Saudi Arabia's Sporting Rise: Vision 2030 and the Quest for Global Recognition

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has emerged as an unexpected yet serious player on the global sports stage. With the ambitious "Vision 2030" plan, the Kingdom aims to diversify its economy beyond oil and make a name for itself in international sports. Through sports, the Kingdom seeks to pave the way for stronger cooperation with other states in diplomacy and economics. In the below article, we’ll look to explore if Saudi Arabia's ambition of competing at a world-class sporting level will bear fruit and if the Kingdom will be able to compete on an equal footing with established sports nations.

According to an analysis by the British newspaper The Guardian, since 2021, Saudi Arabia’s royal house have invested over $6 billion in the sports industry. This has led to the hosting of Formula 1 races, boxing events, tennis competitions, handball matches, wrestling events, and the Italian and Spanish Super Cups. The central hub for this investment offensive is the Public Investment Fund, known as PIF, one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, with capital estimated at about 700 billion euros. 

However, in the commercialization of sports, Saudi Arabia's engagement goes beyond its own borders. In Spain, the tourism authority "Visit Saudi" has entered as a partner in the Spanish football league and the new airline "Riyadh Air" was announced as the principal jersey sponsor of Atlético Madrid in 2023. In England, Premier League club Newcastle United were partially taken over by a Saudi Arabian led consortium who secured more than 80% of the club’s shares thanks to the state fund. Outside of football, oil giant "Saudi Aramco" has invested heavily in Formula 1, tennis, and Indian cricket.

"Saudi Arabia is diversifying its economy. The high oil revenues should flow into the development of other industries in the long term. This includes tourism, services, and opening up to foreign investments," says scholar Aziz Alghashian to German culture-oriented radio programme Deutschlandfunk. "The government wants to open up to different target groups. And footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo, with their huge media reach, generate publicity for this."

Vision 2030: A New Era for Sports

At the heart of Saudi Arabia's sports revolution stands Vision 2030, a comprehensive plan that highlights sports as a central element in the country's diversification efforts. This initiative goes beyond simple economic reform; it is a societal transformation aimed at improving quality of life through sports, promoting mass participation, advocating healthy lifestyles, and securing the Kingdom's place on the global sports map.

Football Transformation

The country's strategic investments in the football sector have gone as far as to prompt FIFA to intervene with a transfer ban. By acquiring international top stars for its domestic league, Saudi Arabia signals its intention to raise football standards within the country and create a competitive environment that attracts fans from around the world.

This move is intended not only to improve the quality of the domestic league but also to act as a magnet for football enthusiasts and talents, solidifying Saudi Arabia as a core of global football. Cristiano Ronaldo's move to the football club Al Nassr shows that these investments are beginning to bear fruit. Clear patterns show that Ronaldo alone increased the demand for stadium visits in Saudi Arabia, even before more stars joined in the summer of 2023. On average, Cristiano Ronaldo helped fill an additional 20% of the seats at his home stadium, 15% of the seats in stadiums he visited, and 3% of the seats where he did not even play.1

Infrastructure Development

To achieve its strategic goals, Saudi Arabia is also heavily investing in the expansion and improvement of its infrastructure. The development of modern stadiums and sports cities, including the Qiddiya project, signals the Kingdom's efforts to build facilities capable of hosting major international events. These developments are part of a broader initiative to enhance the country's sports infrastructure, with the aim of meeting international standards and accommodating both athletes and spectators. This infrastructure expansion reflects a significant aspect of the broader economic diversification and social reform goals set out in Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia is aiming for the big, global stage. The selection of Riyadh as the host city for the Expo 2030 represents the country's growing commitment in global forums beyond sports, including culture, innovation, and international cooperation. The Expo aims to provide a platform for the country to showcase its developments and goals to a worldwide audience. While the infrastructure is still lacking, the Kingdom is determined to create the necessary conditions. Whether this can be achieved in time for the Expo 2030 and the Football World Cup in 2034 remains to be seen.

An Ambitious Path

Saudi Arabia strives to position itself on the world stage while simultaneously promoting sustainable development in line with Vision 2030. Through significant investments in the acquisition of international talent, the development of infrastructure, and the establishment of international partnerships, the Kingdom aims to establish itself as a major player in global sports. From a commercial perspective, these efforts appear promising, though they also pose political challenges. The successes to date confirm that Saudi Arabia is on the right path to achieving its ambitious goals. It remains exciting to observe how these developments shape the global sports landscape and what long-term impacts they will have on the country and its population.

