Last Sportswashing, takeovers, and controversial investors. It was the topic of the Summer, Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of your favourite sport. What does it all mean? Has the early reaction displayed misplaced prejudice? Or is the widespread concern justified? Let us break-down what LIV Golf and the Saudi Pro League actually are.

Back in 2021, the golfing world witnessed a game-changing development with the announcement of LIV Golf, a direct rival of the PGA Tour. Led by former world number one, Greg Norman, and backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Known in short as ‘PIF’, the government’s sovereign wealth fund is estimated at a staggering $776 billion, set aside to fund the wants and wishes of the Saudi parliament.

LIV Golf assembled an exclusive cohort of 48 players after the PIF invested $2 billion to start up the tour. LIV hoped to develop an arena-style atmosphere by introducing music on tee boxes, relaxed golf attire, 54-hole tournaments, and smaller playing fields. Ultimately, joining LIV required professional golfers to resign from the PGA Tour, a decision made enticing by staggering amounts of money. Reports suggest that Tiger Woods turned down a $600 million offer to join the tour.

If you are one to keep up with Sky Sports news, a transfer geek, or just a football fan in general, you’ve probably had your ear-full of Saudi League bulletins over the last seven or eight months. Much like LIV Golf and their (monetary) strides in the last few years, the Saudi Pro League is largely funded by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Football’s newest powerhouse has been characterised by cheques, figures and money signs, but is that really indicative of the entire league’s financial behaviour?

The emergence of the LIV Tour drove a wedge between professional players. Phil Mickelson, well known for his controversial reputation, became a cheerleader for the LIV Tour. His motives were questionable, especially in light of his widely publicised gambling debt. Mickelson’s allegiance was not driven by a genuine desire to improve the game but merely for financial gains. For other players at the end of their careers, it was a deal too good to be true.

Contrary to what many would assume, the Saudi Pro Football League, as a whole, isn’t actually overwhelmingly wealthy. With just five clubs out of eighteen accounting for 93% of the league’s net spend, only a select few have access to the never-ending fruitful money tree.


But before we go into finances, let us establish the big guns.

To which Ronaldo led the way for European stars at the end of last season, and also sees the likes of Marcelo Brozovic, Talisca and Aymeric Laporte lining out in their yellow and blue strip.

The highest spender in the league of 2023, Al-Hilal completed an SPL-record transfer for Neymar Jr. back in August, while also securing deals for Bono (no, not that one), Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ruben Neves.

Spending the previous season in the second division, the Jeddah-based club now boasts Champions League-winning names like Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Edouard Mendy.

A home to 2022 Ballon D’or winner Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté and Fabinho. The club’s name translating to ‘unity’, Al-Ittihad narrowly missed out on uniting Fabinho with former Liverpool teammate Mo Salah after failed negotiations during the Summer window.

The Saudi team with a Liverpool-twang, KOP legends Steven Gerrard (manager) and Jordan Henderson joined their ranks in 2023. With a season-low attendance of just 610 spectators recorded two games ago, it’s a far, far reality from Anfield.

The LIV Tour also managed to attract big-name athletes in their prime. Five-time major winner Brooks Koepka and British Open winner Cameron Smith were among the top-ranked professionals to join the Tour. This caused massive problems for the PGA Tour, as the exclusion of LIV events from world ranking points made it impossible for LIV players to qualify for major events.

LIV Golf’s association with the PIF triggered a broader discussion about the ethical implications of the sport relying on a nation under scrutiny for its human rights practices. While Saudi Arabia can attempt to cleanse their image through sportswashing, professional golfers like Poulter and Westwood their images have been damaged forever.

As mentioned, the big five of Saudi football account for a large majority of the Saudi Pro League spend, and that is by no means a coincidental trend. Four of the five (Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad) are backed by the Public Investment Fund.

With the fifth club, Al-Ettifaq, it isn’t quite as simple. While the club lists independent businessmen and the like on their investor list, their major flow of cash is more of a mystery. Al-Ettifaq are likely receiving funding from a specialised programme known as PACE (Player Acquisition Centre of Excellence), founded in July of this year for the purpose of attracting big-name players to Saudi Arabia.

What about the other thirteen Saudi teams?

Whilst the big five presented a combined net spend just short of one billion dollars ($950 million), the remaining outfits ended the Summer transfer window with a modest net spend of less than ten million dollars between them ($9.6 million).

The activity of the big spenders of Saudi football could rival that of Real Madrid and Manchester United, while Al-Tawoun’s expenditure would give Blackburn Rovers a run for their, well, money.

In June of 2023, the PGA Tour announced its merger with LIV Golf, setting off a storm of controversy within the golfing community and beyond. The backlash has been driven by both professionals and fans. Most notably that of Ireland’s Rory McIlroy.

Although the country is great for bunkers.. its lack of golfing tradition makes its attempts at sportswashing evident. Considering the lack of viewership and outright fan hatred of the tour, It calls into question why the PGA needed to merge at all.

Perhaps it is too early to judge whether LIV Golf and the SPL are detrimental to sport as we know it, but questions of sportswashing and ridiculous salaries cannot be ignored. Will both fail and be reduced to the annals of sporting lore?

Or will we all eat humble pie as we watch Saudi Arabia win the 2034 FIFA World Cup? If we have learned anything over the last 24 months, nothing is certain in sport.

Róisin Lambe & Dara Smith-Naughton