When the NBA needed a new country to continue its global expansion, it turned to the United Arab Emirates, which was eager to help stage preseason games an ocean away.
“It checked a lot of boxes for us,” said Mark Tatum, the NBA deputy commissioner who oversees global strategy for the league.
When boxing promoters dreamed up a fantasy match between heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and mixed martial arts star Francis Ngannou, they partnered with Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich country that’s doling out impossibly large checks and upending the sporting establishment.
“They’re taking over the game. … Within five years, 10 years, they’re going to be the powerhouse of all sports,” Fury said. “All of the big sporting events will be in Saudi Arabia.”
When Ted Leonsis was looking for an investor to bolster Monumental Sports, the D.C.-based company that owns seven sports franchises, he found willing — and deep-pocketed — partners in Qatar.
“Big money is coming in from all over the world because sports has become a big, influential business,” Leonsis said. “We punch way over our weight class in terms of our value.”
An influx of money from the Middle East is reshaping the global sports power structure and sparking debate over the source of funding — nations buoyed by oil reserves but derided for their treatment of women, workers, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the discomfort runs deeper, with its connections to the 9/11 attacks and the 2018 assassination of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
Yet leagues, teams and athletes are increasingly finding the money difficult to resist, leading to investment, influence and infrastructure. The result: global realignment of athletic resources and clout that is only poised to accelerate, as detailed in interviews with more than 50 governing bodies, stakeholders and experts in sports, geopolitics and human rights.
“What we are now beginning to see is this intersection of geography and politics and economics shaping sport,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in Paris. “… What countries are trying to do is to build identity, accumulate power, project that power and exert influence through sport.”
While the region reels from Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack in Israel and the ensuing conflict in Gaza, the surge of sports investment has only continued. The NBA and the UFC held events in the UAE last month, and the Saudis staged a tennis tournament in Riyadh. Tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz agreed to meet in an exhibition match next month in Saudi Arabia, and the UFC announced plans to hold fights there next year. But biggest of all, with Australia backing out of FIFA’s bidding process, Saudi Arabia is now the lone nation seeking to host the 2034 World Cup, which would be the country’s biggest sports coup to date.
The flood of new money is creating new business opportunities and helping stabilize leagues and teams, but it has sparked heated debate over the nations’ motivations. While those Persian Gulf countries have faced criticism for sportswashing — using sports to deflect from human rights abuses — many experts say the motivations are more nuanced: diversifying investments, promoting tourism, encouraging public health and, yes, improving their reputations on the global stage. But officials across sports and the U.S. government fear the full ramifications of accepting seemingly unlimited oil money haven’t been fully realized, while others are adamant that oppressive regimes shouldn’t be rewarded.
“This is only going one direction right now,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who’s leading a congressional probe of the PGA Tour’s alliance with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, said in a recent interview. “… So I think it’s worth asking: What does that mean? What are the ramifications and potential consequences?”
The headlines are landing weekly, trumpeting shocking team purchases, lavish sponsorship deals and lucrative contract offers, all with unprecedented strings of commas and zeros.
The countries are feverishly courting high-profile athletes. Tiger Woods was reportedly offered more than $700 million to join Saudi-owned LIV Golf, while soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is reportedly earning $220 million per year to play in the Saudi Pro League. Basketball star LeBron James joked on social media in July that he would sprint to Saudi Arabia like Forrest Gump “when they call [his agents] for that 1 year deal!” — and then in September he traveled to Riyadh, where he and his agent took selfies with the country’s minister of culture.
In the wake of last year’s World Cup in Qatar, the gulf countries are also increasingly angling to host some of the world’s biggest sporting events, including world championships, cycling events and Formula One races, as well as the Saudi World Cup bid and rumblings of a future Summer Olympics in Qatar.
They already have scooped up some of the world’s best-known soccer franchises, including Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar), Manchester City (UAE) and Newcastle United (Saudi Arabia). And they’re eyeing entire leagues, too: Beyond golf, the Saudi PIF reportedly has attempted to purchase Formula One, WWE and Qatar-based broadcaster beIN Sports, and it has made overtures that could remake women’s golf and the men’s and women’s tennis tours.