1) Schreyer, Dominik and Singleton, Carl, Cristiano of Arabia: Did Ronaldo Increase Saudi Pro League Attendances? (August 26, 2023).

Sponsorship is the financial support for a sporting event, organisation or athlete by an outside body, for the mutual benefit of both parties. At the professional level this tends to be by companies, to raise the profile of their brand by associating it with the athlete.

The company aims to generate brand awareness and customer recognition, whilst the event, organisation or athlete receives a boost in funding.

A popular example is a brand logo printed on a team shirt. Visibility is guaranteed, even more so in the modern world with social media and online highlights.

In the land of media and marketing rights today, there is no cookie-cut solution for brands, and a simple logo placement will not provide the sufficient return on investment (ROI) for sponsorship, nor does it give their target audience the “why?” - the reason to spend their money and engage with the product.

Companies investing in sports sponsorship need to look at the bigger picture to engage with fans and not rely on just one piece of inventory.

Sponsors get the opportunity to showcase their brand and products to a greater audience of varying demographics. The global nature of sport today means that athletes feature within competitions that attract millions, sometimes billions of viewers worldwide. By placing their brand within this sphere, organisations can catch the attention of people around the world.

In modern times, the value of social media cannot be underestimated. Even traditional forms of sponsorship are likely to appear on social media, opening the brand up to an even wider audience - even appearing in new territories.

Through placements on jerseys and advertising boards, sponsors get a high visual presence and become part of the action. If visibility is the core objective, then it's a surefire way to succeed, whether that’s inside the stadium, TV or online.

It is the emotional engagement which sets sponsorships in sport apart from almost all other forms of advertising and sponsoring initiatives. Traditional advertising platforms such as TV can attain similar reach figures to sport, but can’t compete with sports fans’ engagement.

In modern sports, several different types of partnerships exist, all of which can generate significant value.

Sponsorship deals are perhaps the most common form of sports partnerships. Companies invest in sports teams or events in exchange for advertising and brand exposure. These deals provide financial support to the teams and help sponsors connect with their target audience.

Strategic alliances involve two or more sports organisations coming together to achieve common goals. This could include sharing resources, facilities, or even talent. Such partnerships can lead to improved facilities, enhanced scouting networks, and ultimately, better performances on the pitch.

Successful sports teams recognize the importance of engaging with their local communities. Community partnershipsinvolve initiatives such as youth sports programs, charity events, and education. These partnerships not only create goodwill but can foster a committed and engaged fan base.

In today's digital age, media collaborations are key. Sports teams and media outlets often join forces to collaborate on engaging content, including exclusive interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and live broadcasts. These partnerships boost visibility for both parties.

Sports athlete sponsorships are those where individual athletes are sponsored by a brand. They may wear branded apparel whilst competing or during commercial appearances and press conferences, or they might appear in advertisements or other promotional materials for the brand. The brand will either offer a set fee to them, or pay for their kit, equipment or travel in return.

Sports organisation sponsorships involve entities like a team or league being sponsored by a brand. Like with individual athletes, they will either receive a fee from the brand, or payment for things like kits, equipment or ground maintenance.

In return, a team may display the company’s logos around its stadium, for example, while a league might include the sponsor in its name.

Sports event sponsorships are where sports events — like an international or regional tournament — are sponsored by a brand. This type of partnership can involve things like the event either changing its title to incorporate the brand’s name, or using the brand’s logo on official products. The event organisers will either receive a set fee or have expenditures like venue hire, hospitality, catering, publicity, programmes and officials’ costs covered.

A brand partnership is a mutually beneficial agreement between two or more businesses. All parties agree to help one another by promoting and sponsoring each other or creating content together.

Brand partnerships aim to increase brand recognition and ultimately boost sales and customer loyalty.

In sports, co-branding exists, where two or more companies jointly promote their brands, services, and products through cross-marketing efforts.

This can include anything from social media posts, advertisements, and commercials to events and appearances by high-profile athletes and celebrities.

Beyond the Match
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