The big-spending Saudi Pro League is aiming to build its global broadcasting presence and become one of the top 10 soccer leagues in the world, its chief operating officer, Carlo Nohra, told CNBC on Thursday.
The league dominated the sports headlines over the summer as Saudi clubs cumulatively spent more than $1 billion in transfer fees and attracted some of the biggest names from Europe’s top leagues with mammoth contract offers.
Brazilian superstar Neymar and Senegalese forward Sadio Mane followed the previous arrivals of former Ballon D’Or winners Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, along with a host of other stars from the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1.
Speaking to CNBC at the APOS conference in Bali, Indonesia, on Thursday, Nohra said that Saudi Arabia’s strategy is “extremely long term,” but that the acquisition of players was the first step.
“While that helps us grow on the pitch, the idea is to grow off the pitch and to commercialize as well, so the strategy takes in every element that we need to focus on to get the Saudi Pro League to where it aspires to be among the top 10 leagues in the world,” he said.
The kingdom’s massive investment in sport is part of a broader effort to diversify its economy away from oil by investing in commercial infrastructure to become a tourism, leisure and entertainment powerhouse.
It is also being used to bolster the country’s global reputation, with critics arguing that the ultimate aim of Saudi Arabia’s investment in soccer, golf, boxing, motor racing, and many other sport and entertainment ventures is to distract from its dismal human rights record.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a recent interview with Fox News, embraced accusations of “sportswashing” and said he did not care about the criticism, so long as the massive sporting investments ultimately yielded 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 through the acquisition of world-class players, to fill the country’s stadia and ultimately to drive the commercialization of the vastly improved overall product.
“We had a long, hard look at ourselves, we’ve discovered that we need to improve the governance of the league, we need to improve the product itself and the commercialization of that product, better understanding of our fans,” he said.
“The player acquisition presented some issues that needed to be addressed, the clubs’ capabilities needed to improve so we’ve looked at that as well, and equally how we’re organized as a league in order to compete at the global level.”
Along with the domestic revenues the government is hoping to generate through in-person match attendance, capitalizing on Saudi Arabia’s young population’s love of the sport, Nohra also said the Saudi Pro League was looking to expand its broadcast presence around the world.
“Since the introduction of Cristiano Ronaldo into the league in January, we’ve seen global distribution expand to unprecedented levels for Saudi soccer, and through the acquisitions this summer, we’ve had renewals across the board with now the needle moving on the commercialization of those rights across the world,” he said.
“So we’re delighted with where we are at the moment but we still need to continue to deliver for fans across the world what they now wish to have from Saudi football.”