The executive’s departure is the latest turmoil for LIV, which has drawn plenty of attention but no major television or sponsorship deals.
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Atul Khosla, the veteran sports executive who was expected to guide LIV Golf into the franchise model on which it has staked its viability, has resigned from the venture that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund financed in a challenge to the PGA Tour.
Khosla’s exit, just more than a year after LIV announced his appointment as its chief operating officer, comes as the start-up struggles to gain sustained traction and, confidential records reported by The New York Times this week suggest, is far from reaching the benchmarks that would make it successful.
“At the conclusion of LIV’s successful inaugural season, Atul Khosla decided to move on,” Greg Norman, LIV’s commissioner, said in a statement on Friday, days after players and agents were privately told that Khosla would step down. “We respect A.K. and his personal decision.”
A new series. The debut of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Who is playing it? Several top players and former major champions have joined LIV Golf, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Cameron Smith. But many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded? The PGA Tour suspended several members among the LIV Golf players after it denied them releases to participate in other events. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior. Meanwhile, the rival tours have engaged in a winding legal battle.
Khosla is not the first senior official to leave LIV this year, and the outfit has faced questions over the future of Norman, a two-time winner of the British Open and a vociferous critic of the PGA Tour’s design. But while a departure by Norman would threaten to deprive LIV of one of men’s golf’s most familiar and time-tested voices, Khosla was increasingly seen as the LIV executive most integral to fashioning a way forward.
At the same time, suspicions about the true scope of his power swirled in the weeks before he left LIV. In a recent court filing, the PGA Tour accused the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, as the wealth fund is formally known, of having an outsize role in managing an operation that has attracted a handful of the world’s top players, including Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Cameron Smith.
But even with the defections of those players and some others from the PGA Tour, LIV has not secured the television and sponsorship arrangements that are the lifeblood of top-tier professional sports. Such deals were seen by McKinsey & Company consultants, in an analysis privately prepared for Saudi officials last year, as vital to the new league’s prospects for success.
Moreover, LIV, which some experts regard as little more than an effort by Saudi officials to sanitize the country’s reputation as a human rights abuser, has not achieved other benchmarks identified by McKinsey as crucial to realizing even a “coexistence” with the PGA Tour, including signing most of the world’s top 12 golfers and facing “no/mild response” from the golf establishment.
LIV has insisted, though, that it remains on track as it heads toward a system in which its teams will act as franchises. In a statement to The Times last week, Jonathan Grella, a LIV spokesman, said that it “has repeatedly made clear that our stakeholders take a long-term approach to our business model.”
“Despite the many obstacles put in our path by the PGA Tour, we’re delighted with the success of our beta test year,” Grella said. “And we’re confident that over the next few seasons, the remaining pieces of our business model will come to fruition as planned. Our business plan is built upon a path to profitability. We have a nice, long runway and we’re taking off.”
One week later, word of Khosla’s departure became public.
In his statement on Friday about Khosla’s resignation, Norman asserted that some of LIV’s “most trusted partners” were “supporting our structural transition and introduction of exciting new developments.”