MMA Stock image fighting boxing
Stock image Image Credit: Pixabay

A sports fund created by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund has acquired a minority stake in the Professional Fighters League, marking another deal into a US sporting entity by a Middle Eastern investor.

The kingdom will host PFL events, and support the development of the PFL's Middle Eastern arm, which will launch next year, according to a statement Wednesday.

Bloomberg previously reported that mixed martial arts were a potential investment target for Saudi Arabia. In a recent interview, PFL chairman Donn Davis said he would be open to foreign investment.

SRJ Sports Investment Co. didn't reveal the size of the PFL investment, but an earlier report by the Financial Times said it would be $100 million. A funding round last summer valued the league at about $500 million.

MMA in Saudi Arabia

Combining elements of everything from boxing to judo and Muay Thai, mixed martial arts (MMA) had a limited following in Saudi Arabia just a decade ago, but that started to change when the kingdom hosted the popular regional Desert Force competition in 2014.

The sport's popularity has since soared with the rise of fighters from across the Middle East and the establishment of a national MMA foundation to develop Saudi talent.

This month saw Saudi fighters Abdullah al-Qahtani and Mostafa Rashed Neda win high-profile bouts in New York's Madison Square Garden organised by the US-based PFL, an MMA promotion company that has come up in the wake of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's success.

The PFL intends to launch a regional league next year and stage other "mega-events" in Saudi Arabia, Wednesday's announcement said.

Golf, football, Formula One

Saudi Arabia has made waves in recent years in golf, Formula One and football, with Saudi clubs signing major stars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.

The Public Investment Fund launched SRJ earlier this month as part of its efforts to accelerate the sports industry in Saudi Arabia. The company is part of the kingdom's strategy to invest billions in global sports teams, players and tournaments as it seeks to boost its international soft power, attract tourists and diversify its oil-dependent economy.

The PIF, as the wealth fund is known, acquired the British football team Newcastle United in 2021 and is set to become one of the most important investors in golf globally if its LIV golf tournament completes a merger with the US's PGA Tour. The kingdom has recently spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get some of soccer's biggest stars to join its domestic league. It's also exploring a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

Middle Eastern investors have been expanding into global sports, including in the US, which has predominantly relied on domestic investment.

Qatar invests in Basketball

Qatar's sovereign wealth fund recently bought a 5 per cent stake of the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards in a purchase that valued the team at $4.05 billion.

The PFL held its first event in 2018, making it a relatively new combat sports upstart. It runs a regular season and single elimination playoff format. Champions of each weight class earn $1 million.

PFL's current list of investors include former Yankee Alex Rodriguez and Beats by Dre co-founder Jimmy Iovine. Ted Leonsis, who owns the Wizards, the Washington Mystics of the Women's National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals is also an investor, as are actor Kevin Hart and rapper Wiz Khalifa.

"Today marks a new milestone for SRJ as we make our inaugural investment," said SRJ Chairman Bander Bin Mogren. "SRJ is shaping a new era of sports in Saudi Arabia."

"This investment aims to nurture the local and regional talent pool in martial arts, promote gender equality in sport, and bring new opportunities directly to Saudi Arabia and the wider MENA region."