Saudi Arabia's Next Billion-Dollar Sports Spectacle: A Boxing Takeover

Saudi Arabia has already launched a hostile takeover of professional golf. He has invested billions of dollars in world football. Now he wants to own professional boxing too.

An ambitious and expensive Saudi plan that would reshape the economy, structure and future of boxing is in the final stages of approval, according to two people with direct knowledge of the plan.

Saudi Arabia's giant sovereign vehicle, the Public Investment Fund, would finance the project. The fund is holding final negotiations on the distribution of the initial investment – ​​said to amount to $2 billion – that the plan would require, according to the two people involved in the planning. Both people declined to be identified because the project does not have final approval.

The Public Investment Fund, known as PIF, declined to comment.

Under the Saudi proposal, about 200 of the world's best male boxers would be signed and then divided into 12 weight classes in what would amount to a global boxing championship.

Each class would include around 15 fighters each, allowing top talent to face off against each other regularly. The move would effectively create a single boxing entity that would replace the sometimes chaotic and frustrating system of warring fight promoters and sanctioning bodies. The new entity would have the resources and fighters to stage high-profile cards around the world.

And unlike many of the sports that Saudi Arabia has previously attempted to revolutionize, professional boxing may be ripe for reinvention. The sport has lost its luster and some of its allure in recent decades and is currently run by a tangled web of rival promoters and disparate sanctioning bodies who stage their own bouts and award their own titles. That leaves fans to sift through a confusing system that often hampers bouts between top boxers and one that boasts multiple “champions” in the same weight classes.

The new series would operate under a single brand, an arrangement similar to the business model of the hugely popular Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has steadily eroded boxing's global popularity. In the UFC, 15 fighters are ranked in leagues by weight division, as well as a ranking of the best pound-for-pound fighters. In the Saudi Arabia-backed event, boxers could have moved up the rankings but also been eliminated from the series and replaced by new talent.

The project has been in discussion for more than a year and was developed with the help of several consultancy firms, including Boston Consulting Group, which helped the PIF on several projects when it emerged in the form of the UK-funded LIV Golf Series Saudi Arabia. If an investment decision is confirmed in the coming weeks, the series could begin as early as the first half of next year, according to one of the people involved in the planning.

At that point, the PIF would once again provide what the project needs most: money.

For years, the fund has been Saudi Arabia's vehicle for its cash-soaked assault on the sports sector. His moves have invested huge amounts of fresh capital into sports clubs, teams, events, federations and organizations. But they have also destabilized entire industries, from professional golf to soccer to tennis, and criticized that Saudi Arabia has sought to reshape perceptions of the kingdom through what is derided as “sportswashing.”

The biggest sticking point in Saudi boxing's plan may be the long-term contracts that some of the top boxers already have with high-profile promoters, many of whom are often tied separately to different television networks.

To solve this problem, according to planners, discussions have already begun on the possibility of full or partial investments by the PIF in some of the largest boxing promotion companies.

Two of the biggest promoters, Top Rank and Queensbury, declined to comment on any talks.

Also under discussion are partnerships with some of boxing's traditional organizations, which control the rights not only to the most notable boxers, but also highly valuable intellectual property such as archive video, historical results and title belts once held by royalty of boxing like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. .

In the new series, there would be a requirement for boxers to perform in a minimum number of events per year, a move designed to prevent some of the best boxers from taking an extended period away from the sport, causing frustration among boxing fans. boxing.

Should the plan for the boxing championship go ahead, a PIF entity called Sela has been earmarked to promote the events, which will be held not only in Saudi Arabia but around the world. Sela, a sports events company, has already organized boxing events in Saudi Arabia, including the recent heavyweight unification bout between Britain's Tyson Fury and Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk.

In that fight, Usyk became the first unified heavyweight champion in more than a generation.

Sela declined to comment on the new Saudi boxing plan.

That bout was just the latest in a string of high-profile boxing events to take place in Saudi Arabia in recent years, turning the kingdom, thanks to the sport's richest purses, into the premier destination for the biggest fights.

Saudi and Sela will soon branch out further afield, with events under the Riyadh Season title now taking place abroad.

The first will be in August in Los Angeles, when Terrence Crawford and Israil Madrimov meet for the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organization superwelterweight titles. This could be followed by an even bigger event at Wembley Stadium in London featuring former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.

The Saudi official who has quickly become the most important figure in boxing, Turki al-Sheikh, president of the General Entertainment Authority of Saudi Arabia, has already spoken about that event.

Al-Sheikh is at the center of plans to restructure boxing, and hinted at this in a recent interview with ESPN in which he reportedly said he wanted to “fix” a “broken” sport. The interview did not reveal details of the new Saudi league.

The boxing effort he is spearheading complements larger projects already underway in the kingdom. This is also in line with the desire of the country's crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, to reshape the image of the largest Gulf nation, freeing it from dependence on oil exports and bringing about major changes to its conservative Muslim society .

Al-Sheikh, who is one of Prince Mohammed's most trusted lieutenants, is often the royal court's most visible presence at high-profile sporting events. During the Usyk-Fury meeting, for example, he sat in the front row next to soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and other invited celebrities. After Usyk won, al-Sheikh entered the ring to speak to both fighters.

But his growing influence in boxing is evident in other ways, too. He has been mentioned in interviews and social media posts by top boxers, promoters and even major broadcast networks.

And as Saudi Arabia has replaced Las Vegas, Los Angeles and London as the destination for the biggest fights, it is also helping to change the way the sport is broadcast. The recent heavyweight title bout – which reportedly earned Fury $100 million – was essentially given away to broadcast partners to broadcast for free on the condition that they share some of their revenue with the host nation. Television partners typically spend millions of dollars to acquire such rights.

The broadcast of the fight was also interesting in another aspect that increased the number of viewers: hundreds of illegal online streams were easily available and lasted for the duration of the fight. It appeared that no effort had been made to eliminate them and prevent the public from seeing the latest Saudi showcase.

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