• The Saudi Arabian Football League – Sustainability and It’s Threat to Top Clubs

    Published Tuesday 04 July 2023 3:22pm

    13 min read

    The Saudi Arabian Football League is establishing itself as a footballing giant. Find out more about sustainability and its threat to top clubs here.

By WherestheMatch Team

When Cristiano Ronaldo announced that he would be leaving Manchester United to join Al Nassr of the Saudi Arabian Football League, fans around the world went into shock. While he didn’t exactly light the Premier League on fire, he did show glimpses of brilliance in what was otherwise a pretty average United side. This led most of the world into believing that rather than calling it quits on an exceptional career, he would go on to represent a somewhat smaller European giant in a bid to extend his records and sustain himself at the top level for at least another few years. Following in his footsteps several months later was his old Real Madrid strike partner Karim Benzema who also couldn’t resist the lure of a league that, at the time of his move, didn’t even come close to the top 10 most competitive leagues in the world. With an onslaught of European players making the switch to the Middle East this transfer window, it’s worth taking an objective look at the Saudi Arabian Football League – is it just a passing fad, or a genuine threat to top European clubs?

Chinese League 2.0?

Those with an eye on some of the more exotic football leagues around the world will know that this isn’t the first time an unexpected country has made a bid to establish themselves as a footballing giant. In the 2016-17 season it was the Chinese Super League that was splashing serious cash with their teams spending upward of £400million on high-profile players such as Alexandre Pato, Oscar, and Carlos Tevez. The league looked to be on an upward trajectory for several years with teams such as Guangzhou FC and Shanghai Port FC building pretty decent squads and slowly becoming more widely known even outside of Asia.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like anyone involved gave very much thought to sustainability and most teams were in monumental amounts of debt due to the ridiculous contracts they had to dish out in order to attract top talent. Already on a downward spiral, the Chinese League was hit harder than anyone else by Covid; empty stadiums and withdrawal of sponsorships meant that its imminent demise would look to come even faster. In 2021, Jiangsu FC went bankrupt after its owners pulled support. A year later Guangzhou FC – six-time winners of the Chinese Super League and twice winners of the Asian Champions League – were relegated from the top division. The league was folding under the weight of its own star players and in order to stop half the teams from going bankrupt, authorities were forced to introduce a salary cap. Safe to say that once they stopped handing out wages of over £200,000 a week, they didn’t quite have the same pull.

The Saudi Arabian League is in a similar position to that of the Chinese, they are using their extreme wealth to purchase players well over market value and on lucrative contracts. Massively reliant on outside investment, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them fall into the same trap that many of the Chinese League teams did before them.

Why The Sudden Interest?

It’s only natural that the best football leagues attract viewership from across the world. The Premier League was recorded to have 3.2 billion viewers in 2019-20 alone, which is estimated to have generated in the region of £7billion for the UK economy. With there being a fresh season every year, this is a fantastic source of recurring income. Even a portion of this would be a massive cash injection for Saudi Arabia, especially since the country is currently heavily reliant on the sale of oil to support its economy. Being a finite resource, the goal is to diversify their investments in order to safeguard the future of Saudi Arabia for when the oil funds dry up. With 70% of Saudi Arabia’s population being under the age of 35, the demand is there and sport is as good an industry to invest in as any.

There are also accusations of ‘sportswashing’ – the idea that Saudi Arabia is steering the conversation away from their poor human rights record by becoming synonymous with something many know and love, in this instance, football. Most sport fans don’t think too deeply about it; someone buys the club you support and does a good job running it, their rumoured misdeeds are taking place on the other side of the world while your new marquee signing plays just down the road.

The Privatisation of Top Clubs

An interesting step that has been taken in order to try and boost the domestic league is the privatisation of several top Saudi clubs. Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have in the last several years been taken over by the country’s public investment fund in a bid to lessen their reliance on the state for financial support and encourage them to prosper as individual entities. A more business-like approach to their running is thought to be the best approach in order to sustain the growth they have incurred in recent years. The PIF themselves stated “The transfer of the four clubs will unleash various commercial opportunities, including investment, partnership and sponsorships across numerous sports.” The idea seems to be that by building an appealing investment environment, foreign buyers and sponsors will take more of an interest in Saudi clubs which will in turn bolster the country’s footballing infrastructure leading to sustained long-term profit margins.

