The recent PGA-LIV golf merger is the latest example of growing Saudi influence on sports.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund has invested heavily in soccer, both in England and domestically.
Mohammed bin Salman has consistently proven that he's willing to spend big to get competitive fast.
On Tuesday, when the PGA Tour agreed to merge with the Saudi-backed LIV Tour in a blockbuster deal set to redefine golf as we know it, it looked like a success on all fronts. The PGA would gain the considerable financial backing of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), and LIV would be lifted out of the relative obscurity where it spent its first several months.
But not all of those victories are created equal. A closer examination of the situation suggests the Saudis may have come out on top. Originally viewed as a deep-pocketed but unserious distraction from the PGA Tour, they effectively muscled into the picture through sheer financial willpower.
The new PGA Tour might look a whole lot like the old one, except with a far wealthier outside party controlling the purse strings. The Saudis now have one of the biggest seats at the table of a sport that seemed just a fledgling interest for them a couple of years ago.
It all happened very quickly. And that's kind of been the Saudi strategy as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expanded his influence over multiple sports worldwide. Between the purchase of a historic English Premier League team and the massive investment being made in the Saudi domestic soccer league, the PIF has not been shy about making big splashes to become competitive quickly.
The spread of influence has not been without its share of critics. They point at Crown Prince Mohammed's human-rights record, which includes a checkered history jailing activists and critics, and — according to the CIA — commissioning the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Even the PGA once pointed at the Saudi leader's past deeds in a counterclaim filed as part of an antitrust lawsuit. In September 2022, they said LIV offered recruits "astronomical sums of money to induce them to breach their contracts with the [PGA] Tour in an effort to use the LIV players and the game of golf to sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities."
But none of that so far has stopped the Saudi takeover. Already in possession of roughly one-fifth of the world's oil reserves — which fuel its seemingly endless supply of money — Saudi Arabia seems determined to grab more and more of the global sports landscape.
Detailed below are the six recent high-profile examples of how the Saudi PIF keeps winning:
The belle of the ball, at least this week, is LIV Golf, which pulled off the improbable feat of merging with the PGA Tour.
In its early stages, LIV was best known for luring PGA superstars like Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Phil Mickelson with nine-figure contracts. It stockpiled a bunch of great additional talent, including major-championship winners Bryson DeChambeau, Cameron Smith, and Bubba Watson.
Even though the Saudis paid up for top players, the finished product wasn't especially inspired — and it didn't help that events aired on the CW network. There was also extensive debate over whether LIV players could participate in major championships even while suspended from the PGA Tour.
That's all been put to rest following the mergers. Bigger TV deals are ahead, and it looks like LIV players will be able to rejoin their former PGA peers, details pending.
The Saudi PIF completed its takeover of Newcastle United in 2021. Their first signing was superstar defender Kieran Trippier, who has featured on the England national team and was previously a standout for Atletico Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur.
At 18 million euros, he didn't break the bank. And his addition led a reversal in the team's fortune alongside a handful of other existing standouts.
Before the 2022-23 season, Newcastle splashed 70 million euros for Swedish striker Alexander Isak, and added 45-million-euro winger Anthony Gordon in the mid-season transfer window. Both played crucial roles as the team finished fourth-place in the English Premier League, qualifying it for next year's UEFA Champions League, a highly lucrative endeavor.
The scary part is that — despite all their success — Newcastle hasn't even started spending at the same level as rivals Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool. If they do, watch out.
The Saudi Pro League
The Saudi Pro League is the nation's highest division for professional soccer. Right around the same time as the PGA-LIV merger, the PIF announced that it would take 75% stakes in four top teams: Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al-Hilal.
These teams are already hot on the trail of such global-soccer standouts as N'Golo Kante, Ilkay Gundogan, and Wilfried Zaha.
But some of the biggest stars in the world have already accepted lavish payouts to join the league, including a certain larger-than-life icon who's already played a season in Saudi Arabia:
When Cristiano Ronaldo agreed to join Al-Nassr of the Saudi Pro League, most experts agreed he had enough left in the tank to keep playing at the highest level. But even Ronaldo — one of the most competitive and ego-driven soccer players of his generation — decided to take the heaping pile of money offered to him by the Saudis.
The specifics of the deal were eye-popping: Ronaldo would receive 200 million euros a year through both soccer salary and sponsorship deals, starting in January 2023 and running until 2025.
Used to scoring at will throughout his career, Ronaldo struggled bit in an Al-Nassr uniform, registering 14 goals and two assists in 16 games. While not shabby by normal standards, it's a far cry from his world-conquering peak, especially considering the lighter competition.
But clearly the Ronaldo precedent was enough to convince other superstars to join the Saudi Pro League, such as...
The addition of superstar French striker Karim Benzema to the Saudi Pro League was arguably even more surprising than that of Ronaldo. While Ronaldo was having trouble finding a landing spot after multiple acrimonious breakups with past teams, Benzema is still considered in his prime as one of the world's top goalscorers.
Featuring as one of the star players on Spanish club Real Madrid, Benzema has been absolutely scorching for years. He's scored 19 league goals or more for the last five seasons running, and was a standout en route to winning his fifth Champions League title with Real in 2022.
Like his former Real teammate Ronaldo, Benzema will be under contract in the Saudi Pro League until 2025, with an option to stay in 2026. He'll receive 100 million euros per season, plus a 20-million-euro payout for serving as an ambassador for a certain event Saudi Arabia wants to host:
The 2030 World Cup
Not to be outdone by their neighbors Qatar, which put on the 2022 World Cup, Saudi Arabia wants to host the 2030 edition. They're banding together with Greece and Egypt to put together a bid that will, according to Politico, see the Saudis foot the bill for new stadiums in the other two countries.
The decision over who will be selected for the World Cup after next is still a ways from now, and there are many other strong, deep-pocketed candidates. But based on how things have been going for Crown Prince Mohammed and his Saudi compatriots, it would be ill-advised to bet against them at this point.
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