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Saudi-Backed LIV Golf Envisions Franchises in Its Future, Executive Says

Paul Childs | Reuters
  • LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that has the blessing of former President Trump and Phil Mickelson, aims to build franchises.
  • "We're building 12 teams with franchise values, just like any other sport that we fully expect down the road to have a valuation to be sold," LIV executive Atul Khosla told CNBC.
  • Family members of those who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are protesting the league and the event this week at Trump's New Jersey golf club.

BEDMINSTER, N.J. — LIV Golf is just three tournaments in, but the Saudi-backed upstart league is already thinking big about its future.

In an interview with CNBC, LIV Golf Investments President and COO Atul Khosla said the future of LIV Golf is teams and creating franchises that can one day be sold. The organization is holding an event this weekend, starting Friday, at former President Donald Trump's namesake golf club here.

"We're building 12 teams with franchise values, just like any other sport that we fully expect down the road to have a valuation to be sold," he said. "All of those things will happen in golf that happen in every other sport."

Khosla says the company came to the conclusion from their first two tournaments in London and Portland, Oregon, that fans love golf as a team sport. He says the team merchandise sales sold out the first day during the tournaments. "The team concept is really resonating with our fans," he said.

The new golf league is financed by Saudi Arabia's Private Investment Fund. The kingdom's fund has set its sights on the sports sector as another investment piece in its portfolio and has invested a reported $2 billion into LIV Golf.

Read more: Eric Trump teases dad's potential 2024 run with golf bag at Saudi tour event

LIV is spending top dollar to lure golf pros from the PGA Tour, offering equity in the league, generous prizes and guaranteed money. So far, it has signed big name players like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. They've also snagged top golf commentator David Feherty away from Golf Channel and reportedly had their sights on bringing on TNT's Charles Barkley. (Barkley told The New York Post that he decided to stay with Turner Sports and not join LIV, according to a story published Friday.)

"We do have a longer runway," Khosla said. "But our investor definitely wants to see returns at the end of the day."

The Saudi support has created some controversy for LIV, however. Family members of those who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are protesting the league. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers that day were from Saudi Arabia, and Osama Bin Laden, the attacks' mastermind, was born in the country. U.S. officials concluded that Saudi nationals helped fund the terrorist group al-Qaida, although investigations didn't find that Saudi officials were complicit in the attacks.

Trump on Thursday defended hosting the event, falsely claiming that "nobody's gotten to the bottom of 9/11."

The group 9/11 Justice protested near Trump's course, which is less than 50 miles of the Ground Zero site in lower Manhattan.

"To see a former president pretending that he doesn't know what the Saudis did, or saying that he doesn't know about the 9/11 story, it's just the worst form. It's the worst feeling you can get," the group's president, Brett Eagleson, told CNBC. He was 15 when he lost his father when the Twin Towers collapsed after hijackers crashed airliners into them.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sided with the protesters. "I support the 9/11 families' pursuit of justice and remain committed to holding Saudi Arabia accountable for its actions," he said in a statement Friday.

Khosla also defended LIV. He said the league isn't the only one with ties to Saudi Arabia. "There are about 23 PGA Tour partners today that have ties to the multibillion-dollar business in Saudi Arabia. I'm not telling the PGA Tour to not have sponsors," he said.

"It's an interconnected global economy so just because a bunch of golfers took a little bit of money, I just don't think you need to get all worked up," he added.

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