Khosla, who came to LIV Golf from an NFL franchise, discusses the startup's sponsorship vision, helping to fight players' legal battles, format changes and applying for world ranking points
Atul Khosla joined LIV Golf in December 2021 as its chief operating officer, reporting directly to Greg Norman.
Most recently the chief corporate development and brand officer for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Khosla held responsibilities spanning corporate partnership, marketing and event production, game-day entertainment and community impact, as well as digital and media rights.
Alex Miceli of The First Call spent time with Khosla at the LIV Golf Invitational's Portland event at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
The First Call: So, what made it compelling for you to come here to LIV Golf?
Atul Knosla: I think, for me, I love building things. So, this was an interesting opportunity to sort of build something from the ground up. We are dreamers, we are some risk takers, definitely disruptors. But at the end of the day, there's definitely a desire to build something, so that was what excited me.
TFC: Some people think that this is a two- or three-year project, and then everybody will go home and lose interest. What do you say to those people?
AK: I start by saying, One, we're here for the long haul. Two, we have a clear vision of what this could eventually be. And that vision is not that different from what people are used to seeing in other sports. So, for example, you are used to seeing teams and you're used to seeing leagues and you're used to seeing that structure in pretty much all other American sports, just not in golf. We feel like we found an interesting blend of individual and team competition that we think we can build a league around and build profitable franchises around.
Will we have plenty of challenges along the way? Yes. But any startup in probably the history of America or capitalism has gone through that initial journey of people questioning the business model. Listen, people questioned if someone would buy a $1,000 phone. It's OK, because we are putting something out there and it is hard for people to get their arms around. So I absolutely respect the questions that come along, but from our from our standpoint, we are very clear in the path that we would like to take, and are fortunate to have the funding in order to be able to sort of write out the first few years that it will take us to get this thing off the ground.
TFC: In talking to an agent, he said you need to think of 2022 as almost as a beta test, that everything they did in London is not necessarily everything they're doing here. And there won't be the same thing they’ll be doing in Bedminster (in late July). So how evolutionary is this period?
AK: Yeah, I think that's fair to say it is evolutionary. The objective for us is to put a product out there, so people can touch it, feel it, experience it and give us feedback. Does this work for you? Does this is not work for you? Both for consumers and players.
Coming out of London we surveyed our fans, our players and caddies, potential prospects that were there from partners both in broadcast as well as sponsorship and the volunteers, and the scores were incredibly high in terms of what we are trying to do and what we have been able to do very short period of time. Some people, I would say, have been taken aback because they were surprised, 'I cannot believe you actually got this off the ground and what you have got off the ground is pretty phenomenal.'
I think it's very fair to say that we are a startup, we viewed ourselves very much as a startup. And that every tournament we go through the motions of making adjustments based on the feedback that's coming. I feel good about what we've been able to accomplish.
TFC: You mentioned potential sponsors, I've heard different numbers from different people, some say there's two or three companies that are willing to sign on to be team sponsors. I've also heard something along the lines of about nine potential sponsors by next year. Is this a fair assessment?
AK: It would not be prudent for me to give you exact numbers at this point. We are in the midst of multiple dialogues both with brands that are based outside the U.S. and brands that are based within the United States, because we view the product very much as a global platform. We're going to go to 14 events (next year) and find that healthy mix of events between the U.S. and international. So, we want global partners or brands with us.
A month ago, it was the first-time potential partners that have seen what this could look like. And they like what they have seen; the vibe is very different. It is golf, but louder in many ways, whether it's music on the course, or whether it is how fan engagement is happening, the team spirit that's being created. And that is driving different types of activations that partners would maybe want to do with us. All that will play itself out. Again, our focus is for the first handful of events is 'hey, come and hang out with us.' And our hope is that you would like that experience.
TFC: So getting back to that part of it the sponsorship, you are looking at sponsors for particular events? Is that part of the equation?
AK: I think there's probably a couple of tiers. There's one which is, across all, umbrella sponsors. And I think what we are providing that is unique and different is that we own all our events. It is not that we are we are the promoter of every single one of our events, unlike some of the other tours where every single event is owned by somebody else and is promoted by somebody else. So, it is hard to have consistency for a partner end-to-end over the course of the year. But in our case, we are the promoter across all our events. So therefore, we can provide a partner that consistency in terms of exposure in terms of activation, in terms of fan engagement across all our events.
So we are looking first and foremost for partners that would cut across, then you will also have partners that are team partners that would be sponsoring a particular team or handful of teams. It's no different than any other stick-and-ball sport in the United States. That is how the model works. And then there's a scenario where one partner that is local, let's say to New York or local to London says "hey, I want to partner with you here in this market only because that is my local market. That's my local event." I think that can also happen.
TFC: I know there's the PIF Saudi International, presented by Softbank. So would it be a presenting sponsorship?
AK: I don't know if we have gotten to that part yet, it's possible it could be London Invitational presented by XYZ. It's early for us to see how the model exactly works. First and foremost, we prefer to have umbrella sponsors come in first and keep that clean.
TFC: So, is it fair to say that everything is on the table regarding sponsorship?
AK: I think it's fair to say that we are evaluating all options. And why wouldn't we? It is a brand-new product is a brand-new format. It is the first time we've had consistency of golf teams in the history of golf. I'll be evaluating all of it.
TFC: The PGA Tour has been unwilling to meet with your organization. Does that mean that you wouldn't be willing if they are willing to start talking?
AK: We would love nothing more than then having a very healthy and strong partnership with all the tours. So, absolutely, I would welcome the opportunity. And I hope we get a chance to do that.
TFC: It’s been reported that LIV Golf or PIF wants to take over the ecosystem of golf -- that in both F1 and soccer, you've been partnering with those ecosystems and in this case, you're trying to break the ecosystem. How do you respond to that?
