Positively Funding the League
The Saudis have cash to burn, and PFL is a fire blanket, but what does this mean for regional PFL and MMA? As the competition heats up, will the funding leave some fighters out in the cold? We smell a rat – read on to find out.
Saudi Arabia has been on a spending spree, spending more than $6.3bn on sports deals and sponsorship since early 2021. The Saudis have outspent themselves in the last two years by quadrupling sports investment from previous years, completely changing the face of soccer and professional golf.
Investing in the Future of Sport
Financial investments made by the Saudi PIF (public investment fund) and tourism authority have hit the headlines with purchases in the UK’s Premier Football League and the introduction of four professional Saudi soccer clubs, attracting big names including Karim Benzema. At the same time, Lionel Messi enjoyed Saudi hospitality but eventually signed for the US MLS team Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami (Inter Miami).
Saudi Arabia hosted the Fifa World Cup in February 2023, a pairing some thought would never happen. You might ask what this has to do with PFL and MMA, and the answer is not much. Except it does, not specifically, but the point is Saudi Arabia is investing, and they are not shy about splashing the cash; whether it’s good or bad for PFL and MMA, it’s happening.
The Kingdom brought together Jake Paul, a YouTube celeb, and Love Island’s Tommy Fury to fight in Riyadh for a hefty payment and a share of the PPV (pay-per-view) sales. It is a stunt that some hardcore MMA fans consider insulting but nevertheless promotes Saudi’s vision of the sport as more mainstream entertainment.
To go a step further, SRJ Sports Investments, a Saudi-owned sports investment company, bought a minor share in the US PFL to create regional tournaments designed to expand mixed martial arts, aiming to bring global events to Saudi Arabia.
Creating a Buzz
As publicity goes, the Saudis are experts at creating a buzz, and the next target is a Middle East and North Africa league launched by the PFL to stage events in the Kingdom to be a disruptive force in the US sports season format.
The PFL has welcomed this investment as a step towards exponential growth and a fighter-first format. Investing in sports is part of the rebranding of Saudi Arabia as a global force and tourist destination. Some have called the extreme investments ‘sportswashing’ – a way to change the world’s view after the negative press surrounding women’s rights, homophobia, and the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who opposed the Saudi regime.
The PFL and The Crown Prince
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is the chairman of the public investment fund, so what he says goes. The prince is a big fan of MMA and boxing, paying $60m to host Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua in a heavyweight match in 2022.
Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince in 2015 after the death of King Abdullah. It was from this point that all sports, particularly MMA, gained popularity, taking the regional Desert Force competition of 2014 mainstream in 2015 and encouraging fighters from the Middle East and Africa to compete commercially with the help of the Saudi-backed foundation.
On the back of the Ultimate Fighting Championships, the last few years have been so successful that Saudi contenders Abdullah al-Qahtani and Mostafa Rashed Neda have won at Madison Square Garden in New York, going on to launch PFL Europe. Plans are afoot to have six international regional leagues known as ‘The Champions League of MMA.’
The Fighter First Initiative
Boxing and MMA are not known for a caring ethos, and on first impressions, this Fighter First initiative looks like progress, but what does it actually mean? On the face of it, not much. It doesn’t mean fighters get more say or even more money; just ask UFC star Francis Ngannou. Ngannou has signed with PFL to continue fighting as a top heavyweight in the MMA.
Speculation over the contract wranglings included problems with health insurance and personal sponsorships, suggesting that the Fighter First Initiative is not looking after fighters, especially regarding healthcare. Ngannou signed, nevertheless, and will fight exclusively through the ‘Super Fight PPV’ franchise system.
The 36-year-old champion fighter is at the end of his career, even if he doesn’t think so. Ngannou insists he will fight, but it’s more likely he is cashing in, ending his career to become a PFL global advisory leader and an equity owner in PFL Africa.
Investment in Sport
Sport raises people, which is true for Parwaiz Arabzai, a professional mixed martial arts fighter from Afghanistan. Arabzai left Afghanistan nine years ago, arriving in France in 2014, and lived on the street for some time before he found MMA.
Now, Arabzai represents France in international contests and hopes that the PFL Europe will support fighters like him. By promoting sports initiatives, you can generate funds for poverty programs, increase awareness, and help mobilize resources to alleviate poverty through partnerships with local and international organizations, and this must be the aim of any new sport-affiliated foundation.
In conjunction with the Saudi-backed PFI, we look to the PFL and the MMA to enable sportsmen and women to compete, but the fact is it’s worldwide demand that is enticing investors like PFI to buy stakes in PFL and MMA because it’s a global untapped market.
Money makes money; you get the cream if you’re first in. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Saudis are onto a winner. By investing, they get a stake in an untapped audience with massive PPV revenue opportunities plus a global reputation overhaul. If that’s not a win, we don’t know what is!
The PFL and MMA get publicity and a crack at the ratings, but what about the fighters? If there’s any sportswashing going on, it’s with the Fighters First Initiative. PFL and MMA Fighters have never come first, and venture capitalism like Saudi’s PFI is only interested in winners and returns. The fighters are fodder; it’s sad but true.
All we can hope is that the boost in funds helps the fighters from lower leagues to realize their dreams, and the Middle East and Africa PFL do their job and support players – and you know what, that might just happen.