Once focused on international shores, the tide of money has recently hit the United States. In addition to LIV Golf’s proposed partnership with the PGA Tour, the 54-year-old tennis tournament in Washington is now called the Mubadala Citi DC Open, courtesy of a naming rights deal with the Emirati wealth fund. And the Qatar Investment Authority put up an estimated $200 million to own a small percentage of Leonsis’s Monumental Sports, which controls the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. It’s the first sovereign fund to purchase a stake in a team in the top four U.S. sports leagues. (MLS club New York City FC is majority controlled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi.)
Companies from the Middle East are throwing money into American sports, too, with the Saudis’ Aramco (Formula One), Qatar Airways (NBA), Etihad Airways (MLS) and the Emirates airline (U.S. Open) sponsoring major teams and events. More than $4.5 billion has been committed to sports properties by the region’s sovereign wealth funds in the past three years, according to an analysis by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
Those well versed in the economics and geopolitics of sports say this is just the start. When the NBA and NHL allowed Qatari investment in the Wizards and Capitals in July, analysts and key stakeholders said the move signaled a new age of foreign investment, and they anticipate that oil money will continue to flow freely into American sports. The NFL is the only major U.S. league that still prohibits sovereign fund investment, though a special committee has begun exploring potential changes to its strict ownership rules.
“To use a sports analogy, we’re not even midway through the first quarter,” said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant who has helped broker deals around the globe. “This is a megatrend, one that’s going to be growing for the next decade or longer and will crescendo probably in two decades or so.”
On the global stage
It’s not unusual for a country to use sports to accrue power or showcase itself on the global stage. And doing so is not limited to autocracies, either.
For decades, Europe and North America were the major power centers in sports. That’s where events were staged, rules were formulated, organizing bodies were based and money was made.
The advent of free agency, TV rights deals and sponsorship opportunities catapulted the United States further to the forefront. The 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, which relied heavily on private corporate dollars, are still considered the most financially successful Olympics, offering a blueprint for mega-sporting events.
The 1988 Seoul Summer Games laid the groundwork for the growth of sports in Asia, rebranding South Korea for much of the Western world and spurring China’s pursuit of the Olympics. Globalization and free trade opened doors around the globe — Sport 2.0, as Chadwick calls it. The launch of the English Premier League in 1992 upended soccer’s business model, allowing it to negotiate its own broadcast and sponsorship deals and making clear that commercial interests were driving sports at all levels.
“Sports has become an investable asset like real estate, like stocks and bonds,” Ganis said. “… And it is only going to grow as an asset class.”
Chadwick, editor of “The Geopolitical Economy of Sport,” calls the next phase Sport 3.0, with nations increasingly using sports, together with the digital media boom, as an instrument to achieve broader policy goals. This is also when more Arab nations began taking an interest. As sports budgets were slashed around the world, particularly in Europe, traditional hosts were less able to stage costly events such as the Olympics. Russia, China and eventually countries in the Middle East had money to spend and a marketplace in need.
“At a time when Europe is struggling economically and is questioning its relationship with sports, others are adopting a very different position,” Chadwick said.
“What you get across the gulf is you get copying,” Chadwick said. “And so what Abu Dhabi is doing, Qatar follows. And because of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, Saudi Arabia follows.”
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a spending spree, launching more than 80 companies and investing in dozens of others, including an $8.9 billion stake in electric car producer Lucid, $2.98 billion in Electronic Arts, $3.3 billion in Activision Blizzard and $2.3 billion in Uber. It also has hundreds of millions invested in companies such as Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, and The Post’s interim chief executive, Patty Stonesifer, sits on Amazon’s board.)
According to the PIF’s most recent public report, less than 2 percent of its investments have been directed toward sports and entertainment. But the Saudis sank $2 billion into launching LIV Golf and are prepared to plunge billions more into their new partnership with the PGA Tour. And the country is actively trying to transform the Saudi Pro League into a competitor with the Premier League. Saudi clubs, backed by the kingdom and its sovereign wealth fund, spent $957 million in the 2023 summer transfer window, according to a Deloitte analysis, to lure some of the world’s best players to what historically has been a lower-tier league. In all, the Saudi Pro League added 94 overseas players, including stars Neymar, Karim Benzema and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
“Its leadership is making a big and bold entry, playing the role of disrupter more than institutionalist,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Economic diversification and nurturing political influence are goals, but Saudi Arabia also needs to change global perceptions of the country from a place that is inhospitable and vaguely threatening to one that is welcoming and fully integrated into the global economy and culture.”
