Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made sports a key plank of diversifying the economy away from oil. Image Credit: Twitter / Al Nassr FC

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia is considering a push to attract more outside investors to bolster its top football competition, part of a strategic revamp that’s started with an influx of star players from Europe.

The Saudi Pro League is discussing the option of new broadcast deals and partnerships with private equity companies to grow the competition’s appeal as the kingdom works to become a powerhouse in the world of professional sport, according to people familiar with the strategy.

Saudi Arabia’s $700 billion wealth fund and state oil firm Aramco last month took control of several Pro League clubs. The aim is for the new owners to build up the teams’ brands and revenues and then sell stakes to investors including global private equity companies to benefit from their expertise overseeing sports teams, one of the people said, asking not to be named because the talks are private.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made sports a key plank of diversifying the economy away from oil. Star players including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly have recently announced they’ll join the Saudi league, already the footballing home of Portuguese superstar Christiano Ronaldo.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ettifaq club has also named former England and Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard as its new manager.

Private equity companies - among the biggest recent investors in football teams and related infrastructure - have held talks to invest in leagues in France and Spain, though a similar plan in Germany was voted down by clubs. They’ve also taken stakes in individual teams, including RedBird Capital Partners in AC Milan and Toulouse FC, and Clearlake Capital in Chelsea.

The goal is to improve the terms of the contracts as more star players join and team values rise, the person said.

The Saudi Pro League has worked with sports agency IMG to sign short-term agreements with broadcasters in around 30 markets including Portugal, China and Italy to broaden the competition’s international exposure, the person said, adding that the revenue haul for these deals is less than $10 million a year. Earlier this year, the league hired seasoned sports-rights expert Peter Hutton, a former Eurosport and Fox Sports executive, as an adviser.

The kingdom has said it hopes that the privatization of teams will help quadruple the Saudi Pro League’s annual revenue to $480 million by the end of this decade. The competition made headlines in December when Ronaldo joined a Riyadh-based team on a contract reportedly worth $200 million a year.

A spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Sport did not answer a specific question about a desire to attract private equity investment into the league. He did say that the 2022-23 season witnessed its highest ever live audiences, with more than 2.2 million people attending games. He said that matches were broadcast in 170 countries.