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Saudi sports push ‘winning global audiences’

Saudi sport Power Sport Images Ltd/Alamy
Footballer Neymar Jr, one among many soccer stars attracted to the kingdom, makes his first appearance as a player for the Saudi Pro League club last August
  • 50,000 articles on Saudi soccer
  • Golf also very popular
  • Kingdom ‘should double down’ on sport

Saudi sports investments are winning a global audience as the kingdom tries to overcome charges of “sport washing”, a major survey of media coverage said this month.

Media analytics consultancy Carma found that coverage of human rights in Saudi Arabia fell in favour of “a sports-related narrative” around the world, including in the West.

The survey covered online and printed material from more than 14,000 media outlets.

Carma found more than 50,000 articles covering football. “Media in every part of the world showed interest in the Saudi Pro League,” it said. Indonesia accounted for 15 percent of coverage, followed by the US at 12 percent.  

Last August the Saudi professional football league sold broadcast rights to 12 networks across 130 countries for its 2023-24 season, after a huge spending spree on world-class players, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Jordan Henderson and Ruben Never. 

Carma also found wide interest in the PGA-LIV golf tour, formed in June last year when the US PGA Tour agreed to merge with the Saudi-backed rival LIV Golf.

This attracted more than 26,000 news articles, globally, 52 percent of which were judged to be positive in tone. 

Huge sports investments have extended to other sports once seen as niche or non-existent in the kingdom including golf, snooker, Formula 1, boxing, mixed martial arts, tennis, baseball and even darts.

The October 2023 announcement of an annual E-sports World Cup in Riyadh garnered 2,100 articles, 70 percent of them positive. 

Qiddiya, a sports and entertainment city, is being developed outside Riyadh and will include a gaming and e-sports district

Saudi Arabia hopes its massive economic transformation programme will make the country one of the world’s top seven economies by 2030, with tourism accounting for 10 percent of its GDP. 

Mazen Nahawi, Carma’s group CEO, said the report’s results suggest Saudi Arabia should double down on the role of sports in its branding strategy. 

“The plan is working. If you’re a Saudi decision-maker or budgeting sport you’d want to look at prioritising key areas,” Nahawi said on a conference call. 

In an interview last September, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman brushed aside Western criticism of huge spending in sports, including e-sports, in order to improve the country’s image.

“If ‘sport washing’ is going to increase my GDP by 1 percent, then we’ll continue doing sport washing,” he told Fox News.

“I don’t care. I have 1 percent growth in GDP from sport and I’m aiming for another 1½ percent.”

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