This method of running a football club isn’t anything new and most teams across the globe work in the same way. The main difference however, is that due to the league’s heavy hitters all being owned by the same organisation, there are no regulations in place to encourage financial fair play, nor would there be any real reason to implement them. Think, what if Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal’s ownership could all be traced back to a single person? Wouldn’t this harm the competitiveness of the league and take away some of the incentives for winning? Until they can attract buyers who have vested interest in seeing their own team perform, the Saudi League will seem like a bit of an artificial competition which may act against one of their primary goals – to build up legitimacy as a footballing hotspot.

Sustainability and The Future of The League

Ronaldo was a massive coup for the Saudi League. Once his arrival was confirmed, the Instagram followers of destination club Al Nassr jumped to 15million from approximately 860,000. It’s also been reported that his presence alone has helped to sell league games to 36 international broadcasters. From a footballing perspective, his wages of £173 million a year seem ridiculous for a 38-year-old who is – please don’t come for my head Ronaldo fanboys – well past his best, but it’s clear that his impact off the field is what’s really in demand. You don’t have to scroll very far down his Instagram profile to get the full tourist pamphlet experience: the enjoying of attractions with his kids, pictures of food and drink at luxurious-looking bars and restaurants, as well as any excuse to flash his six-pack in the sunshine. This form of influencer marketing is a bit of a double-edged sword, it’s definitely helped to grow buzz around the division and the country as a whole, but is Ronaldo’s semi-retired attitude convincing anyone that the Saudi League is the one they need to be watching?

In the case of the Chinese league, all the problems started because money ran out. With the Saudi Investment Fund on board however, there is near-unlimited funding on offer to purchase players and grow sporting infrastructure. This is very important since the majority of the players they are currently attracting are previously world-class players who are very much at the twilight of their career and looking to claim their last major pay check before calling it quits. Karim Benzema (35), Kalidou Koulibaly (32), N’Golo Kante (32), Eduard Mendy (31) are some of the most high-profile names currently plying their trade in the division and it’s hard to see any of these players sticking around for more than a few years. The only transfer that might be a boost to the league over the long-term is that of Ruben Neves (26).

Dishing out huge wages on old players isn’t great for sustainability. You can’t help but feel that many of them are there to promote the league rather than actually raising the overall quality. Even if their presence does lead to a spike in viewership, surely this would simply drop-off again once these players retire. This means that clubs will need to keep handing out massive contracts in order to keep viewers coming back until they have enough quality to keep them invested even without the promise of big-name players.

In order to run a league that isn’t simply a drain on funds, infrastructure is key and the development of world-renowned academies and training facilities will play a major part in whether the Saudi League is able to establish itself as more than just a glorified retirement home. Their Gulf State neighbours Qatar had a progressive approach ahead of their hosting of the 2022 World Cup where they invested $1.8billion over the course of 16 years in order to try and build a competitive national team. Did it work? Not really, but they were far better than you would expect from a national team from whom the average football fan wouldn’t have been able to name a single player. A positive is that it does seem like the Saudis are aware of how important youth development is in terms of sustainability and have funnelled considerable budget into the creation and refurbishment of academies within the country. By boosting their infrastructure, Saudi Arabia becomes a more attractive proposition for football players as a whole; they might not be attracting world class talent right away, but they would certainly see an increase in players seriously considering the league as a destination even without needing to be incentivised by multi-million pound pay checks. This is a far more organic way to grow the league and a much better strategy for building a division that doesn’t collapse as soon as the state decides to take their money elsewhere.

Is The Saudi League a Threat to Top European Clubs?

After having seen Chelsea clear millions in weekly wages by sending their unwanted players to West Asia and completely resetting their financial fair play, I’m starting to believe that the Saudi League will have a genuine impact on the footballing world. Regardless of how much we want to believe, football has long been more about money than love of the game and you can’t deny the funding that the Saudis bring to the table is instantly going to make them quite a few friends. Much of the damage that the Saudi League can do is via the transfer market where their spending power has the potential to skyrocket player valuations making more ludicrous contracts the norm. This isn’t all that much different to what many top European clubs do themselves, but to be willing to spend so much on average or old players hurts the clubs that would might otherwise be competing for their signatures. It’s these players – the ones who might not have the greatest prospects of playing in the top competitions, who will likely consider the Saudi League a very attractive move.

There’s a long way to go until top players in their prime consider the Saudi League a potential destination, but if the money keeps flowing and they keep investing in infrastructure at a youth level, there’s no reason why – for better or worse – the league can’t become one of the best in the world.