Player purchases are just the first step in the strategy

  • The league dominated the headlines over the summer as Saudi clubs collectively spent more than $1 billion in transfer fees and attracted some of the biggest names from Europe’s top leagues.
  • Speaking to CNBC on Thursday at the APOS conference in Bali, Indonesia, Nohra said Saudi Arabia’s strategy is „very long-term” but acquiring players is the first step.

The high-spending Saudi Pro League aims to build its global broadcast presence and become one of the world’s top 10 soccer leagues, its chief operating officer Carlo Nohra told CNBC on Thursday.

The league dominated sporting headlines over the summer as Saudi clubs collectively spent more than $1 billion in transfer fees.

Former Ballon d’Or winners Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo were followed by Brazilian superstar Neymar and Senegal forward Sadio Mane, along with a host of stars from the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France. Ligue 1.

Speaking to CNBC on Thursday at the APOS conference in Bali, Indonesia, Nohra said Saudi Arabia’s strategy was „very long-term” but acquiring players was the first step.

„While it helps us grow on the pitch, the idea is to grow and commercialize off the pitch, so the strategy takes every element we need to focus on to take the Saudi Pro League to where it wants to be. The top 10 leagues in the world,” he said.

The kingdom’s massive investment in sports is part of a broader effort to wean its economy off oil by investing in business infrastructure as a tourism, leisure and entertainment powerhouse.

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It is also used to boost the country’s global reputation, with critics arguing that the ultimate aim of Saudi Arabia’s investment in football, golf, boxing, motor racing and other sports and entertainment ventures is to distract from its poor human rights record.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accepted accusations of „sports washing” and said he was unconcerned by the criticism as long as the massive sports investments ultimately made a positive contribution to Saudi GDP growth.

Nohra explained that the objectives handed down to the Saudi Pro League’s bosses were to firstly improve on-pitch performance by procuring world-class players, filling the country’s stadiums and ultimately driving the commercialization of a vastly improved overall product.

„We’ve had a long, hard look at ourselves and we’ve discovered that we need to improve the management of the league, improve the product and the commercialization of that product, and better understand our fans,” he said.

„Player acquisition presented some issues that needed to be addressed, the skills of the clubs needed to be improved, so we looked at that as well, and how we organize ourselves as a league to compete globally.”

Along with the domestic revenue the government hopes to generate by capitalizing on Saudi Arabia’s youth interest in the sport and attendance at live matches, Nohra said the Saudi Pro League is looking to expand its broadcast presence around the world.

„Since the introduction of Cristiano Ronaldo to the league in January, we have seen global distribution for Saudi football expand to an unprecedented level, and with the acquisitions this summer, the needle is now moving on the commercialization of those rights around the world,” he said.

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„So we are happy with where we are at the moment, but we have to continue to give fans around the world what they want from Saudi football right now.”

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