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December 12, 2015

Ivan Khodabakhsh

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

BETHAN CUTLER: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us. Delighted to introduce in morning, Ivan Khodabakhsh, CEO of the Ladies European Tour, and Mohamed Juma Buamaim, the Vice Chairman and CEO of golf in DUBAi.

Ivan, a decade in Dubai now. How has the week of the OMEGA Dubai Ladies Masters gone for you? Has it exceeded your expectations?

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: Absolutely. This tournament has always set standards and I believe the standards of how the tournament this year has been promoting itself and setting new standards in terms of marketing has been fantastic. We can see that in the impact already in the print media worldwide and the interest of our broadcasters which already are giving us their feedback.

BETHAN CUTLER: Mohamed, same question. How has the week gone so far?

MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: For us, I think the reason why we brought the tournament here is because we felt the men's golf has been going on for many years and there was no sort of cohesion with society. It was like a white man's game; it was a man's game; it's a rich people's game; it was an old-people's game. It was nothing that old or Arabs or nationals could play it.

I sincerely believe that since we brought the Ladies Masters, we found there is more, if you like, the community started getting behind it. Their daughters, their sons got into golf, and it shows. There are a lot of young kids coming through.

Not only that, it's also when you consider the average age when we first started on the Tour itself, the average age which we have here, this is a fantastic progression. It means it's a young people's game, as well, not just as what other people thought.

Now, there is one thing we have here, and it's unfortunately something in-built in these old golfers, something about women shouldn't play golf. And if you look at, unfortunately, the expats here, they are all of a certain age who grew up to say, it's a man's game. And still, even in the expats' society, they don't really react to it. Whereby the young generation coming through, there definitely is. You can see there is more younger people coming to this tournament in terms of numbers presented more than coming to the Desert Classic.

BETHAN CUTLER: Fantastic to hear.

Development is key to the LET's vision, as well. Can you reflect on the year and all the work that the LET has been doing to develop young talent and grow the game?

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: Yes, we are a professional tour but we very much believe that we have a duty to do something to give back to the sport and develop the sport. It's always the pinnacle of the sports which inspires young talents, and that's the reason when we defined our vision two years ago, development was a key center of that.

We are probably the only tour which has created an own development department. We engage in each country we are to contribute to the development in that country. We are extremely happy having Maha as a Moroccan girl, not only playing fantastically, but also making the cut here at this event.

These are all the things which we are doing. Have we achieved what we want? Not at all. We are literally at the start of it. And we will talk, also, with Mohamed, what can we do here to ignite that young interest and the young talent here. We are not here as a circus for once a year showing up. We want to be in this region, and together with partners like golf in DUBAi to develop the sport.

MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: I think Maha is actually a good testament to the LET, because if any Arab is going to make it to the Olympic, for instance, as we stand, it's only Maha, because the others, we don't have apart from them except for if, touch wood, the MENA Tour gets its credential for the World Ranking.

But it's a statement that the LET has actually developed something here and Maha is a classic example of it.

BETHAN CUTLER: So with the Olympic Games next year, what else can we look forward to in 2016?


MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: Too early for us (laughter).

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: Olympics is certainly a center part of it, specifically because of the diversity of the nationalities on the Tour. At our last count, over 50 percent of the players qualified for the Olympic Games will be LET members, because we cover so many different countries.

The same as Maha, the same as the best Brazilian player, and so forth and so forth; the best players on many parts of the world which play on this tour are going to represent their country. 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. It's not the world No. 1 inspiring the girls in their country; it's the stars of their own country which do that.

BETHAN CUTLER: We have shared the 2016 tournament schedule today. Is there anything that you would like to highlight in the coming year that we can look forward to in 2016?

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: This is the schedule based on the tournaments we have had this year based on 2015. 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.

It is without question, we have challenges in Europe, and you can't just play the professional game while you have an economic crisis and immigrant crisis and so on. The Tour is an international tour which has, as I mentioned, so many different nationalities outside Europe playing on this tour. We have a duty not just to play for money in certain countries but develop the sport in those countries.

For the journalists, I would just say, tune in, you will see more to come.

Q. Just looking at the schedule, in 2016, you will have actually 19 events, which is a shrinking schedule. You said that there will be some more events which will be added, but can you just give us an idea as to how many events you will finally have? In 2014, you had 23 events and now it's less than that, because Queen's Cup is a team event.
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: It's an event.

Q. But there's also Olympics --
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: On the safe side, I would say three to four new tournaments coming on board. But this said, what is more important is quality than quantity.