The Saudi PIF, as well as other wealth funds and government officials across the region, declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the PIF governor, told CNBC in June that “what’s going on right now in Saudi is unprecedented anywhere else in the world.”
Potential for blowback
Micky Lawler, head of the Women’s Tennis Association, said the Saudis have approached her tour with overtures that could upend the economics of the sport. But everyone who strikes deals with the Saudis — or other gulf nations, for that matter — must contend with the potential for blowback, grapple with sportswashing accusations, try to reconcile a long history of human rights violations and guess at the country’s new direction.
The WTA has yet to partner with the Saudis, but Lawler notes the tour has assessed its options and believes the Saudis are “still the most conservative of the countries” in the region.
“But I do see that changing,” she said.
To be sure, there are geopolitical benefits to being a player in the sports industry. It raises the profile of nations that for decades were only associated with oil production; it offers prestige to outsiders and a sense of national pride to the local population; it gives these nations a seat at the global table, greasing the wheels for trade and commerce; and it changes the conversation for some, from discussion of abuses and misconduct to talk centered on games and athletic achievement.
“Sportswashing is a moral claim, and it has merit,” said Smith Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute. “… But it fails to capture the full scope of their ambitions. They are angling to be global players. Saudi leaders want to attract millions of talented individuals to visit, work and live in the country, and they will do so through sports, arts, entertainment, technology, tourism. This will change their own people and, if successful, it will change the way we think about the country.”
Mary Harvey, chief executive of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, said while there are serious issues in Middle Eastern countries worthy of attention and action, she called sportswashing a “loaded phrase” that has become “overused.”
And the term doesn’t fully capture the motivations behind Middle East investment, experts said. The sovereign wealth funds want a return on their investments. Government leaders are eager to build up tourism. And promoting sports is a public health matter in many gulf countries, where obesity rates are significantly higher than in much of the world, with one study finding 1 in 3 people in the Middle East is overweight.
FIFA faced heavy criticism for choosing to stage the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but it dismissed detractors who were howling over soccer’s global governing body aligning itself with a country long criticized for human rights abuses.
“For what we Europeans have been doing around the world for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said on the eve of that World Cup.
Academics point out that sports have offered these allures for decades, and they certainly didn’t originate in the Middle East or with China or Russia. Several Olympic hosts have staged the Games with the aim of boosting their world standing despite problems in their own backyard — human rights abuses, gender inequity, political turmoil, poor treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, poverty and homelessness.
“Every country has used sports to burnish its national image, including the U.S., including Russia, including China,” Harvey said.
Michael Goldman, a sports management professor at the University of San Francisco, notes that the United States will co-host the 2026 World Cup and will welcome the 2028 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles as much of the world struggles to understand this country’s gun policies, mass shootings, election woes, police brutality, homelessness, corporate corruption and access to medical care.
“One could ask who the hell is America or Europe to determine how the rest of the world should operate?” he said. “You know, the Western world has only been in charge for about 150 years. Before that, other parts of the world were in charge for much longer.”
Yoav Dubinsky, a University of Oregon instructor focused on international sports, said sportswashing is “in the eye of the beholder” and is not a phrase that is used or interpreted equally around the world. “It is mostly a term Western stakeholders use to delegitimize nondemocratic countries for the way they use sports.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t think much of the term. He views his country’s investments in terms of numbers and said sports now make up 1.5 percent of the Saudi gross domestic product.
“Well, if sportswashing [is] going to increase my GDP by 1 percent, then we’ll continue doing sportswashing,” he told Fox News in September. “I don’t care. I have 1 percent growth of GDP from sport. I’m aiming for another 1.5 percent. Call it whatever you want — we’re going to get that 1.5 percent.”
