Saudi Arabia is making a substantial push to secure a prominent position in world football, attracting some of the sport's biggest talents to the country through a $1 billion spending spree.
The Saudi Pro League is banking on the likes of five-times Champions League winner Cristiano Ronaldo, reigning Ballon d'Or holder Karim Benzema and Brazilian striker Neymar – the competition's record buy at a reported $98 million – to drive up attendance figures, draw in extra TV viewers and bring in major sponsorships.
The kingdom is clearly shooting for the stars under an ambitious sporting strategy led by its sovereign Public Investment Fund, which has taken controlling stakes in four of the country's leading clubs, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, Al Nassr, and Al Ahli, to oversee the bold vision.
Saudi leadership wants to position the Saudi Pro League as one of the top 10 football leagues in the world and also have their eyes on hosting a World Cup, following the success of the global spectacle in Qatar last year.
The significant outlay is showing signs of paying off – though there is still much work to do to compete with the commercial juggernaut of England's Premier League and boost attendances which average at 8,500 so far this season.
The SPL said this month that the number of sponsors has grown about 75 per cent this season, claiming the competition has become the third most profitable league in the world in relation to sponsorship revenue.
Here, The National examines the rapid rise of the Saudi top flight and talks to insiders and experts on how it is aiming to achieve its lofty goals.
The Ronaldo effect
Seif Swailam, a sports consultant in Riyadh, believes there is a long-term plan behind the heavy investment in players such as Ronaldo.
“Bringing top athletes such as Ronaldo, Benzema and Neymar is a game changer in more ways than one,” he said.
“Not only does it promote Saudi football but also the country’s 2030 vision. As part of their bid preparation to host the 2030 World Cup, some of the current superstars will act as ambassadors to boost Saudi Arabia’s chances to host such a big event.”
Attracting world-renowned players is crucial to the growth of a once unheralded league, in no small part thanks to the fact that it opens the door to secure the support of sportswear's big three of adidas, Nike and Puma.
In July, Al Nassr announced that Nike – which enjoys a lifetime deal with the club's marquee player Ronaldo – would be their new kit supplier.
Although financial terms were not revealed, it is likely to be a lucrative partnership, with 38-year-old Ronaldo viewed as integral to getting the deal over the line.
Nike also produce kits for Al Ittihad, which count former Real Madrid forward Benzema and France's World Cup winner N'Golo Kante among their ranks.
Al Nassr's commercial team have been busy since Ronaldo swapped Manchester United for the Middle East in December.
In June, the club signed a platinum sponsorship agreement with King Abdullah Financial District Development and Management Company, whose KAFD branding is now front and centre on the team's shirt.
A month later, a three-year gold sponsorship was signed with Aroya Cruises, Saudi Arabia's first domestic cruise line.
The value of the agreements has not been disclosed.
Ronaldo's impact is also apparent in the huge upsurge in the club's social media presence. Al Nassr had about 860,000 followers on Instagram before his arrival – a figure which is now fast approaching 20 million.
Influence beyond the pitch
Meanwhile, Al Hilal is now home to both Neymar and Puma, with whom he signed a $28 million-a-year agreement in 2020.
Puma and Al Hilal announced a five-year partnership in June. In September, the club unveiled a stylish new Puma-designed kit inspired by the phases of the moon.
“It’s the best of both worlds to be partners with a football giant like Al Hilal and have Neymar, a well-known and reputable Puma athlete, on board wearing our kit,” Taner Seyis, general manager of Puma Middle East, told The National.
“Neymar is a Puma athlete who has sported our football boots in different iconic games previously, watching him become a part of Al Hilal increases our drive to innovate further as we strengthen our bond with Al Hilal and the region.
“We have immense belief in our thriving region, and how football will continue to prosper in it.”
Adidas has agreements with another of Saudi's big four, Al Ahli, as well as with the national team.
Raising the league's profile
It is not just individual clubs reaping the rewards.
In August, the SPL said it had secured a series of broadcast deals to televise Saudi games in more than 130 countries.
The league has teamed up with DAZN in multiple territories (Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, and the UK) as well as major European broadcasters Canal+ (France), Sport TV (Portugal), La 7 (Italy), Marca.com (Spain) and Cosmote (Greece), among others.
Last year, Saudi real estate company Roshn paid $127 million for the naming rights to the pro league in a five-year deal.
Mohammed Sayeed Khan, an independent management consultant and a researcher with a focus on Middle East sport and culture, said that despite the presence of Puma, Nike and adidas, international brands are largely missing out on chance to be part of the league's rise.
He said the majority of brand and kit sponsorship deals still come from the local market at this stage.
Mr Khan said the shirts of Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli were not available to purchase on the official adidas and Nike KSA online stores, even after the 2023-24 season kicked off.
“The international sportswear brands sponsoring the SPL football clubs are failing to capitalise on this golden opportunity to increase jersey sales, and in turn revenue, in the Mena region,” he said.
Mr Khan said that international brands as a whole have largely shunned opportunities to sponsor the SPL football clubs so far, a decision he feels is misguided.
“The international brands need to realise the potential of SPL and its constituent football clubs, given the presence of superstar athletes such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.”
What next for SPL?
Izzy Wray, of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, said Saudi's ambitious player recruitment policy underlines its intention to challenge the European football elite for years to come.
“The ambitious number of player acquisitions and the calibre of players signed by Saudi Pro League clubs demonstrate the kingdom’s commitment to propelling the SPL to become a leading football league on the world stage,” she said.
“This is still early days of what we can call phase one of the Saudi Pro League project, and the futuristic view is also reflected by the lowered average age of the league compared to last season.”
“The SPL spending is still at one-third of the Premier League’s gross spend this summer, the focus of Saudi clubs will now be on securing the success of the league’s transformation journey and its financial sustainability. The development of the league will depend on growing the professionalisation and governance of clubs, the development of young playing talent and attracting a new, international fan base.”
With Saudi clubs not restricted by financial spending caps in place in Europe, expect another big summer for the league in 2024.
Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah – strongly linked with a move in August – could be a top target again, offering SPL the opportunity to bring the Arab world's greatest player to its fastest-growing league.