If you compare, Dubai sets the standard for us with a tournament at half a million Euros. This year we already had seven tournaments at half a million Euros, while in the past, Dubai was kind of stand-alone by itself, and we make sure that Mohamed feels a bit warmer bringing more tournaments around.

For me, that is more quality than quantity. Yes, we could put a number of more tournaments at maybe 200,000 Euros and non-live TV events, small events. It's good for the girls but that doesn't grow the game. It's about quality rather than quantity. As you see, we have a great number of tournaments now which have a prize money which is, let's say, shows the status of the Tour.

Secondly, these tournaments invest in live television. So we went from only having Dubai as a live TV event, which doesn't grow the game worldwide; it's great to showcase Dubai but we need to showcase to the world women's golf, and this year we have I believe 11 or 12 tournaments, and next year we will have 16 tournaments live. That's what will make the difference, rather than just counting one by one tournaments.

Q. What about your membership? Won't they be more interested in having more events rather than if it's live on TV and things like that? Won't they be interested in having to play for more prize money and more tournaments? At the moment if you really look at it, somebody who is ranked 80th on the LET, she will get to play how many events, 15 events, not count be the Evian Championship and the British Open and the team championships. So there are just 15 events. So is that not a concern for you?
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: No, again, this is about professional sport, and professional sport is about the top events, not having a large number of mediocre events.

I mean, it doesn't help, also, Dubai being basically stand-alone. It is being part of a club of top events. And we started our strategy two years ago. While we started, that is never by default a strategy that's going to pan out in a year or two and that's it. We have to look at the realities of the world.

If we look in Europe what's happening currently, I feel bad to go and press somebody for more money or for tournaments where in the country there is a refugee crisis, there is austerity measures pushed, and without question, that's a problem. We are not closing our eyes to that. But we are compensating to bring in high-quality events, which showcase the best of women's golf, and again, it's not only about Europe, it's about a worldwide product.

Q. Ten years, it has been like the best event on the Tour, with the kind of media cover it and the kind of promotions being done. How have you not been able to get Mohamed to increase the prize fund from half a million to even 600,000?
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: I would rather have Mohamed -- we want our promoters to invest in the event. You see how many people now come out, you see what the media impact of this event is, maybe I shouldn't say it openly here, about prize money to my players, but I would rather have a promotor have that vision to invest in the tournament overall, which the investment is now greater than it was ten years ago, than just raising the prize money.

We could, I'm sure Mohamed could have raised the prize money easily, but taken away a lot of what they are doing here. But that's not good for the event. It's not good for the region, and that's not what we want to see.

MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: But we are 600,000, not half a million.

Q. Can you talk about something we've been hearing for the last few months about another ladies tournament in the country in Abu Dhabi? Is that a possibility? Talks are going on -- I know you don't want to confirm anything at this moment, but is there something --
MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: Actually, you know, I don't think it's right, even if there is one, that he should even mention it, because, A, this is a Dubai tournament. And B, it's not fair on the Abu Dhabi guys if they are doing a tournament, they want to promote it themselves. It's only fair. I mean, he mentioned --

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: We are having our press conference here and we want to give respect to Dubai.

MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: More importantly, you should be doing that with the guys, if they are doing something there. Or was it Qatar? (Laughter).

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: Read my face. (Laughter).

Q. Can you just remind us of the contract length of this event and the future of this event?
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: If I'm correct, we have one more year. So this edition and one more year next year, which is the 10th anniversary, the birthday. That's the normal length we usually sign contract and we will certainly come in good time together to discuss.

MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: Desert Classic is the same that we do that, sponsorship, Desert Classic and Ladies Masters, same thing.

Q. So it will always remain the year-ending event?
MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: Well, we are going to evaluate everything and see where we're going.

Q. Do you have plans to revise the way the Order of Merit works? We had Laura Davies in a few days to go and she felt doing it on a money and prize-winning basis, it's not unfair but it's a little bit one-sided. If you win the British Open or Evian, you have a very good chance to go on and win the Order of Merit. She thought perhaps a points system would work better. Is that something that you're thinking about?
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: We have not been thinking about that part. What we did do is in the past before I joined the Tour, we would basically only look at the prize money regardless how many tournaments you have played.

We have put a minimum number of tournaments you have to play on the LET, so that even if you go and, let's say, win Evian and British Open full stop, you will not win the Order of Merit. You have to commit to at least six tournaments on the Ladies European Tour.

On the other hand, point systems, I have a bit of a view on this. People want to see simple things. You can't understand how you win the prize money, then you can't count where you will be standing next. Points system, how many people know actually what really the World Rankings in other sports work. Keep it simple.

