There’s another significant sports investment from a Saudi Arabia government wealth fund, and this one is in mixed martial arts. The Saudi government’s SRJ Sports Investments fund, a recently-launched spinoff of their Public Investment Fund, has chosen the Professional Fighters League for its first investment. They’ll be investing more than $100 million in the PFL, and launching a Middle East/North Africa PFL league. Kurt Badenhausen of Sportico wrote on that Wednesday:
Saudi PIF’s New Sports Fund Pours $100M Into PFL MMA Circuit https://t.co/bv36MHgul4
— Sportico (@Sportico) August 30, 2023
Here’s more from Badenhausen’s piece:
“There is no better global investor with industrial-strength capital [than PIF] to help us achieve our global vision,” Donn Davis, PFL co-founder and chairman, said in a phone interview. “With this capital, we now have what we need to realize our vision to start the next chapter, become not just No. 2, but the potential co-leader in MMA.”
…The investment is in the PFL parent company and will support the launch of two new endeavors next year: a PFL league for the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region and the company’s “Super Fight” pay-per-view arm. The funds will also be used to attract more stars to PFL, as well as increase participation in the disciplines of MMA across Saudi Arabia and the MENA region. Saudi Arabia will also host and underwrite a “substantial” number of PFL PPV events in the coming years.
The PFL has raised its profile this year by signing exclusive MMA deals with former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou and crossover combat sports star Jake Paul. They will make their PFL debuts in 2024 on PPV, with Ngannou headlining a spring fight card and Paul one in the fall, per Davis. Women’s champ Kayla Harrison will also fight on the spring PPV card.
…SRJ’s chairman Bander Bin Mogren, who has served as PIF’s COO since 2016, will sit on the PFL board. “SRJ is shaping a new age of sports in Saudi Arabia and accelerating the growth of the domestic sports economy,” Bin Mogren said in a statement. “This investment aims to nurture the local and regional talent pool in martial arts.”
The PFL has been talking about global ambitions for some time. They launched PFL Europe this year, and Badenhausen writes that they’re set to launch the MENA league next year, eventually eying six international regional leagues and a tournament amongst the winners. Back in 2019, Davis spoke to AA about the importance of wide-ranging distribution for the league, with their broadcasts available in more than 150 countries at that time:
“Right now, PFL has the broadest distribution of any MMA league. Most UFC fights are either on pay-per-view or ESPN Plus, so PFL has the broadest distribution; fans can see us all around the world the most easily. And more and more great fighters are willing to come over to the PFL to show their talents. So I think what you’ve seen is the product get better and better and better and you’ve seen the fans watch it more and more and more. And I think the expanded distribution is just a way to tell the fighters ‘Come on over to the PFL and show what you can do,’ and to tell the fans ‘Check out this product, it’s super exciting, and probably better than what you’re watching now.”
…”PFL is a global sports league. Those 300 million MMA fans, 80 percent of those are outside the United States. So unlike a lot of the sports leagues that focus on the United States, MMA is truly global. The only three sports that are viewed in 150 countries are soccer, basketball, and MMA. So the PFL is truly building a global league, and the international audience is as important as the U.S. audience.”
Involvement with a Saudi wealth fund is certainly controversial given that government’s past and present actions, though. Those include accusations of alleged 9/11 involvement, accusations of government involvement in the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and current plans to execute Muhammad al-Ghamdi for tweets, retweets, and YouTube videos criticizing that country’s leadership. And the PGA Tour’s plans to team up with Saudi-backed LIV Golf are still leading to a lot of issues and criticism, and it’s far from clear that deal will in fact come to pass.
The timing of this deal is also interesting, as the PFL has its current U.S. TV contract with ESPN ending this year. Davis told Badenhausen they’ve had “great conversations” with that network about a renewal, but have seen high interest elsewhere as well. For LIV Golf, the Saudi connections were cited as part of their challenges obtaining a TV deal, leading to their events only being shown on The CW in the end. This is a minority stake rather than full ownership, so it’s a little different (and Saudi stakes in the likes of WWE and F1 haven’t hurt those properties’ TV deals), but it will be interesting to see how the PFL TV negotiations go and if anyone cites this investment as a reason to not chase PFL rights.
At any rate, the Saudi government presence in sports continues to grow. Amongst the PIF’s estimated $700 billion in assets under management are an 80 percent stake in Premier League team Newcastle United, stakes in WWE, boxing, and F1, and control of four Saudi Pro League teams (which has led to massive contracts there for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo). And this new SRJ spinoff is very specifically set up for sports, which has led to talks about them potentially chasing some form of NFL investment.
The Saudi wealth funds aren’t the only controversial ones investing in the sports world. After the NBA changed its rules to allow sovereign wealth fund investment this summer, the Qatar Investment Authority bought a minority stake in Monumental Sports and Entertainment, parent of the Washington Wizards, Mystics, and Capitals as well as Monumental Sports Network (the former NBC Sports Washington). But the Saudi funds are doing this on a higher scale than anyone else at the moment. We’ll see how this particular investment works out for SRJ and the PFL.