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Saudi football sells TV rights in hope of net profit

Saudi Pro League footbal - Al-Feiha's Mohammed Al Baqawi in action with Al-Hilal's Michael Reuters
The Saudi Pro League will hope matches such as Al Hilal versus Al Feiha will draw international viewers
  • Rights sold to 12 networks
  • Coverage in 130 countries
  • Aim for league revenue to hit SAR1.8 bn

Saudi Arabia’s professional football league has sold broadcast rights to 12 networks across 130 countries for coverage of the 2023-24 season, following a spending spree on players that has captured global attention

But wary of previous experience with China, broadcasters will be following closely to see if a global appetite exists for Saudi Arabia. 

“The watching world can now enjoy front row seats as Saudi football transforms,” interim Saudi Pro League CEO Saad Allazeez said this month.

“Football fans around the world will be able to watch promising young talent from the kingdom competing and playing with some of the biggest names in world football.” 

The broadcasters are France’s Canal+, UK streamer DAZN, Greek telecom Cosmote, Italy’s La7, Spanish sports site Marca, Portuguese channel Sport TV, Albanian network SuperSport, Romania’s Prima Sport, India’s Sony Entertainment Television, Nigeria’s Sporty TV, South Korea’s SPOTV and Australia’s Network Ten. 

No one is saying publicly how much was paid for the football rights – likely because the sums are still small, especially when considered against the money Saudi Arabia has spent on bringing over the star players.

Neither the Pro League nor UK-based sports and talent management group IMG Media, which negotiated the deals, responded to requests for comment. 

The cost is unlikely to be anywhere near the riches paid for the English Premier League, which has a deal with British broadcasters until 2025 worth £5.1 billion ($6.4 billion).

In June the Saudi Public Investment Fund took 75 percent stakes in each of four teams – Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ahli – highlighting a government desire to monetize sport as part of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy away from oil revenue. 

Big spending

Al Nassr signed Cristiano Ronaldo in December for a reported $200 million annually, making him the world’s highest-paid athlete.

A stream of others followed, including Karim Benzema from Real Madrid, N’Golo Kanté from Chelsea, Roberto Firmino from Liverpool and the former Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard. 

Just as the new season kicked off in August, Paris St Germain sold Brazilian forward Neymar to Al Hilal, after failed efforts to sign Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé. 

Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at the Skema Business School in Paris, said a gradualist approach at this stage would be healthy, given the non-stop headlines of recent months and raised expectations. 

“It seems likely that it will take at least five to ten years before Pro League football is approaching any sort of parity with bigger European rivals that Saudi Arabia football is seeking to emulate,” Chadwick said, pointing to the risk of repeating China’s mistakes. 

Before Covid-19 hit, the Chinese Super League was one of the most high-profile competitions in the world, attracting a host of international star players and coaches. But it had already begun to show less ability to attract global audiences than the hype promised. 

“Now very few people outside China are watching the Super League on a regular basis,” Chadwick said. 

James Dorsey, author of a book on Middle East sport, said the Saudi advantage over China was that the national side has a track record of reaching the World Cup finals. This makes it familiar to global audiences and popular in Muslim countries in particular. Its national and club teams are also a regular fixture in regional tournaments. 

“Even if it’s going to take time to get where they want to get to, Ronaldo attracts eyeballs,” Dorsey said.

“What’s going to attract viewers is not that this is Al Hilal but it’s Ronaldo and Neymar. That’s a fairly big attraction.

“Xi Jinping had passion for football but it wasn’t embedded in a broader economic restructuring plan whereby sport investment is linked to tourism, health and creating a sports industry. So Saudi Arabia is positioned to be more successful.” 

Lofty revenue targets

The government said in June it wants the league’s annual revenue to reach SAR1.8 billion 2030 from SAR450 million at present, raising its market value from SAR3 billion to SAR8 billion. 

The global value of sports media rights reached $55 billion in 2022. With a spate of high-profile deals across various sports the number is set to break the $60 billion barrier in 2024, according to industry data analyst SportBusiness Media. 

One risk is that the quality differential between the famous names and local players could turn viewers off. Allazeez says it will be up to Saudi players to raise their game.

“They need to understand today that they have to be of a higher standard in order to represent teams as great as those in the Saudi league,” he said in July. 

But Carlo Nohra, chief operating officer of the Saudi Pro League, said the Saudi situation is best compared to the US Major Soccer League (MLS), which has grown gradually in stature since its start in 1996. 

“Other leagues have been through the same thing – the MLS comes to mind. It’s taken them many years. It will be exactly the same journey for us,” he told CNN on August 18. 

“Five to ten years is the time horizon for the strategy. We’ll reevaluate at that time and see how we need to modify the course to keep moving forward. But this isn’t something that’s going to stop.”

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