Saturday, December 2, 2023

Empty stadiums and a lot of money lost – but Saudi Arabia has already succeeded in football

On the surface, Saudi Arabia’s gamble in football does not seem to be fruitful. Despite the stars recruited and the billions invested, the stadiums are still not full and the commercial revenues and TV rights are far from compensating the expenses incurred.

Nearly 20% of matches are played in front of fewer than 1,000 spectators: the equivalent of matches in the French fourth division or the English sixth division. The average attendance is barely more than 10,000 spectators, half as many as in Ligue 1 and four times less than in Germany or England. Similarly, few people watch the Saudi Pro League regularly. This is evidenced by the values ​​of the championship broadcast contracts, such as the one signed with DAZN for the United Kingdom: it is valued at just 500,000 euros, compared to more than 2 billion for the English Premier League and 500 million for the French championship. Unquestionably, Saudi Arabia has failed to arouse the curiosity of the international public, and is losing money in the sports sector.

But, for Saudi Arabia, all these observations are secondary. The idea is not to make sporting investments profitable through sporting income. For the Kingdom, the stakes are much greater. First, position itself as a great world power at the geopolitical level: for this, the Saudi government had the money, and it is now on the way to acquiring prestige, that is to say a sporting and soft power. , to a lesser extent, cultural. And this strategy goes far beyond the framework of football.

The main issue, the one which motivated these investments, is indeed economic: for Saudi Arabia as for Qatar for example, it is a question of diversifying its sectors of activity and therefore of income. Like its modest neighbor (in size), Saudi Arabia prospers thanks to oil: it represents more than 75% of export revenues and more than a third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. And like its neighbor, Saudi Arabia has notably focused on tourism to be less dependent on black gold, the price of which is very unstable and which is less and less seen as a resource for the future. Sport is one of the most effective levers for promoting the country to potential foreign tourists.

Saudi Arabia is on track to achieve its goals. After an inexorable fall during the Covid-19 pandemic, it saw the number of tourists increase exponentially in 2022 and then at the beginning of 2023. The country received 16.6 million tourists in 2022, then no less than 7 .8 million in the first quarter of 2023, which represents an increase of 64% compared to the same period in 2019, before Covid. There were also 93.5 million visitors in 2022, more than double the number in 2019. However, many Saudi projects seem to be in trouble, particularly in other sectors where the Kingdom has invested: research , innovation, new technologies. The country’s economic transition is not happening as quickly as the name of the major Saudi development plan announced: “Vision 2030”.


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