Saudi Arabia didn’t even dominate its region five years ago when it started impacting world sports. It periodically hosted tennis exhibitions and second-tier motor racing. Qatar and UAE were its future.
The last year—especially the past week—has displayed its sports aspirations. Saudi conquest continues. All set.
On Tuesday, the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, backed by the country’s sovereign-wealth fund, combined. The Public Investment Fund governor is the joint venture’s chairman after the Kingdom’s money won a fierce public struggle.
Saudi Arabia is spending billions on soccer football, the world’s most popular sport. PIF has brought football’s biggest personalities to the desert after buying Newcastle United in 2021.
Its initial efforts were mocked. Newcastle was a bargain when the Premier League’s top clubs were unavailable. Newcastle finished fourth, qualifying the Saudi powerhouse into next season’s Champions League. Newcastle will spend $100 million this summer.
Saudi ambitions grew. Ronaldo was January’s first major signing. Al-Nassr became the highest-paid athlete at 37 after leaving Manchester United. Late Ronaldo was desperate.
Stars follow. This week, Karim Benzema joined Al-Ittihad. PIF’s revelation this week that it was taking over the Saudi league’s top four teams through different entities to fund a talent raid sent a clear message.
Saudi Arabia aims to shift sports from the Middle East to Europe and the U.S.
Institutions are struggling to adjust to government spending. Inter Miami signed Lionel Messi on Wednesday, requiring Apple and Adidas to pay and resist Saudi interest. Last year, the PGA Tour battled to increase prize money at numerous tournaments to keep players from joining LIV.
Few years ago, the country was unknown on that platform. Bahrain and Abu Dhabi hosted F1. Tennis and golf wanted Dubai. Qatar, hated by Saudi Arabia, prepared to host the 2022 World Cup from 2010.
Saudi Arabia’s sports boom began after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gained power in 2017 and sought global influence. Sports and entertainment have enriched the Kingdom’s neighbors. Saudi, more isolated, lagged.
Vision 2030 addressed it. Desert sports began. The 2019 $60 million heavyweight title battle between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua in the desert outside Riyadh was Saudi Arabia’s greatest success.
“Right now, mention the Middle East and the fighters say, ‘How much?’” Eddie Hearn said. “No fight fee in the world can compete with the potential money to bring major sporting events to this region.”
The Kingdom hosted the European Tour that year. Golf is Yasir Al-Rumayyan’s passion. PIF quickly scheduled a golf excursion.
The PIF-led Newcastle acquisition altered Saudi Arabia’s LIV plan. Global sports were inadequate. That wealth would help it expand abroad.
LIV Golf promised tiny fields, shotgun starts, and team contests to transform golf. Saudi funding was inescapable. Their tournaments offered record-breaking prizes and substantial appearance fees.
A pricey offer cost more due to occurrences. Last year, Phil Mickelson’s inflammatory words about his willingness to do business with the Saudis despite their human rights record, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, demonstrated the PR nightmare that awaited anybody who signed on.
Monahan admitted to being a hypocrite.
Last year, numerous prominent singers signed on despite their high contracts, paying above market for fewer weeks of competition. Mickelson, Johnson, Koepka, and Smith played LIV’s first season. Some got $100 million appearance fees.
PGA Tour criticizes new challenger. Commissioner Jay Monahan called LIV a foreign monarchy “spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf.”
Monahan learned he had something in common with the players who left his tour after a multicontinental court battle that damaged both sides’ reputations. He would bargain with the Saudis.
The PGA Tour’s unanticipated cooperation with PIF settled the conflict. Those battles affected Saudi sports. LIV’s U.S. court allegations about PIF’s close ties to the Saudi Crown contradicted PIF’s Premier League promise that the soccer club would be autonomous.
The league authorized the $380 million deal without addressing ownership. Newcastle has risen faster than Manchester City after its 2008 takeover by an Abu Dhabi prince. Rumayyan was in the locker room for Champions League qualification.