Ivan Khodabakhsh: "I didn’t realise the disparity was so huge with the men’s game"

Golf News

Tom Irwin sits down with the chief executive of the Ladies’ European Tour

As a former CEO of the World Boxing Series, the LET’s CEO Ivan Khodabakhsh should know how to the roll with the punches. He has a ready smile and, three years into his role, that smile could be excused for becoming increasingly thin, with prize funds static for almost a decade and events on the wane, those sponsors are clearly hard to excite.

Yet this is set against a thriving LPGA, an enthralling biennial Solheim Cup, and a tour that is capable of producing a role model like Charley Hull. Seemingly there is both precedent and potential for commercial success. This opportunity knocks louder as we hurtle towards the Olympics, and as Ivan works tirelessly to ensure the LET’s potential is maximised, keeping up with this Khodabakhsh-ian is not easy, but we tracked him down at the HSBC Forum where he was happy to reflect on his tenure as the LET’s ringmaster.

Three years into your role, has it been what you expected?

One thing that was expected but exceeded my expectations is the potential in women’s golf. I saw the potential but I didn’t realise the disparity was so huge with the men’s game. That is on the good side as there is a huge opportunity and some great momentums with the Olympics and what we have already achieved with the Solheim Cup.

On the other side there are great challenges. Structures are set in stone and they stop the development of golf and this can be an obstacle to the growth.

Solheim Cup

Anything specific?

In traditional golf countries, like the UK and US, the club structures do no help for greater participation. I come from a structure in Germany and golf is an elite sport but is a family sport. For other countries, courses are a revenue stream from tourists.

I am appalled by, considering how competitive women’s golf is, how TV revenue and sponsorship is shared. In some cases it is 100-1 ratio. If we had a women’s event a few weeks later than the men it might be 2 or 3-1 in terms of media values and that is nowhere near to 100-1, in terms of dollar value.

In what areas can participation grow and which age groups are you talking about?

You often see very young kids playing but then the club structure is not well set up for them in their 20s and 30s when they might be having families. These are the things where society is changing and something clubs need to address.

Do more fans mean more success, for example the NFL in the States?

Some sports are not easy to be participation sports, like the NFL, and you can create a fan base. But that has happened over years and it also reflects the great job that the commercial people do. The most healthy thing is to create more participation but that doesn’t necessarily mean more fans if you don’t market and position your sport in the best way.

In the tournament schedules I believe we have too many 72-hole events and that is why the Solheim or Ryder Cups are so attractive, they don’t just attract the golf nerd. They see more than just golf, we need to create more of that.

We are looking at different formats, we had a team event last year which was a four-way team matchplay and we have the European Team Championships in 2018 which will also have a mixed matchplay. It’s not to be gimmicky, it has to have the sport at its core and it has to be competitive but it needs to do something to break up the same as other weeks. Golf is a very individual sport so it is important to focus on things like their national identity.

Do we need to generate more stars?

When I joined the Tour we had barely one tournament which was a live event, how can you expect people to be interested if it is not showcased? The Solheim Cup every two years is not enough. Last year we had 10 tournaments being live, this year maybe 12. At least every fourth week there will be a tournament.

And it is about showing new ways, we had a tournament which finished on a Wednesday so the world was our oyster for those days and we are planning more of that. Viewing figures were stellar, and quality was up and you are not up against other events.

It is not just about being on TV, you have to put marketing money behind it and profile the players. We have done a lot to promote women’s golf through Charley Hull, these are small steps but hopefully we can get a Charley equivalent in every country and that’s the beauty of the LET. That could really grow the participation dramatically.

Charley Hull

More and more bodies are now coming together, can you see a day when the men’s and ladies’ European Tours sit together?

It is not an unrealistic view, the only thing is that in such a structure the women’s game doesn’t come after the men and the seniors and the Challenge Tour. Oh, and by the way there is a women’s Tour. At least from the resources that must be equal.

I hope that the Olympic Games will start mending the cracks of how the game is viewed.

I have been in sports like athletics where in the same stadium you have a men’s shot putter who is by definition an amateur as he doesn’t make any money and a female 100m sprinter who does because her discipline is popular. We need to fix the cracks between the amateur and professional games.

The Tours need to give more back. We have created a development tour as we feel that we have a duty to inspire more participation. How can we link into what the countries are doing at grassroots level.

What sports should golf be looking to imitate?

Tennis is a great example, they are probably 30-40 years ahead of us.

They had their discussions about professionalism in the 60s, then in the 70s and 80s they had talks about equal pay so they are ahead of us and we need to move towards that. If you look at athletics or swimming, you cheer for the best athlete from your own country. This would be the route we have to go down. Things like the Solheim Cup showcase how competitive and fantastic the game is. It has nothing to do with if you hit the ball 10, 15, 30 yards further on the 1st tee.

Anybody playing golf knows that the tee shot doesn’t make the handicap.

Do you have a vision for 2030 about what the format of the Olympic Games might look like?

This is a personal view, I think matchplay is always great. How to put that into an event such as the Olympic Games and how many viewers you lose after the second or third round of matchplay are all very valid too.

I don’t think there is that silver bullet when you say you have found the right answer. I am not sure there is something that one has to analyse about what has worked this year. One argument one has to see is that you can’t play Wimbledon in one format and the Olympics in another. Other formats could be great, but I understand that if you play the top level – the Majors – in this format, you have to play the Olympics in the same format.

There is lots of talk about mixed events and getting women on the course at the same time as men. Is that on the table?

Yes, certainly. In Morocco we have a tournament we play on parallel courses. We have to just be very careful that this is not done from a gimmicky point of view to just showcase something now just because it is mixed. But it seems really competitive and a true sport. I am not sure about the value of mixed doubles in tennis.

An event where a separate tournament for men and one for women (under the same name) is played at the same time on the same course, playing alternatively – is that something that could work?

Well actually we were in discussions to sanction an event in Victoria – the Victoria Open in Australia. Which would be, in the same field, a men’s group, followed by a women’s group, then a men’s group. It’s absolutely an option. But we also need the co-operation to provide enough airtime for the women’s game too. But ultimately we don’t have the life support to get that, the sport stands by itself well enough, we just need more stories, more profile, more marketing money behind it to make it as interesting as possible.

I could speak about this for hours. You have production of television which is designed for men. I am sure there are ways of having other camera angles that bring out the women’s game better. There are many little things one can do which showcase the best of women’s game while at the moment it showcases the best of the men’s game.

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