The Saudi Pro League has made big-money transfers and worldwide broadcasting deals, but is it creating fans?
On June 5th, it was announced that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund would take over four of the country’s top football clubs. The chosen ones were Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, and Al Nassr.
Having already signed former Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo to Al Nassr, the PIF, and the rest of Saudi Arabia’s clubs, made it a mission to increase the number of big-name foreign players competing in the country’s Pro League.
Nearly three months have passed since PIF’s investment in the four clubs and the loosening of purse strings at the league’s other teams. Since then, football fans across Europe have woken up to the news of another player linked with a transfer to Saudi Arabia every day.
The Saudi Pro League landed a coup by signing reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, and Brazilian Neymar. The trio of players are just some of the names that have landed in Saudi Arabia for the 2023-24 season.
Will foreign big-name transfers lead to creating new fans?
With the transfer window in Saudi Arabia open until September 7, the league is trying to continue its disruption of European football. Although some fans of non-Premier League teams argue that the Saudi teams are using the same tactics as clubs in England, it isn’t quite accurate.
Rather the tactics employed by Saudi clubs are more closely related to those of Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, and Real Madrid; clubs willing to change the financial structures of football to acquire players.
There is no doubt that the Saudi Pro League’s teams are willing to spend money to secure big-name players. The problem the league has is creating fans outside of the country. The Pro League is the No. 36 ranked league by Opta in the world in terms of strength. It is just seven places below Major League Soccer.
In the days leading up to the Pro League’s opening day, DAZN announced it had secured the rights to broadcast games in the United Kingdom. Additional streaming services and television broadcasters around the globe worked out deals to show Pro League games. But with the league four matches old, there are few, if any, current reports on the viewership numbers of the competition.
It feels like broadcasters agreed on a deal with the Pro League based on the assumption that fans would want to watch Ronaldo, Benzema, and Neymar. The Pro League clubs have an all-star cast of players, but that doesn’t mean fans will watch the matches.
The old North American Soccer League is an example of a league with plenty of stars and poor local talent that failed to attract large viewing numbers. Comparing the NASL and any modern soccer league is foolish, however. Television and football coverage was far different in the 1970s and 1980s. It isn’t like comparing apples and oranges, it is like comparing TV watched with antennas and streaming services.
In February 2023, it was reported that Ronaldo’s arrival at Al Nassr had led to an increase in viewership seven times the previous number. Unfortunately, the report was released by websites that may not have the most reputable sources.
All the articles that declared Ronaldo increased viewership failed to explain the number of viewers the Pro League had before the player joined Al Nassr. This is one of the problems when researching anything about the Saudi Pro League. There isn’t transparency. It is difficult to find sources with factual or accurate information.
Are clubs reaping the rewards in attendance?
According to Transfermarkt, Neymar’s Al Hilal have the highest average attendance in the Pro League this season, with 36,628 fans per match. Transfermarkt’s attendance figures from 2022-23 show a stark contrast. Al Hilal averaged just 9,854 fans per game. Al Hilal have played just two games at home thus far this season, so the attendance could flatten out as the campaign wears on. But Neymar hasn’t played a league game yet.
Despite the transfers and the billions of dollars spent on talent, the attendance figures don’t jump off the page. Some reports have claimed very few fans are attending some of the Pro League teams’ games. This could be partly due to the lack of investment in certain clubs and the stifling heat that is currently engulfing Saudi Arabia. Attracting foreign fans seems like a difficult task.
Although Europe has plenty of football tourists, it remains to be seen if many supporters will make the trip to Saudi – especially with alcohol being banned. For those that think alcohol won’t stop tourists from travelling to Saudi for games, then they have likely never experienced fan culture in Europe.
Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of Ronaldo going to Saudi Arabia is the number of Al Nassr shirts worn by kids in the United Kingdom. This doesn’t mean those kids are watching the Pro League, however. It is also likely that the shirts were bought on eBay as bootlegs rather than official jerseys from clubs or sportswear stores.
Perhaps already seeing that foreign fans aren’t too interested in the Saudi Pro League, the competition’s powers that be are trying to find a way into UEFA. The Pro League is currently a part of the Asian Football Confederation but wants to realign with UEFA to play against the biggest teams in the world. This is part of Saudi’s masterplan of being more relevant in the football world.
What about the local Saudi talent?
Saudi teams have no maximum number of foreign players they can sign. Several clubs, including Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, and Al Ahli have already signed up 10 foreigners. With several days left until the transfer window closes, additional clubs are aiming to fill foreign player spots.
The last week has seen Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, former Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj, and Barcelona’s Ansu Fati linked with moves to Saudi Arabia. With so many foreign players linked with moves to the Pro League, it begs the question: What about the local Saudi talent?
The Pro League’s teams can practically play a full team of foreign players. Saudi football hierarchy would argue that having so many high-quality foreign players will improve the overall quality of the entire league. It doesn’t take much to understand that that isn’t necessarily true. The Chinese Super League is the perfect example of foreign talent failing to improve the local talent’s overall quality.
Saudi does have far more money to invest in its football infrastructure than China. But the success of the Pro League’s spending will largely depend on how well the current crop of players enjoy life in the Middle East. The nightlife of Europe won’t be a part of life in Saudi Arabia.
Once again, there is an argument to be made that the Premier League has had large numbers of foreign players competing in the competition for the last two decades. The difference between the leagues, however, is underneath the foreign talent in the Premier League, there have always been strong domestic players.
Can the Pro League rival the top five leagues in Europe? Pro League’s clubs can throw around as much money as they want. In the end, the history of Europe’s top clubs and leagues are likely to win out. In the eyes of the executives in Saudi Arabia, fans will follow the players. Yet, they are making a big mistake. No player is ever bigger than a football club.