Saudi Arabia's big sports bet

The recent PGA-LIV Golf merger is just the tip of this oil-funded iceberg

A soccer player.
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's grand athletic ambitions weren't yet clear enough, Saudi Arabian soccer outfit Al-Hilal on Monday offered Paris Saint-Germain a record $332 million for 24-year-old star Kylian Mbappé, an eye-watering sum that once again underscores the country's commitment to modernization under MBS' "Vision 2030" plan. If the French star were to accept the sale, the Kingdom is allegedly planning to offer him somewhere in the ballpark of $776 million for just one year on the roster, after which he could leave for his preferred home, Real Madrid. At the moment, it seems the striker isn't interested in Al-Hilal's package and will likely leave PSG for Spain at the end of this upcoming season. But the Saudis' deep pockets have nonetheless won over plenty of athletes before, including Mbappé contemporaries Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (who maintains a lucrative tourism partnership with the Kingdom despite deciding against an offer to play there), as well as a number of professional golfers, who happily defected from the PGA tour for a gargantuan payday with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf. And that's just the tip of this oil-funded iceberg.

Why is Saudi Arabia investing so much in sports?

In short, it's a play for soft power, as well as a way of overshadowing (aka "sportswashing") the Kingdom's horrific human rights abuses, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. "A lot of sports fans are easily bought off," Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, told The Guardian. "If somebody buys their team, they support them. Even if it happens to be an authoritarian government, like the Saudis."

It also serves as a key piece of MBS' "Vision 2030" initiative — his plan to diversify the nation's economy and improve the quality of life for Saudi citizens — while simultaneously turning the Kingdom into a place outsiders would like to visit. "The other thing that is very important to [MBS] is making Saudi Arabia a tourist destination and sports are a great magnet for international travelers," journalist Bradley Hope told The Athletic.

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Into what sports are the Saudis investing?

In 2021, the country's "enormous" sovereign wealth fund known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased an 80% stake in the Premier League's Newcastle United, before later turning its attention to superstar footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, now signed to Saudi club Al Nassr to the tune of hundreds of millions. In 2023, the Kingdom also nabbed Real Madrid's Karim Benzema and Chelsea's N'Golo Kante and has continued to target other sharpshooters, like Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez and Wolverhampton's Ruben Neves.

Other areas of focus include Formula 1, where a Saudi Arabian oil giant serves as the joint title sponsor for the Aston Martin team; boxing, for which it's hosted both title fights and "high-profile," viral events, like the match between Jake Paul and Tommy Fury; and cricket. Perhaps most surprising, though, is the Saudi's interest in esports, which is driven in large part by climate. "For several months, it is simply too hot to play sports or stage events outdoors," Simon Chadwick, a professor at the SKEMA Business School, told the Athletic. But "esports enables year-round engagement."

What do athletes say about all this?

It's pretty difficult to compete with Middle Eastern money, and plenty of players have jumped at the chance to earn more (both Lebron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo joked about happily accepting Mbappé's offer). For others, however, a move to a Saudi Arabian league presents more of an ethical problem, especially if the athlete has spoken out against the Kingdom before. Take Jordan Henderson, for example, the captain of Liverpool FC and a vocal proponent of LGBTQ+ rights within soccer. He's currently on the cusp of a lucrative deal with Saudi Arabia's Al-Ettifaq, though the country's laws on homosexuality are at direct odds with the causes he champions. Then there is golfer Rory McIlroy, who stuck with the PGA even as his counterparts collected their Saudi-funded checks and was recently forced to admit, with his tail between his legs, that maybe the shock PGA-LIV merger won't be such a bad thing after all. "I still hate LIV," McIlroy said after the news broke. But when you think about "one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world, would you rather have them as a partner or an enemy? At the end of the day, money talks and you would rather have them as a partner."

What are the larger implications of this push?

It's certainly possible the Saudis apply to other sports the same playbook they used for the LIV-PGA merger: create or bolster a rival league, and poach some of the best athletes until you're taken seriously. Basketball could be a prime candidate for this, considering it requires "fewer players than baseball or football, and courts are fairly easy to find or build," said The New York Times. Tennis might also work — "it's an individual sport, which makes it easier for PIF to lure athletes with big checks," and "a rival league would only need about a dozen players for an elite tour."

More established athletic bodies have already begun pivoting in response. As the Times noted, "the threat of Saudi competition is likely one reason the WTA raised money from the private equity firm CVC Capital this year." And in the event that a rival basketball league does take off, the NBA would likely have to remove its salary cap to even think of competing with what the Saudis can offer its top stars, Chris Manniz mused in Sports Illustrated. Direct investment or outright ownership is also a possible next step. Sovereign wealth funds are now permitted to buy stakes in NBA teams, and will likely soon be able to do the same in the NFL.

"Wherever the Saudis go next, they have reminded us of two age-old truisms," wrote Sean Ingle for The Guardian: "Money wins — and most people have a price where they will do business."

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Brigid Kennedy

Brigid is a staff writer at The Week and a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her passions include improv comedy, David Fincher films, and breakfast food. She lives in New York.