One of the biggest financial powerhouses in the world, Saudi Arabia, has altered the landscape of sport completely, which has prompted mixed reactions from fans across the world. Whilst their takeover in sport has been most notably over the last 12 months, there has been a history of sporting events prior to this.
In 2019, former world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua regained his heavyweight belts in the city of Diriyah against Andy Ruiz. Three years later, the Brit again had a chance over there to regain his world titles, this time against Oleksandr Usyk, on the headlined “Rage on the Red Sea” in Jeddah.
In January 2023, football club Al Nassr secured the signature of global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. The player came under a lot of scrutiny after having played at the highest level of European football for 20 years, settling for a much less competitive and less known league in the middle east. This would, however, be the start of their domination over sports.
Athletes were seen as ‘money grabbers’ by competing over there, and it’s clear to see why they’ve been branded this way. Back in 2019, Anthony Joshua reportedly made a staggering £67 million for the 12 round fight. His rematch against Oleksandr Usyk in August 2022, saw a base total purse of £150 million being split evenly between the two boxers. When Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr, he saw himself become the highest paid athlete in the world, after penning a contract worth around £200 million across two years.
A month after Ronaldo’s move to the country’s capital in Riyadh, the city’s neighbouring town of Diriyah hosted the highly anticipated boxing match, between reality TV star Tommy Fury and social media personality Jake Paul. Despite this being Paul’s first crack against a ‘real opponent, he’d made himself £30 million richer in the process.
In the summer of 2023, the football takeover started to take shape. Neymar, Karim Benzema, N'golo Kante and Sadio Mane are some of the many players that signed contracts to play in the country’s domestic league. But things looked to be even more serious when a team made offers to sign the two best players in the world today.
Al Hilal, the club which eventually signed Neymar, had also tried to sign his fellow PSG teammates the month prior to him joining. The club had first tried to sign Argentine international Lionel Messi. Their offer was extremely tempting; a three year deal which would total upwards of £1.5 billion by the end of it. Although he was interested in signing, he eventually opted to play for David Beckham’s Inter Miami in the USA.
Despite not playing in the country, the World Cup winning megastar has a deal with Saudi’s tourism agency, which will see him net around £25 million across three years to promote and take pictures of his adventures to the country, which are all fully paid by the Saudi government.
The other player who had been offered to move over was French striker Kylian Mbappe. Currently set to join Spanish giants Real Madrid in the summer, the elite forward could’ve moved from second to first last summer in the biggest transfers in football history. Al Hilal offered PSG a transfer offer of nearly £300 million to buy him, with a one year contract on the table. This one year would’ve not only made Mbappe the most expensive player in history, he’d have also become £1 billion richer, and would’ve easily become the biggest star to step foot into the kingdom.
Should Al Hilal have signed Messi and Mbappe, they’d have not only signed PSG’s entire attacking lineup, but have also signed them to the biggest contracts in the sports history. Their only successful transfer was Neymar, who signed in August to a guaranteed £300 million across two years, but this number could rise by a further nine figures via commercial deals. His deal also saw him receive a luxury mansion, car collection and private jet, all expenses paid by the club.
Come autumn, it was boxing’s turn again to be the forefront of sports and entertainment in Saudi. October marked the beginning of the annual Riyadh Season, spearheaded by Turki Alalshikh, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority in the country. October 28th saw the matchup between lineal boxing world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and lineal MMA world heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou. The “Battle of the Baddest '' saw the two biggest (literally) names in combat sports put it all on the line on a dramatic night in Riyadh, where Fury unconvincingly won a split decision victory over his Cameroonian rival. This would be the start of four giant boxing events that his Excellency would put together.
Despite losing the fight, Ngannou left the ring with a career high £10 million, far more than the six figures he made in his last fight under the UFC banner, and Fury left with a black eye and £50 million.
Turki has spoken a lot about his love and passion for the sport of boxing, and his love showed as his next show would be the biggest in the sports history. Co-headlined by Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, the “Day of Reckoning'' on December 23rd, saw the biggest names in the sport go up against each other.
Every fight alone would be a headliner on a typical boxing show, with the likes of Joseph Parker, Daniel Dubois, Dmitry Bivol and Jai Opetaia all featured on the immensely stacked card. The two biggest names on the card, Joshua and Wilder, made at least £10 million each despite not fighting each other, nor competing for a world title.
Turki Alalshikh’s Riyadh Season is still not over yet, as the undisputed heavyweight championship between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Uysk in February, and “Knockout Chaos” between Joshua and Ngannou in March, are still to unfold.
But how has Saudi Arabia changed the landscape of sports? When it comes to boxing, Alalshikh has managed to put some of the biggest fights together, a feat which has eluded other promoters who have failed to put together the fights fans have wanted to see. By the end of the entertainment festival, he’ll have had the four biggest names in the sport headline events in five months, and he’s planning for more to happen, with the undisputed light heavyweight championship being planned to take place in the second half of the year.
For football, the country has a vision and a plan to host the 2030 World Cup, which would attract many tourists and spectators to the country, which is ultimately the main reason they’ve been so demanding of high level sport being held over there. A lot of the money Saudi has is because of the massive oil industry, but when that oil’s gone, they need to look at new ways of generating cash. By hosting the biggest sporting events there, they’ll be able to lure tourists from around the world to travel to see the many spectacles, bringing in massive amounts of revenue. The country has taken a dabble into other sporting fixtures, including golf, tennis, Formula 1 and WWE, which all have large followings across the world. Saudi Arabia isn't just taking over sports, they seem like they’re taking over the world.
But some people aren’t happy about this from a humanitarian standpoint. The 2022 World Cup hosted in Qatar faced a lot of scrutiny due to that country’s bad human rights record. And ultimately fans see it as a cash grab for everybody. However it has meant that some of the biggest fixtures in sport have been made due to the pay days on offer, which does sway the opinions from fans, but the overall consensus is a love-hate relationship towards the Saudi vision.