The Week Saudi Arabia Tightened Its Grip on Global Sports

But the past year—and in particular the past week—has made it clear where the power and the future of its sports ambitions really lie. The Saudi takeover isn’t just beginning. It has fully arrived.

On Tuesday, the LIV Golf circuit backed by the country’s sovereign-wealth fund agreed to merge with the PGA Tour, putting its vast riches behind one of the U.S.’s preeminent sports institutions through sheer force of wealth. After an ugly public brawl, the Kingdom’s money won out and the governor of the country’s Public Investment Fund now sits as the chairman of their joint venture.

At the same time, the Saudis are spending billions of dollars to increase their gravity in soccer, the world’s most popular sport. Since buying the Premier League team Newcastle United in 2021, PIF has set its sights on luring the biggest stars in the sport to the desert.

Its efforts were initially mocked. Newcastle was seen as a bargain bin acquisition at a time when the Premier League’s marquee teams weren’t on the market. But Newcastle finished the season fourth in the standings this year and earned the Saudi flagship a spot in next season’s Champions League, which will require even more expensive upgrades to the roster. This summer, the club’s owners expect to spend at least $100 million on Newcastle.

Saudi also supersized its ambitions for its own domestic league. Cristiano Ronaldo was the first marquee soccer signing in January. At 37, he had been unable to find a suitable European team to join following his exit from Manchester United, only for Al-Nassr to make him likely the highest paid athlete in the world with an annual salary worth more than $100 million. It was seen as a desperation deal for Ronaldo in the sunset of his career.

Yet other superstars are now following. This week, Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema also made the move to Saudi, joining Al-Ittihad for another astronomical salary. No matter who else joins, PIF delivered an unmistakable signal of intent this week when it announced that the fund was taking over the Saudi league’s top four clubs, through various entities, to finance a raid on major soccer talent.

From the Middle East, through Europe and now in the U.S., the Kingdom’s message is clear: Saudi Arabia is aiming to reshape global sports.

Existing institutions are already racing to grapple with how the country’s spending is warping existing paradigms. When Major League Soccer club Inter Miami inked Lionel Messi on Wednesday, Apple and Adidas had to step in to line the superstar’s pockets and fend off Saudi interest. And as the PGA Tour raced last year to stem the flow of players defecting to LIV, it scrambled to make the prize funds at some of its tournaments richer than they ever had been before.

Yet just a few years ago, the country was still a nobody on that stage. Formula 1 races were going to nearby Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. Tennis and golf wanted to be in Dubai. And the tiny emirate of Qatar, viewed mostly by Saudi Arabia as an annoyance, had been ramping up since 2010 to host the biggest sporting event on Earth, the 2022 World Cup.

Saudi’s own sports ramp-up began only after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed control of the country in 2017 and pledged to expand its global influence. The Kingdom’s neighbors had followed similar playbooks to become cash-soaked destinations for sports and entertainment. But Saudi, more closed off from the world at the time, was a few years behind.

Prince Mohammed set about fixing that as part of his larger Vision 2030 program for the country. One by one, major sporting events began cropping up in the desert. The biggest milestone came in 2019 when Saudi organized the heavyweight title fight between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua in the desert outside Riyadh for a $60 million purse.

“Right now, you’ve just got to mention the Middle East and the fighters say, ‘How much?’” Eddie Hearn, the fight’s British promoter, said at the time. “There’s no fight fee in the world that’s going to compete with the potential money to bring major sporting events to this region.”

That same year, the Kingdom dipped its toe into golf when it started hosting a tournament then on the European Tour. It’s no coincidence that Yasir Al-Rumayyan, PIF’s governor, is a golf fanatic. And soon, PIF had bigger ideas: its very own golf tour.

Following the PIF-led takeover of Newcastle, the LIV plan marked a clear shift in strategy for Saudi Arabia. It was no longer enough to bring global sports to the wealth of the Kingdom. Now the country would also use that wealth to embed itself abroad.

LIV Golf pitched itself as a way to shake up golf with small fields, shotgun starts and a team element at tournaments. The cash the Saudis were throwing at it, though, was impossible to ignore. Their tournaments offered record-breaking prize funds in addition to the lucrative appearance fees players would ink.

And for a proposition that was already going to be expensive, a series of events collided to jack up the bill even further. Phil Mickelson’s explosive comments last year about his willingness to do business with the Saudis despite their widely criticized record on human rights, such as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reflected the public relations fiasco that awaited anyone who signed on. When the PGA Tour vowed to ban anyone who joined the rebel circuit, everyone knew that jumping ship meant jeopardizing their relationship with the golf establishment.

Still, over the course of last year, a host of top stars signed on anyway because they received such lavish deals, paying far above the market for fewer weeks of competition. By the end of its first season, LIV boasted the likes of Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith. Some were reported to receive appearance fees worth over a hundred million dollars.

The PGA Tour, meanwhile, assailed its new rival. Commissioner Jay Monahan said nobody ever “had to apologize” for playing on the PGA Tour and said LIV was a foreign monarchy “spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf.”

But after a feud that played out in court rooms spanning continents and both sides absorbing bruising reputational blows, it turned out Monahan had something in common with the players who spurned his own tour. If the money was right, he was willing to cut a deal with the Saudis too.

“I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite,” Monahan said Tuesday. “I accept those criticisms. But circumstances do change.”

The PGA Tour’s stunning reversal to enter a partnership with PIF solved many of their shared legal problems, with the two sides ending their litigation against one another as a result. But the shrapnel from those battles struck elsewhere in the Saudi sports portfolio. Arguments made by LIV in U.S. courts about PIF’s close ties to the Saudi Crown appeared to contradict the case PIF made to the Premier League, when it promised that there would be no government influence over the soccer club.

The league, which greenlit the $380 million deal, hasn’t commented on the ownership structure. In the meantime, Newcastle’s stature has only grown at a rate faster than Manchester City’s did after its acquisition by a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi in 2008. And when the club secured its spot in the Champions League, Rumayyan—the governor of PIF, Newcastle director, and de facto head of LIV—was in the locker room.

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My Name is Arun Jain I have done B.Tech in Computer Science and currently working with Love to cook and write blogs . Cook-eat-blog-cook-eat-blog.............

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