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Accessing the Impact of Saudi’s billion dollar spendings

In the Summer of 2023, the Saudi Pro League spent around a billion dollars in the transfer window. Now that we are halfway into the 2023/24 season questions must be asked. How much has the spending affected world football and football in Saudi Arabia? 

Keep reading as we do an early assessment of the Saudi Pro League. 

Saudi Pro League Growth Assessment

Saudi Vision 2030 included a comprehensive plan for the development of football in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis invested heavily in their football league as a part of their long-term plan to make Saudi Pro League the top 10 leagues in the World. Today we look at where is Saudi Pro League ranked in the world and how much has the development plan worked out so far.

A Quick Recap: The Emergence of the Saudi Pro League. 

In case you have forgotten or were unaware, the Saudi Pro League first made headlines in the January transfer window last year when AL Nassr signed Cristiano Ronaldo. But it was the summer transfer window that saw the Saudis extend their financial muscle. 

In June 2023, it was announced the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIL) which owns the Premier League club Newcastle United, would take over 75% of the management of the top 4 clubs in the country dubbed as the “big four’: Al Hilal, Al Nassr, AL Ahly, and Al Ittihad. 

A few Other Companies had management changes as well as they tried to boost the investment in other Saudi Pro League clubs. 

All this led to the arrival of superstar players like Karim Benzema, Neymar Jr, Ngolo Kante, and Riyad Mahrez among others, and not only veterans but they also recruited younger players like Ruben Neves, Gabri Viega, and Jota. 

According to Transfermarkt, the Saudi Pro League outspent all other leagues barring only the English Premier League which spent more than double the amount of all the the others. 

Now let us look at how has the spending affected the league. 

How has it affected the players? 

The transfer window saw an influx of foreign talent, but most of the marquee signings went to the PIL-owned clubs. AL Nassr already had Cristiano,  Karim Benzema went to AL Ittihad, Neymar went to AL Hilal, and so on.

However, if you look at the percentage of foreigners in the league, the league is still dominated by the local players. According to Transfermarkt, the Saudi Pro League consists of 70% of local players and 30% of foreign players. 

When we compare this to other leagues in Europe, The Premier League has the most number of foreign players with 68.2% foreigners, followed by the Serie A with 63.3% foreigners, Bundesliga has 48.4% foreigners while La Liga has 41.7% foreigners. 

The reason behind the Saudi Pro League being dominated by local talent is quite simple most of the big-money signings went to the PIF-owned clubs. 

Recently in a match between AL- Nassr and Al Riyadh. AL Nassr fielded only 4 local players whereas their opponents AL Riyadh had the opposite they only fielded 4 foreign players. 

This shows that the amount of international talent is more at big clubs and while having domestic players might not be a bad thing, the talent must be distributed equally to make this a competitive league. 

How Competitive is the Saudi Pro League? 

The biggest question that came after the Saudi spending spree was about its competitiveness. There is no definitive method of calculating a league’s competitiveness but according to Opta’s ranking of the World’s Strongest League, The Saudi Pro League has climbed to the 27th position in the world. 

Opta analysts also did a direct comparison between the MLS and the SPL and what would happen if both the leagues were combined into a single league. The top 3 strongest teams in the league would have been Saudi Pro League teams namely AL Hilal, AL Ittihad, and AL Nassr. On the other hand, 13 out of the 14 weakest teams would also be from the Saudi Pro League. 

This means that while the Saudi  Pro League has a bigger talent pool, the MLS as a whole is a more balanced league when compared to the Saudi Pro League.

How many people are watching the SPL? 

The Saudi Pro League secured several international broadcasting deals across 130+ territories for the 2023/2024 season of the Saudi Pro League expanding its reach to the global market. 

In India, Sony Sports Network secured the rights for the Saudi Pro League for 2 seasons. However, if you tune in or check on their streaming platform majority of the matches you will find will be of the big four clubs. 

If you look at it there definitely is better access to the Saudi Pro League across the globe as compared to previous years. 

But access does not always equate to people watching it, so the exact viewership numbers at the end of the season will be interesting to look at. 

How many people are attending the matches? 

In the first month of the new season, the Saudi Pro League recorded a 24% increase in attendance. A 24% might seem great but the majority of this increase equated to the big four clubs. 

Let us look at the attendance of the clubs that didn’t spend as much money in the transfer market: 

Club Average attendance(2022-23) Average Attendance (2023-24) 
AL Tai 4,3984,798
Damac Club 3,6845,222
AL Raed SFC4,7156,246 

As you can see there isn’t much of an increase in attendance of the teams with no star powers and what little increase is because of the big 4 clubs visiting the stadium.

The Big 4 clubs top the list of the highest average attendance and enjoy a crowd of over 50,000 for the derbies, the league as a whole is quiet at the place where they would have liked. 

The Saudi Pro League is at 5th in terms of highest average attendance in Asia, sitting behind the likes of the K-League, The ISL, The CSL, the Iranian League, and the J-League. 

While the average attendance might have increased compared to previous years, it’s all because of the big 4 clubs who make up 90% of the Saudi Pro League’s total attendance. 

Conclusion: 

The Saudi Pro League is still in its early stages and thus it will be harsh to make a definitive conclusion at this point. Their primary focus was to bring global attention and the local’s interest to Saudi football. Which they have done to some extent. 

Currently, the Saudi Pro League is a top-heavy league, most of the attention they got was because of the players they signed and the most recognized clubs are the PIF-funded big four clubs that signed these marquee players. 

They were quite successful in creating buzz around their league and bringing in a new audience which was their target for the short term but the Saudi approach — endorsed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — looks built for the long haul, even if the initial splurge on player recruitment might slow down. and it will be interesting to see how they move forward in making this a more sustainable and balanced project. 

What do you think?

Written by TackleFromBehind

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