaments in 2016. That’s what will make the difference, rather than just counting the number of tournaments.”
Khodabakhsh did not comment on the rumours of a new ladies professional tournament in Abu Dhabi, but said he expected at least three to four events to be added to the schedule soon.
“This is the schedule based on the 2015 tournaments. We have been working very, very hard to bring new regions to the tour. Unfortunately, we can’t necessarily announce them right now because we want also to give those new regions their own press conferences and they have got their own announcements to make,” he added.
“On a very safe estimate, I would say three to four new tournaments are coming on board.”
Unlike the LPGA, which is now very active in Asian countries as more and more top stars from Korea, Thailand, China and Japan take up membership in the US and become successful and popular, LET hasn’t really pushed hard into these territories, although seven of their tournaments are played in that continent.
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“Without doubt, we have challenges in Europe, and you can’t just play the professional game while you have an economic and other crisis,” said Khodabakhsh.
“I feel bad to go and press for more money or for tournaments where in the country there is a refugee crisis, and austerity measures are being pushed. “But we have not departed Europe. We have our Access Series where we develop young players, and the number of Access events are growing because we work closely with the national federations. We are actually growing the game there with other means, and hopefully, we will be looking for better times to bring bigger tournaments back to Europe. There are a few in the pipeline already.
“We very much respect other tours around the world, especially the national tours. We initiated the Queen’s event in Japan, which is four Tours (LET, Chinese, Japanese and Korean) coming together. But it’s not for us to go out there and tell the people. It is for the region to invite us.
“We work with all tours. We never play in a country if it’s not co-sanctioned with the national tour, and we have done it always on a 50/50 basis. We have never imposed ourselves saying we have the better players, so we need a bigger field size.”
Khodabakhsh is excited about 2016 and the impact that golf’s re-entry into the Olympics will have – especially on the LET. With healthy world ranking points on offer for LET members, the Tour is a perfect avenue for players from smaller countries to qualify for the quadrennial Games.
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“The Olympics is certainly a centre part of it, specifically because of the diversity of the nationalities on our Tour. At our last count, over 50 percent of the players projected to qualify for the Olympics, are LET members because we cover so many different countries,” he said.
“Maha (Haddioui) is a great example. She is the best Moroccan player, the same as the best Brazilian player, and so on… They are LET members. It’s not necessarily the matter of being the best in the world, but they are the best in their country and they will develop and inspire the girls in their country.”
The Tour chief refused to get downbeat on the problem of talent drain – some of his best players shifting to the LPGA Tour – and said it wasn’t hurting the Tour at all.
“I mean, the best battle is the kind between Nanna Madsen and Emily Pedersen for the Rookie of the Year this season. These are our best players…they are rookies, but not ranked 40th and 50th in the Order of Merit, they are in the top- 10.
Nicole Larsen, a rookie from last year, just look how well she is been playing this year,” added Khodabakhsh.
“We have many exciting young players. Charley (Hull) has been, of course, seen as a leading youngster, but we have fantastic young players coming from Scandinavian countries. We have fantastic winners from Asia in our tournaments.
“No, I think we are in a very, very good place. Just we need to do our job as good as we have been doing it and hopefully it will be better.”
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