AK: Not at all. There's golf played all over the world, every weekend. We are 14 events, max. There is the rest of the weekends in the world for golf to be played. We believe that players are independent contractors, they can play where they would like to play. We're also not looking to go head-to-head with any of the majors with any of the marquee tournaments. We're not looking to do any of that, so I disagree. For sure, we are we are trying to compete. Yes, we are providing other options. At the same time, there's plenty of golf to go around for everybody.
I do think that it is not fair for one tour to say that they are the ecosystem. I don't think that's fair either a tour to say that they define what equals what the ecosystem should be, how big it should be, how small should it be, how players should get paid. I believe that there is by us just sheer being in this ecosystem.
The players' prize purses have gone up on the PGA Tour. And that would not happen if we weren't here. Fans have the ability to watch and judge whether they like this, they like this type of format, whether they like a different format, whether they like both formats. That's fantastic. We're just giving them the options.
And it has been proven, let's say in the IPL (Indian Premier League), where my dad's a religious test cricket fan. That's what we grew up with. But, you know, still watches T20 (a shortened cricket game). In the first couple of years, he probably didn't like any of it because that's not the purest form of the game. But he's watching every single match today and it's finds it entertaining for different set of reasons. And that's OK. We're on that journey.
TFC: Is the 54-hole shotgun start going to be the format move forward or do you see potential changes?
AK: That is our current plan. The feedback we have received from the players has been very positive with regards to the setup. We will be more of a Friday-Saturday-Sunday setup moving forward, but they liked the 54 holes, they liked the shotgun start. It sort of takes out the luck of the draw, you're always on the course and you play at the same time.
Is there ability to adjust it and tweak it? I'm sure there is, but at this point in time, what we have from the guys is that this seems to work.
TFC: Coming back to the funding issue, that seems to be the biggest hurdle from a PR standpoint. Obviously, without the funding, you can't do what you said you're doing. But at the same time, there are some perceived negatives. One of them is obviously where it's coming from, and how do you deal with that? My understanding is that, again, talking to some people, that you do have a specific plan on how to deal with this.
AK: Our focus it has been, first and foremost, what is good for the game, what's good for players, what's good for fans, let's start there. And let's build a product that works. Our investors have been invested in golf for a long period of time, they are prudent investors, they run one of the world's sovereign wealth funds, and have had prudent investments to get to that point. And we are a investment from that standpoint. That is how we've operated. That's how we are allowed to operate.
TFC: You mentioned that the players are independent contractors, are there restrictions in their contracts to where they can and can't play? Even if it's up against a week of a LIV event?
AK: There are requirements; when they're signing up to play with us they are playing in (a certain number of) LIV tournaments.
TFC: They don't have to play in every live event? Every contract is different?
AK: There are differences in the contracts, yes. But more players want to play all LIV events.
TFC: It's been reported that if players run into problems trying to get back on their tours or participating on their tours and they decide they want to take legal means, that you'll support them financially in that way.
AK: We've come out and said that we're backing our players when it comes to contesting suspensions or whatever else has come their way. And we will support them in doing that.
TFC: But you are supporting them financially?
AK: Supporting them, meaning, if they need support from legal advice if they need from that standpoint, we have a team that is there to help them manage that.
SI/MR: But would you fund that legal challenge? If they in fact, decided to take that challenge?
AK: That is correct.
TFC: And in the case of fines, which is what the European tour is now doing, are you supporting those players by paying their fines?
AK: We're working with them on an individual basis at this point. Some of them are just challenging these fines as to whether there's a validity to them at all. Depending on where those things end up, we'll have a dialogue with those players at that point in time.
TFC: So you're entertaining the possibility of paying the fines?
AK: Absolutely, yes, we've come out and said that we are here to support our players.
TFC: I know that you've applied for world ranking status. What is the status of that?
AK: We've had a few discussions with them and they gave us guidance on how best to go through the application process. Our application is in and we feel very good about our application, if you look at the criteria of what the OWGR is requiring. Do we meet those criteria? We meet those criteria across the board. We feel that at the end of the day being an independent body, the purpose there is to provide the appropriate points and if you are not doing that for events that have fields as strong as ours, then you're almost countering what the purpose of your points system is.
This week, for example, we have the strongest field in all golf events around the world. So not to give those points would kind of seem contrary to why the hell we're having a point system. I am fully aware of who's on the board of OWGR and my thinking would be that if it is a truly independently run body, the individuals that are on that board that have a conflict of interest would recuse themselves from the vote.
TFC: What about the 54 holes?
AK: If you technically look at it, you've got LIV Invitational right on the top. But you also have our international series, which is 72 holes, as a feeder, and there's a pathway from that to our invitationals on a yearly basis. So, if you look at the totality of what our proposition is, it's absolutely checks all boxes that they would like checked off.
TFC: How important in your mind is getting world ranking points for these events?
AK: I think it's important as part of that we want to be part of the ecosystem. Why would we not want to do that?
TFC: I think there's nine players that participated in London that are not here this week. Is that something that's going to be consistent throughout? Or are we going to see less and less changes in the field, as we go along?
AK: I think less and less changes. We'll have some consistency as teams get set and players sign on. But our system also does allow for players, as we finish up the season, that didn't perform at certain criteria will be moving down and playing the international series and new players will be moved up. So that is all part of the requirement from an OWGR perspective to have the flow and a pathway for players and this is what we want to create. We've designed it so it does allow for that change.
TFC: One last thing, the PGA Tour assumes that you want to take them over. What's your response to that?
AK: That is just not true. We've come out very clearly saying we're running eight events this year and a max of 14 down the road, so the short answer is no, that is not our desire. We're looking forward to working with all the tours.