Las Vegas vs. Saudi Arabia: The Desert Battle for Global Sports Supremacy | Mint

Las Vegas vs. Saudi Arabia: The Desert Battle for Global Sports Supremacy

The most prominent Saudi incursion into sports has been the billions its Public Investment Fund has poured into golf. Since LIV first teed off in 2022, it has poached the likes of Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm from the PGA Tour.
The most prominent Saudi incursion into sports has been the billions its Public Investment Fund has poured into golf. Since LIV first teed off in 2022, it has poached the likes of Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm from the PGA Tour.

Summary

The transformation of Las Vegas into a global sports hub mirrors the sports-fueled binge that Saudi Arabia has used to enhance its global profile.

LAS VEGAS—The transformation of Las Vegas into a sports Mecca had long been seen as an impossibility. Its reliance on gambling felt too uncomfortable. It catered to unsavory vices. And its singular focus on tourists made it seem like Vegas could never provide the permanent fan base to support major teams.

Then, the change happened all at once.

In less than a decade and with more than $7 billion, Sin City has turned itself from a boxing and betting town into the desert home of a Formula One Grand Prix, one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, a Stanley Cup-winning hockey team, a champion WNBA outfit, and on Sunday, America’s signature sports extravaganza: the Super Bowl.

The strange thing was that Las Vegas wasn’t alone in its sports-fueled binge. Half a world away, another desert oasis has been working on exactly the same thing at exactly the same frenetic pace.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive societies on the planet, might look like the polar opposite of Vegas in almost every way. But these two spots now have one thing in common besides a lot of hot sand.

Las Vegas and Saudi Arabia are on a mission to take over global sports.

“What’s happened over the last eight, 10 years is pretty remarkable," says Steve Hill, the president and chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The city has now become, “one of, if not the sports hub in the United States and the world."

It’s no coincidence that on Super Bowl weekend, LIV Golf is also in town as the Saudi-backed circuit barnstorms around the globe. Which means that as Vegas’s rise as a sports power is cemented by hosting America’s biggest sporting event, it’s also home to the Kingdom’s own audacious foray into the business.

Plenty of other sporting organizations have already entrenched themselves in both places. Boxing, the original pillar of Vegas sports, was one of the first to try its luck in the Kingdom. In 2019, the promoters at Matchroom Sport organized the first major prize fight in Saudi when Anthony Joshua defeated Andy Ruiz for the world heavyweight championship. Five years after that $60 million night, the Kingdom is now a regular stop on the boxing circuit, as familiar to fighters as the MGM Grand.

This May, Tyson Fury will take on Oleksandr Usyk there for the undisputed heavyweight crown and a purse reported to be over $150 million. The move has invited plenty of criticism for organizers, who are accused of selling out boxing’s tradition.

“I know people talk about these big fights going to Saudi Arabia," Matchroom Boxing head Eddie Hearn said. “Good, because we ain’t gonna get these fights without it…Boxing is not just in the U.S. Boxing is not just in the U.K."

Formula One racing, never a sport to shy away from the frontier of global sports expansion, has also placed Las Vegas and Saudi Arabia at the center of its strategy. Liberty Media, the series’ owner, held its first meetings with Las Vegas about holding a Grand Prix on the Strip in 2021. That same year, F1 expanded into its newest Gulf territory with the first ever Saudi Grand Prix in Jeddah.

“When you look at what happened in Saudi and at what appealed very much to the Las Vegas stakeholders when we first showed up," said Renee Wilm, CEO of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, “it’s putting that destination on a global stage, like no other sport really can."

It wasn’t long ago that Vegas’s emergence as a destination sports hub for anything but combat sports was just as unthinkable. The city didn’t have a single major sports team and, even worse, those same leagues openly shunned everything it represented. Sports betting was treated as a nefarious activity that could poison their products.

The National Basketball Association was the first to seriously dabble in the market when it started hosting Summer League games here in 2004. Three years later, it played the NBA All-Star Game in Vegas. But that was also a reflection of how far the city still had to go: the exhibition was held in a college arena belonging to the University of Nevada Las Vegas. While the seminal event was viewed as a signal of the area’s desire to permanently host a franchise, the infrastructure simply wasn’t in place yet.