Q. Obviously a big story this week was having Paige here. What sort of impact has she had on the tournament and the Tour?
MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: I think for us, a big impact, especially in the United States. This is why we brought her. The girl didn't make the cut, but I did not expect her to make the cut because it's her first tournament, and with so much pressure on her. But I'm very happy to have her and we'll have her back if she wants to come back.

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: Just to add to that, it's a professional tournament. That means we need to be also entertaining. We want to focus on competitive sport but entertainment is a big part of this, too. Whatever brings more attention, not just to this tournament, but to women's golf, people who have not been close to women's golf look at it and say, wow, this is actually cool, I want to be a part of it. It's good for the game.

So she has had a great impact here, but she has had a great impact internationally. We have broadcasters calling us up wanting to see more. That's only good for everybody.

Q. Can I just ask, you mentioned a lot about how important this tournament is to get younger girls playing, especially. Having Paige here and having Charley here, as well, how important is that for encouraging the next generation coming through?
MOHAMED JUMA BUAMAIM: That's what I said earlier on, comparing age when we first started to now on the Tour itself has gone lower and lower. When our families and kids look at it, they say, well, this is the right thing to do. So it does help. It does help.

IVAN KHODABAKHSH: I mean, the best is kind of the battle between Nanna and Emily for the Rookie of the Year, and these are the best players; as the rookies, they are not ranked 40th and 50th in the Order of Merit, but they are in the Top-10. Nicole Larsen, a rookie from last year, how well she's been playing this year.

Charley has been, of course, in the U.K. media and seen always as leading but we have fantastic players coming from Scandinavian countries. We have fantastic winners from Asia in our tournaments over there. 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.

Q. Can I ask you about the Solheim Cup this year, there was a lot of controversy and that generated a lot of publicity for the event, but how important has that become for you and how are you exploiting for your tour that event?
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: I think we are actually exploiting it now really more for golf and women's golf than for the Tour. It has become such a huge event, especially this year in Germany with the spectators we have. Even compared to the men, it was the first time, not only a golf event on public event on the first channel in Germany that broadcasted it; that's unique.

So we are positioning it as one of the most unique women's sports event, than just saying, golf, golf, golf. I think this is a huge opportunity to showcase how competitive, how athletic women can be in sports. Having that clash of two continents is a great story.

I think that's the way we are going forward. And the test amount for that was when we ran the 2019 bidding process, we had ten countries, not ten clubs, but ten countries bidding for the event, and ultimately, the decision came down to one country, Scotland, with Gleneagles. How much better can it get better than Gleneagles? I mean, that I think is a huge recognition for what we do, what LPGA does together. It's more than just the Tour. We use it as a vehicle to promote women's golf.

Q. You've said about the prizes in Europe, the immigrant crisis and things likes that and you don't want to countries and press for money. But what about your vision for Asia and other countries, like The European Tour has been doing for so many years. Is that part of your plan to expand more in Asia? Are you looking at more events in, say, China, or other places? Is there some kind of -- like The European Tour is entering into a kind of a membership agreement with the Asian Tour; is there some kind of plans for that, expand your own schedule and prize money? Can you just talk about that?
IVAN KHODABAKHSH: Well, in the first place, we have not departed Europe. We have with our Access Series where we develop young players, the number of Access events are growing because we work closely with the national federations. And this is not just a second-tier tour. This is a tour where depending on the tournament, over half of the players can be amateur players. The other half, young professionals who want to become tour players.

So we haven't departed Europe. We are actually growing the game there with other means, and hopefully we'll be looking for better times to bring bigger tournaments back to Europe, and there are a few in the pipeline, maybe not immediately for next year, but we are in other discussions.

But, what you mentioned, we very, very much respect other tours around the world, especially the national tours; if it's the Chinese tour, if it's the Japanese, the Koreans. We initiated the Queen's event, which is the four tours coming together. It's not for us to go out there and tell the people, you have to have a ladies Asian Tour or so on. That is for the region to do.

But we work with all the tours. We never play in a country if it's not co-sanctioned with the respective tour, and we have done it always as a 50/50. We have never imposed, well, we have the better players, so we need a bigger field size. We have done it 50/50. China, I have to moderate ourselves, we have already four tournaments in China. That is a lot and we will be looking at other regions, too.

Again, back to the Queen's, that was a unique opportunity to have four tours sitting together over three days, similar what we do with the Solheim Cup, to do it with the other tours together just in a manner of cooperation.

BETHAN CUTLER: Thank you very much for joining us.

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