Wednesday, March 29, 2023

And now, for the NBA: the Arab dictatorships expand their sports tentacles to the US

The dictatorships of the Persian Gulf are preparing to take their strategy to wash their international image one step further Through sport. They are, in fact, ready to cross the last frontier they have not yet dared to cross: that of American sports. And this new phase of his ‘sportswashing’ plan will start with the most popular competition in the world out of all those played in the US: the NBA.

Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are already studying the possibilities for invest in one of the 30 franchises that make up the best basketball league in the world. The specialized press of the American country points to the New York Knicks as the main object of desire of both dictatorships. Not surprisingly, it is the second team with the highest market value (only surpassed by the Golden State Warriors) and its location in New York has imponderable symbolic power.

However, the entry of sovereign wealth funds from these countries will not be carried out in a hostile manner. Quite the contrary. In November, the NBA franchises decided to open their shareholding to the entry of non-private funds. It is not an ‘ad hoc’ measure for the Arab dictatorships, but they are the main beneficiaries of this opening of the basketball league, given the current situation of the world sports industry.

limited participation

In any case, the NBA will not see (at least for now) cases like those of European soccer, in which a sovereign wealth fund is the majority or even sole owner of a soccer club. Although the details of the regulatory change have not been made public, the entry of this type of capital will be limited to a maximum percentage of around 20-30%. In other words, they will be able to invest and be co-owners of a franchise, but not govern it.

Experts from the sports industry consulted by this newspaper analyze that, in reality, opening the doors to the sovereign wealth funds of Arab dictatorships actually acts as a containment dam of the NBA itself against its economic capacity. Because, in reality, American sports is not exactly lacking in local investment. On the contrary, European soccer, specifically the Premier League, is filling up with capital from US businessmen.

Giannis Antetokounmpo during a pre-season game in Abu Dhabi. EFE

“Imagine that, seeing that they can’t get into the NBA, decide to strengthen a local basketball league and start offering exorbitant contracts to Lebron James or to other stars. They have done it with golf and they have just done it with Cristiano Ronaldo in football. The NBA is the first that is not interested in a competition of this type, although in no case are they going to dismantle their business. In any case, if you let them be a part of the game, they won’t have to,” says an intermediary who has worked with Persian Gulf countries on sports acquisitions.

The NBA had already made a small foray into the region last October, when Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, the 2021 league winners, played two pre-season friendlies in Abu Dhabi against Atlanta Hawks. A small wink that seems to be consolidated with the welcome of petrodollars in the competition.


It’s the strategy that, too, American-owned sporting events like the UFC and WWE have followed. The great world company of mixed martial arts regularly celebrates events in Abu Dhabi, up to a total of 17 evenings so far. The main promoter of ‘wrestling’ in the world, for its part, travels twice a year to Saudi Arabia to hold premium events and there are even rumors of a possible sale of the company to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund by the controversial Vince McMahon.

Sergio García in a Liv Golf match. GETTY

They are, in any case, consented alliances. A very different case to that of the LIV Golf, the circuit promoted by the Saudi sovereign fund that is removing the foundations of golf. So far, it is the only major sport in which an Arab dictatorship, in this case Saudi Arabia, has dared to make a hostile appropriation of American sport.

The success of the world

A very different reality from that experienced with sports with European roots. The best example is the last World Cup in Qatar, whose celebration was an undeniable organizational success that validated the ‘sportswashing’ strategy of the Qatari dictatorship. He made a colossal financial expense to present the world as a modern society and, despite the complaints made on the ground that this was not the case, the reality is that it was a brilliantly organized event that even paved the way for the future celebration of some Olympic Games in Doha or another major capital of the region.

And what about club football, where Saudi Arabia (Newcastle), Qatar (PSG) and the United Arab Emirates (Manchester City) have taken over

Pogacar, a double Tour winner, rides on a team owned by the United Arab Emirates. ARCHIVE

Formula 1 starts the season in Bahrain this weekend, in the first of the four stops that you have planned this year in the region. MotoGP, one more year, will also stop in Qatar. Cycling and tennis also tour the Persian Gulf every season, in an already internalized dynamic, part of the landscape.

Now, the tentacles of the Arab dictatorships are approaching the mecca of spectacle sports. In the NBA they already have the doors open and it seems that the NHL, the main ice hockey league in the world. And then? Maybe one day we will see a sheikh or an emir holding the NFL title after winning the Superbowl, watched by tens of millions of viewers on his television. Nothing seems impossible anymore.


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