The demographics of the region make it a utopia for advertisers and sports leagues alike. In the UAE, nearly 70 percent of the population is male. In Saudi Arabia, more than 63 percent is 30 or younger. In Qatar, expats make up nearly 90 percent of the population.
“There is a real burgeoning economy for sport,” said Adam Kelly, president of IMG Media, given a populace that’s “young, hungry, passionate about sport.”
Lawler has seen rapid cultural change firsthand. The WTA held its season-ending championship in Qatar from 2008 to 2010 and began staging events in the region in 2001 with tournaments in Dubai and Doha. She recalls the limitations placed on women there — something as simple as finding a gym — but said progress is more noticeable with each visit to the region.
“It’s much more Westernized,” she said. “Still protecting the Middle Eastern charm and culture and tradition, but it is a totally different world.”
As it considers a partnership, the WTA can’t ignore the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. Accepting money from the Saudis or sending its top players to compete there can’t be taken lightly, Lawler said.
“They’ve shared with us their vision, their 2030 vision, and gender equity is the first order of business,” she said. “So that is very encouraging for us to see.”
Power and influence
Michael Payne has traveled the world and witnessed firsthand how sports can transform a region. A longtime executive with the International Olympic Committee, he was sent to China more than three decades ago and took part in early discussions about bringing the Games to Beijing.
There were steps that needed to be taken — staging smaller events first, getting seats on key committees, building the necessary venues, shaking the right hands. In the years that followed, China invested heavily in sports, eventually hosting the Summer Games in 2008 and the Winter Games in 2022, its rise running parallel to its growth as a powerful global trade partner.
“Now that the Middle East is coming of age, they’re all saying, ‘Well, hang on; that has worked well for Asia, [so] we’ll follow the same playbook,’ ” Payne said.
Qatar is set to host the basketball World Cup in 2027 and the Asian Games in 2030, steppingstones to a likely bid for the 2036 Summer Games. Saudi Arabia will host soccer’s Asian Cup in 2027, the Asian Winter Games in 2029 — which will involve truckloads of artificial snow — and the 2034 Asian Games. FIFA cleared a pathway for Saudi Arabia to host the 2034 World Cup, and Mohammed formally announced last month that his country is bidding on the tournament.
In cities such as Dubai, Doha and Jeddah, government leaders have spent the past decade building out infrastructure, relaxing laws and swinging open their doors to welcome outsiders. In many ways, today’s shifting landscape is a result of those actions.
“They want more people there. For the longest time, it was insular,” said Ganis, the consultant, who has been in the middle of billion-dollar deals involving ownership changes, stadium financing and sponsorship agreements from Washington to Hong Kong. “These are social changes — sports, tourism entertainment — that are going to alter the region forever. It’s enormous, and it’s going to keep getting bigger and more significant as time goes on. It’s transformational what is happening right now.”
The sports world is studying it all closely. For some, the influx of money, wherever it originates, is good, increasingly propping up the sports economy, giving organizations the resources they need and providing athletes the opportunity to hone their craft and compete.
“Is it bad? If I’m America, it’s bad if I care about running things. If I’m an entrepreneur in America, though, and I’m interested in more resources in the industry, like LIV Golf, it’s good,” said Goldman, the sports management professor. “And if I’m prepared to put my morals or my human rights concerns to one side — as I have to do when I conduct business anywhere, even in America — then as an entrepreneur, this is great. This is more people coming in with bigger checkbooks looking to do good business.”
But money has always driven change and dictated shifts of power. While most international governing bodies are still based in Switzerland and the United States and Europe are slated to host several huge events and are still home to the world’s biggest leagues and most valuable franchises, the global sports industry is in flux.
“In policy terms, the United States and the European Union, Britain, France and others need to start responding to what now confronts them in elite professional sport,” said Chadwick, the sports and geopolitics professor. “If they don’t, they’re going to wake up one morning and they’ll find that they’re in serious trouble.
“Unless something dramatically changes in the world anytime soon, then the writing is on the wall already. Moving forward, the apocalypse is — the 2050 apocalypse is — we’re not in charge anymore. Europe’s not in charge; United States is not in charge. And countries elsewhere in the world — broadly speaking, countries in the Global South — in sporting terms at least, are the countries that have the power and the influence.”