How Saudi Ambition will Reshape Football
I had the pleasure of working with Saudi Pro League over the past 12 months to help them conceptualise and articulate their vision. Their stated goal - 'to be a Top 5 league in 10 years or sooner' - is hugely ambitious though not unachievable. However, any perceived success depends on how you measure it, and that means thinking about what the metrics of 'Top 5' could be in a decade's time.
The arrival in Riyadh of world superstar Ronaldo earlier this year was a sign of intent. But - as was widely commented at the time - 'one good player doesn't make a great league'. With the flood of other top name talent to SPL this month, I suppose the question now might be reframed: 'How many good players does it take to make a great league?'
Signing dozens of world class players is one approach, but other challenges exist too.
One is the absence of meaningful international and regional competitions for SPL clubs. In contrast, the UEFA Champions' League is a global product and serves as a magnet for the best players to sign for the clubs who routinely compete for its top prize. Winning the SPL or the Asian Champions’ League, as Saudi clubs routinely do - and did pre-Ronaldo - isn't currently the stuff of dreams for little boys on Liverpool's housing estates, Paris' banilieu, or the Flavela of Sao Paulo. Bumper pay days are of course nice, but you'd rather show your grandchildren a Champions’ League winners medal than a photo of a big cheque.
The relationship between top clubs and top leagues is symbiotic.
Clubs from the top leagues which now dominate the Champions’ League - Man City and Chelsea from England's Premier League, Barcelona and Real Madrid of Spain's La Liga, and Inter, Milan and Juventus out of Italy's Serie A - not only bring great value to themselves but make their leagues more attractive too. Today, it could be argued, a successful league is measured by how many of its teams win the top club prize. But that would effectively say, only European leagues can rank top as only their clubs can compete for the big trophy, ruling SPL and other aspirant global leagues out of the running for a coveted top 5 spot.
Another key metric is the economic value of the leagues. Over the past 20 years, huge amounts of cash have been poured into owning and growing football clubs. Man City, Newcastle, Paris St Germain, and others have seen new mega-rich-owners takeover their boardrooms. As well as the Sovereign Wealth Funds from oil-rich nations, U.S. private equity and 'Big Sport' franchises have stepped in too. The injection of all that cash has inflated - perhaps artificially - the value of the leagues where these clubs ply their trade, and for SPL's ambitions, counterproductively, has seen Saudi, Qatari and Emirati money leave their respective nations’ game rather than enter it.
The other big metric, and one which is evolving rapidly as technology and demographic patterns change - is broadcast media, rights deals, and valuations.
The undisputed king of the football broadcast deal is the English Premier League (EPL)- able to command - and receive - payments for its rights in multiples of any other league out there. The EPL's $3Billion deal is twice that of its nearest rival and roughly as much as La Liga, Serie A and Germany's Bundesliga combined.
Currently, SPL receives just $70Million from their state-owned broadcaster for exclusive rights to games. Some gap to close.
So, seen through today’s football lens, the SPL’s aspiration may appear fanciful at best - unable to compete for the top trophies, cash barrelling into European clubs, and TV rights deals pumping Luton vs Bournemouth into the sitting rooms of the world whether they want it or not - the challenges to realise that dream of top 5 are not insignificant.
Improving Football Competitiveness; Reforming Club Ownership and Governance; and Engaging a new Global Audience are difficult steps on a pretty steep sand-dune the SPL must climb to reach the Top 5.
But progress is being made, starting with our strategic evaluation of the road ahead.
As with any huge ambition, it is vital to have buy-in from the very top.
The Kingdom has a 2030 Vision which has sport, wellness and activity for its youthful population very much in mind. 63% of the Saudi’s 35million population is under 30, but sadly, in a place with searing heat and sedentary lifestyles are dominant, more than 60% of its residents are deemed obese. Becoming a top 5 league is not only important for the growth of global sports business in the Kingdom, it also has a wider and more holistic ambition too.
It also helps to be realistic and focussed. While the gap to EPL, Bundesliga and La Liga’s metrics and valuations may be a stretch goal for the far future, France’s Ligue 1 – currently in fifth spot – appears to be a much easier fish to reel in.
And multi-year strategies require flexibility. The forward looking, long-term nature of these ambitions also allows for the goalposts to be adjusted as circumstances change. The business of football, and therefore the solution to SPL’s challenge, is constantly evolving.
But progress up those steep slopes is already underway.
Last year, the idea of a European Super League was floated, fans hated it, and it retreated, though it was never formally killed. What if that idea were to return with a set of global clubs competing?
