Saudi Arabia is pursuing a strategic revamp of its top football competition, the Saudi Pro League, by aiming to attract external investors. The country is considering new broadcast deals and partnerships with private equity companies to enhance the appeal of the competition and establish itself as a powerhouse in professional sports.
The Saudi Pro League has already seen an influx of star players from Europe, including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has prioritized sports as part of the country’s economic diversification strategy away from oil.
The Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, with assets of $700 billion, and state oil firm Aramco recently took control of several Pro League clubs. The intention is for these new owners to develop the teams’ brands and revenues and subsequently sell stakes to global private equity companies, benefiting from their expertise in overseeing sports teams. The talks surrounding these investments are currently private and confidential.
Private equity companies have become significant investors in football teams and related infrastructure worldwide. They have also held discussions regarding investment in leagues in France and Spain, although a similar plan in Germany was rejected by clubs. Notably, they have acquired stakes in individual teams such as AC Milan, Toulouse FC, and Chelsea.
To increase international exposure, the Saudi Pro League has collaborated with sports agency IMG to sign short-term agreements with broadcasters in approximately 30 markets, including Portugal, China, and Italy. However, the revenue generated from these deals is currently less than $10 million per year. The league has also hired seasoned sports-rights expert Peter Hutton as an advisor.
The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Sport aims to quadruple the annual revenue of the Saudi Pro League to $480 million by the end of the decade through team privatization. The league gained attention when Cristiano Ronaldo joined a Riyadh-based team on a reported $200 million-per-year contract.
Although the specific desire to attract private equity investment into the league was not directly addressed by a ministry spokesperson, they highlighted that the 2022-23 season achieved its highest-ever live audiences, with over 2.2 million attendees, and that matches were broadcast in 170 countries.