The Saudi Pro League will continue to invest significantly to realise its ambition of becoming one of the world’s top domestic competitions, but its focus is on financial viability for its clubs, insists the league’s chief operating officer.
The kingdom has this summer embarked on an extraordinary player-recruitment drive, attracting some of the game’s most prominent footballers to its lead division.
Brazil star Neymar and Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema headline the high-profile arrivals – the pair signed for Al Hilal and champions Al Ittihad, respectively – and have been joined in the Saudi Pro League by, among others, current African Footballer of the Year Sadio Mane, Manchester City treble winners Riyad Mahrez and Aymeric Laporte, 2018 World Cup winner N’Golo Kante, and former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, made the move to the kingdom last December, with Riyadh’s Al Nassr.
The unprecedented investment has been made possible in part by Saudi’s sovereign wealth vehicle, the Public Investment Fund, taking majority control in June of the league’s traditional “Big Four” clubs: Hilal, Nassr, Ittihad and Al Ahli.
With a long-term objective to eventually rank as a top-five league, the SPL's strategy forms part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 project, which aims to diversify the economy of the world's chief oil exporter. The kingdom has targeted raising the SPL's market value from 3 billion riyals to more than 8 billion riyals by 2030.
“It's a commitment that has been made to transform football in the country, along with a lot of the other mega projects that you see,” said Carlo Nohra, the SPL’s chief operating officer.
“So, for the time being, there is a commitment by the government to continue doing this, but it is incumbent on us, and our responsibility really, that we realise the commercial potential of the product.
“And that's what we at the SPL have to do, whether that's through broadcast commercial revenue in all its guises. It's going to take us a while before we can generate as much as we're spending at the moment, but ultimately, we're going to have to find that balance between the two.”
In the past year, the league has worked specifically on attracting sponsors while at the same time securing broadcast deals with international media companies.
Nohra, who previously worked as assistant general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation and also chief executive of both the UAE top-flight and Emirati club Al Ain, said overall revenue has grown “somewhere between 150 to 200 per cent” from the beginning of last season to the start of the 2023/24 campaign earlier this month. Matches are said to be aired at present in around 140 countries.
“It's going to take a while for us to get there, but that's the main objective: to get everybody to stand on their own feet,” Nohra added. “I've said on a number of occasions that football should be a net contributor to [gross domestic product] and not costing the government money – especially given the passion for the sport in this country. So that's what the strategy really aims to achieve.
“But, first and foremost, you've got to have a good product, and for that good product, you need quality. One of the objectives that we were set is improve on-pitch performance, with world-class players competing.
“So what everybody sees and hears is just players coming in. But yes, that is part of the strategy, but it's not exclusively it.”
Asked how many more windows he envisaged the current level of spending to sustain, Nohra said: “I don't think there is a time horizon to any of this. I don't think there can be. Because, again, the commitment is to improve the quality of the product, and we've seen this everywhere in Europe as well: you have to continue spending in order to maintain the status that you want.
“And if you want to play that game, then you've got to be able to do it on a long-term basis. But it's not something that we've set a five, 10 or 15-year span to. We’ve just said, ‘This is what we need to do. This is the commitment from the leadership to support the project, and that's what we'll aim to do’.
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“The only thing that will hopefully transition is how much of the money that has been spent is self-generated versus granted from the government.”
The league’s spending has raised concerns from outside the kingdom regarding what is perceived to be a disruption of the transfer market in terms of inflated fees and player wages.
Last month, City manager Pep Guardiola said Europe’s clubs “need to be aware what is happening” as they continue to lose stars to Saudi.
“What I can tell you is we're not doing anything that hasn't been done before,” Nohra said. “But for some reason there seems to be an allergic reaction to what’s happening at the moment. And I don't understand that.
“There was a time when [Italy's] Serie A was taking all the best talent, and they were spending what we're doing at the moment. And then [La Liga] went through that: [England's] Premier League is going through the same. You've got to pay for quality, and that's what we’re doing.”
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has urged Fifa to investigate why Saudi Arabia’s transfer window closes almost a full week after Europe’s. The Anfield club have already sold Henderson to Al Ettifaq and Fabinho to Ittihad, with Mohamed Salah linked heavily to the Jeddah club, too.
“Fifa doesn't mandate that the dates for every national association have to be the same,” Nohra said. “In Saudi Arabia, we selected September 7. This doesn't necessarily give us an advantage, because some of the players we may be after may have already committed [to other leagues' clubs] by that point because they need to if they want to stay in Europe. It’s not designed to give us an advantage.”
On the criticism levelled at the league, Nohra said: “I certainly think there is a bit of ignorance associated with it, because they don't tend to see what others have done, as I've just explained.
“It's important to have perspective. Yes, people hadn't seen this before, certainly from this part of the world, and all of a sudden, we're here. But it's almost a cookie-cutting approach, right? Others have done it; we're doing it.
“We're trying to deliver for our people the best product we can. This isn't about the US, about Europe, about Asia; it's about Saudi Arabia. And we've almost become immune to criticism or whichever way you want to describe it, because the heart is in the right place: we're trying to deliver for the Saudi people what we believe is best for the Saudi people.
“If others are jealous, envious, critical of it, then they've got to reconcile among themselves, because we're doing what we genuinely believe will deliver for the Saudi people the entertainment, the experiences, that they deserve to have.
“We don't compare ourselves to what's happening elsewhere; we don't criticise what is happening elsewhere. We just go about our business for our people, and I hope and wish that people outside of Saudi Arabia would understand this context of the story.
“Because it's an essential one. This is more of a social project than just a sporting project.”