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Naperville Central High School's award-winning newspaper.

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Column: Stop Saudi sports washing

Ashley Whelchel

In the first ever installment of The Stat-us Quo, I argued on behalf of some of the lowest paid professional athletes in the world.

This year I’m trying a different tactic- arguing against some of the richest, highest spending people in the sports industry: sports-washing Saudi Arabians.

For those uninitiated, sports washing is “bankrolling big-name sporting events in order to distract from a poor record on human rights,” according to the Guardian.

In America, Saudi Arabia’s primary sports washing venture is the LIV Golf tour. LIV was formed as a competitor to America’s PGA (Professional Golfers Association) in 2021, and is entirely funded by Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). 

LIV used the resources of the SWF to buy players away from the PGA, paying elite golfers like Phil Mickelson up to $200 million to join the tour.

The tour cost the SWF $750 million in its first year, according to The New York Times, but that somehow didn’t stop the league from merging with the PGA tour and placing the manager of the SWF as the president of the new organization’s board.

This might not seem problematic to you, but according to a Times interview with Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy, sports washing is “establishing the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia — not just as an event host or a sporting powerhouse, but legitimate in the eyes of decision makers and governments around the world.”

Sports washing has a real impact on geopolitics, if not because sports mask the Saudi’s questionable human rights record, then because it flexes the sheer fiscal might of Saudi Arabia.

According to the Guardian, since 2021 Saudi Arabia has spent $6.2 BILLION dollars on sports deals, between LIV Golf and the purchasing of soccer players for the Saudi Pro League.

Al Nassir, a Saudi soccer team, is paying Christian Ronaldo a reported $75 million a year, according to Aljezeera. The highest paid English Premier League player (Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City) makes $21 million a year, according to Spotrac.

Other sports leagues just can’t compete with that. That is, most other sports leagues.

No matter how much money Saudi Arabia pours into sports, you can bet the U.S. has more money to spend. According to CNBC, Americans spent $55.6 billion on watching sports in 2017. NBC Sports reported that the NFL made $11.98 billion in 2022.

That is an absurd amount of money. Of course, much of that money was spent on sports that the SWF doesn’t care about – Football (the American kind), baseball and basketball – but America has the ability to compete in the sports Saudi Arabia is taking over too. When Inter Miami CF signed Lionel Messi (who turned down $300 million dollars from Saudi Arabia, according to Forbes), he became easily the best player ever to play soccer in the US’s Major League Soccer (MLS). 

Shortly after, team ticket prices surged by over 1,700%, according to CNBC.

Americans want good soccer, it is clear. Messi turned down that Saudi offer to come to America, and as a result boosted Inter Miami’s revenue greatly. 

Imagine what could happen if MLS clubs began to compete with the Saudis for players. Imagine if the U.S. got Ronaldo. If they get Mo Salah, or any other athlete the Saudis are after.

More importantly, imagine preventing the Saudis from gaining power by dominating international golf and soccer with their wealth.

Fighting the SWF’s spending means so much more than stopping a golf deal or making US soccer better. It has real geopolitical implications, and if America wants to stop an authoritarian nation from gaining more power, they need to fight.

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About the Contributor
Jake Pfeiffer
Jake Pfeiffer, Editor-in-Chief
Jake Pfeiffer is a senior, entering his third year on the Central Times staff, this time as Editor-in-Chief. Jake joined CT as a sophomore because he wanted to write news, but since then he has grown to love just about every element of journalism. While it is rare to see Jake anywhere other than the CT office, occasionally you can find him captaining Central’s debate team, watching baseball, listening to a seemingly endless amount of podcasts or drowning in college applications.
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