OT: Just how much of the global sports scene will Saudi Arabia take over?

Golfer Dustin Johnson signed with the LIV Golf tour in May of 2022. Photo courtesy of golfdigest.com.


Overtime, or “OT,” is an opinion column series where the Collegian takes national sports headlines or polarizing topics and gives them a Butler-centric angle

Saudi Arabia and controversy are two entities that have often been associated with one another — whether that be the numerous human rights violations that occur within its borders, the wars started by the government or the drilling for the country’s lucrative oil

According to Amnesty International, a global human rights advocacy group, the country has killed many of their own people via the death penalty, with a high of 81 deaths happening on March 12, 2022. Outside of the inhumane use of the death penalty, the country has implemented laws that further undermine women and immigrants within the country

All of this and more is why the country is expanding their capital revenue to further invest in sports through their Vision 2030 campaign, most notably with soccer and golf. 

The big salaries seen all over the news headlines attempt to cover up any association the government has with human rights violations, with the biggest salary of them all being offered to Kylian Mbappé. The French soccer superstar was offered a one-year contract worth over $750 million for this upcoming year from Saudi Pro League leader Al-Hilal, but declined and decided to stay with Paris Saint-Germain

Many fans such as Fia Sheldon, first-year mechanical engineering and computer science double major, believe that the reason for Saudi’s rise in the sports scene revolves strictly around money. 

“I do not blame the athletes themselves,” Sheldon said. “Money is money, and going into a career the goal is to want [money]. However, I am a firm believer that money only ruins sports because it causes the rich to get richer.” 

However, Mbappé is not the only high-powered soccer superstar Al-Hilal targeted in the past months. According to TransferMarket, the club successfully landed Neymar Jr. with a nearly $100 million transfer fee to go along with his $400 million contract. Other top clubs in the Saudi Pro League such as Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad have dropped a government-funded pretty penny as well. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were both lured in within the past year, each making $400 million dollars over the next two years. 

Due to these high-paying contracts from a controversial entity like Saudi Arabia, many fans such as first-year biology major Manny Lakombe believe these actions bring into question a player’s love for the game. 

“I have been watching soccer for years,” Lakombe said. “This is not the first time a league like the Saudi [Pro] League has tried to poach players, but nobody has done it to this extent. It feels like players are playing for money and not the passion and pride like we are used to. [The Saudi Pro League] is starting to corrupt the [soccer] world.” 

Soccer is not the only sport the Saudi Arabian government has set its sights on. Starting in June 2022, the country backed the LIV Golf tour and started to offer and poach some of the Pro Golf Association’s (PGA) biggest names away from the game. 

The plans for the LIV Golf tour were years in the making, but everything began to fall in place on May 31, 2022 when Dustin Johnson signed with the tour for a reported $125 million. This move by Johnson was soon followed up by premier European talents such as Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Martin Kaymer who all followed suit. Just a week later on June 6, 2022, the tour would sign three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson to a $200 million contract. 

As all of this unfolded over a year ago, the PGA would send out a letter to all of its members announcing that the 17 golfers competing at the Centurion Club with the LIV would be suspended or ineligible for future tour events. During the first event in June 2022, LIV would announce the round of recruits featuring Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau and Pat Perez. As June came to end, more and more former PGA Tour winners would secede to LIV including Brooks Koepka, Carlos Ortiz and Matthew Wolff. As each week passed, there was more and more animosity and money revolving around the two tours. 

Despite this, two of the biggest names in the sport stayed strong and true to the PGA Tour: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. LIV CEO Greg Norman would publicly announce that Woods had turned down an offer in the “neighborhood” of $700-800 million. On the other hand, McIlroy, who was never offered money by the tour, stated he would rather retire than join the tour, “even if it was the last play to play golf on earth.” 

The animosity between the two tours would dwindle down before it was announced June 6, 2023 that the two tours would become an alliance to stop the destructive litigation to work to a definitive agreement. 

Although the animosity between the two tours got quite ugly, some fans such as Jack Parsons, a first-year psychology and neuroscience double major, believe it is ideal that the two leagues can now come together and coexist. 

“LIV is definitely a different take on golf,” Parsons said. “There is a lot more fan involvement, and it is not a very professional setting. [The alliance] makes sense; there is too much skill between the two leagues for them to completely separate.” 

In addition to the Saudi advancements on the soccer and golf scene, there are still plenty of sports Saudi is starting to take control of. On Aug. 30, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund announced they had bought ownership in the Professional Fighters League (PFL), and had already set a Saudi-based expansion into motion. According to AllSportDB, over the next two years, along with the PFL, Saudi Arabia will be hosting the World Weightlifting Championships, the World Combat Games, the Equestrian Global Champions Tour, Handball Super Globe, FIBA 3×3 World Tour, Fencing Cadet and Junior World Championships, the Equestrian World Cup, the World Boxing Tour and the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. 

Playing host to the world championships of eight different sports is just as productive of a way in taking over a sports scene as poaching players is. The Saudi Arabian government does not give a lot of public information on the true goals of their Vision 2030 initiative. However, when there just so happens to be an outgoing bid for the FIFA World Cup in the same year, the dots start to connect. 

But for a country that is careless about human rights and is money hungry, who knows just how far the nation will go to get that bid? Regardless, the Vision 2030 initiative does not end for another seven years. Only the Saudi Arabian government knows how much more they can take control of in that time. 


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