A decade later, though, a confluence of forces had warped the entire landscape. Vegas’s population was booming. America’s attitude toward gambling was softening. And the city finally built an arena worthy of a pro sports franchise.

T-Mobile Arena, opened in 2016, became the home to NHL’s expansion Golden Knights a year later. Also in 2017, the NFL approved Raiders owner Mark Davis’s plan to move the franchise to Las Vegas, with ground breaking on Allegiant Stadium that September. The next year, the WNBA moved into town with the newly named Aces, who were later bought by Davis. The NBA has yet to follow suit with a franchise here, but the league tested the waters by organizing the final of its inaugural In-season Tournament. And Major League Baseball is expected to be on the way, as the Oakland A’s hope to move by 2028.

For all the billions of dollars that poured in, remodeling the city’s skyline to include new, state-of-the-art sports venues, what ultimately stripped the last whiff of national discomfort away from Vegas happened all the way on the other side of the country. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the federal law that prohibited states from authorizing sportsbooks.

“They legalized sports wagering and we were no longer dirty," says Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who has been in office since 2011. “Once that opened up: bingo."

For the city, sports soon became more than another way to generate revenue. It also turned into a catalyst for Vegas, a city with around 150,000 hotel rooms, to build greater urban capacity for its residents and growing number of tourists. The population has increased by more than 10% to around 650,000 since 2010 and the city expects roughly 350,000 visitors every time it hosts a major event such as a Super Bowl or Grand Prix.

Goodman has spoken at length about how to deal with the challenges that brings, including the need to revamp its road structure to alleviate Vegas’s traffic snarls.

“We’re a work in progress," the mayor says. “We’re trying to build all those basics to make a world-class city, but we’re very young."

Saudi Arabia finds itself on the same path. Though the region has centuries of history, the modernization process of cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh is effectively less than a decade old. Once it began, however, the flood of money threatened to disrupt everything it touched. Led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the idea was to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and grow the Kingdom’s presence on the world stage. The role of sports and entertainment was to make Saudi Arabia culturally relevant to the West and turn the desert into a destination.

These efforts have often been accused of being a transparent ploy to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but those concerns haven’t stopped a flood of athletes and performers rushing to cash in there.

The figure in charge of that is an eccentric Saudi official named Turki Al-Sheikh. A former political enforcer and childhood friend of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s, Sheikh now serves as the head of the General Entertainment Authority, which was created in 2016. He counts soccer stars such as Lionel Messi as personal friends and bought a Spanish soccer team called Almeria to run as a hobby.

Over the past 18 months, he has overseen a major foray into soccer that turned the world’s favorite sport on its head. Deep-pocketed clubs backed by the Kingdom’s sovereign-wealth fund have shelled out billions to sign a roster of stars headlined by Cristiano Ronaldo. This month, Sheikh also unveiled a new six-player tennis exhibition, to be staged in Riyadh this October, called “The 6 Kings Slam," involving Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, and Daniil Medvedev.

Internationally, though, the most prominent Saudi incursion into sports has been the billions its Public Investment Fund has poured into golf. Since LIV first teed off in 2022, it has poached the likes of Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm from the PGA Tour. The Kingdom’s upstart venture quickly fractured one of the world’s foremost professional sports, and now the PIF and the Tour are scrambling to stitch the industry back together against the backdrop of antitrust concerns from the U.S. Department of Justice.

This week, these two worlds are colliding with LIV teeing off at Las Vegas Country Club. And it’s not difficult to see how this Saudi venture is trying to grab some of the Sin City glow.

“We’re already in Vegas, electrified, and then you have the Super Bowl on top of it, and now you come to a place where we preach ‘Golf but louder,’" former Masters champion and LIV player Patrick Reed said this week. “You have a lot of events going on around here, and I feel like it’ll be big for us."

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com, Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com and Peter Champelli at peter.champelli@wsj.com

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