The FIFA World Club Championship, which European clubs have treated as a glorified friendly and marketing opportunity in the past, may be just that. It will have a new name - The Club World Cup - and a new format from 2025 with 32 teams competing, occurring every four years, and a host nation to be selected by the Zurich big wigs.
Interestingly, the final version of the old-format World Club Championship will take place in Saudi Arabia in December this year.
The new format competition may provide Saudi clubs – and their star-studded rosters - with the opportunity to regularly pit themselves against the very best which, up until now, they have been unable to do. UEFA clubs will be joined by those from South America, Africa, North and Central America and of course, Asia.
In a decade’s time, who is to say that this tournament won’t be the pre-eminent football competition in the world – not only surpassing the UEFA Champions League but maybe eclipsing the national team version of the FIFA World Cup. Farfetched? Ask many fans worldwide who they prefer to follow, and their clubs often come first.
Then there is the money. While massive investment into global football clubs will probably not abate – the franchise and multi-club model is proving an attractive proposition for equity investors – the Saudis have now diverted chunks of their vast fortune into their own domestic league. The Public Investment Fund, the most powerful policy and economic vehicle in the Kingdom, has taken ownership of some of the top clubs in SPL and lower leagues, and is instigating new governance rules, perhaps with a view to attract overseas investment into Saudi football rather than the other way round.
With Financial Fair Play rules failing to level the playing field in global football, having well-resourced clubs, capable of signing and developing top talent, and competing in global competitions, may give Saudi football a leg-up in its pursuit of top 5 status.
So, if clubs can play more compelling and vital fixtures, have ownership and governance models which allows them to trade players and improve infrastructure like stadiums, training facilities and commercial operations – we may just have a product more fans are interested in.
While a die-hard Bolton Wanderers fan or an Ultra from Lazio may not be tempted to switch allegiances, the billions of football fans in Asia and Africa without a local team to follow may align with an Al Nassr, Al Hilal or Al Ahli because their favourite players are there and, for little or no cost, they can follow their fortunes.
If you aren’t ‘born into’ a club, the choice of who to follow is very wide. Liverpool, Celtic, Man Utd, and Chelsea all have global fan bases which far outweigh any local support they might muster. Speaking to a senior executive at Arsenal earlier this year, she said the challenge her team faces is building the connection and engagement with global football fans who will never step foot in London let alone make it to the Emirates Stadium. This requires a radical overhaul of the systems and mindset for ‘heritage clubs’ who have focused on ‘in stadia’ engagement and converting more supporters to become match-going fans.
But for emerging clubs like those in Saudi, stacked with global superstars who are already carefully and successfully curating their own brands, you would start to address this challenge in an entirely different way.
Why would you chase simply converting a few hundred fans a year to ‘go to the game’, attempt to upgrade their membership status, or push them towards premium pay-to-consume content, when you could build a global tribe counted in hundreds of millions for a fraction of the cost?
Social media - TikTok, Reels, YouTube, Snap – is where your next fans are. They diet on short-form video, on-line gaming, brand extensions and activations, and welcome and expect culture, music and celebrity cross-over campaigns. These would be your tools of choice, and the mobile phone-based supporter is probably the season ticket-holding fan of the future.
When Ronaldo signed for Al Nassr, there was interest from the global football community. Suddenly, international broadcasters and streaming services from sub-Sahara Africa to his home nation of Portugal wanted to carry Al Nassr games.
The traditional response from a league’s media agency would have been to arrange a rights auction, generate a bidding war and try to extract maximum monetary value. But the shrewd Saudis, not really needing the revenue, instead saw the real opportunity - a way to share Saudi football with a broader audience. And while Ronaldo and Al Nassr were the headline act, here was an opportunity to also put other teams and players in the spotlight.
With a new English-language website and social media platform carrying match highlights and key insights, 74 global broadcasters taking a package of live games and highlights and fledgling relationships with football influencers in key markets across Asia, Middle East and Africa – the Saudi Pro League was quickly recognised as a place of momentum, provoking curiosity and further investigation - the ‘fastest growing league’ in the world was popping up on TVs and second screens around the world.
This summer we will see a few more big names move to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There will be sceptics who say its is just about the money – and for some it will be – but this is a much more considered project than many are giving it credit for. It has hurdles and headaches and significant challenges to overcome still, but if betting was allowed in Saudi Arabia, I may be tempted to have a little flutter on them succeeding.