In today’s Finshots, we explain how the middle eastern nation is betting on money, sports, and PR, to give itself a modern makeover.
Last week, the world of golf was shaken to its core. Not by a scandal. But, by a merger that was hatched in secret and blindsided everyone.
See, for decades, there was only one mega entity that controlled the sport. It was called the PGA Tour. These folks ran the big tournaments. And if you had dreams of becoming a pro golfer, you aspired to win these PGA Tour titles.
But a couple of years ago, the PGA Tour got a rival.
It was a rebel league called LIV Golf. And it tried to lure golfers away from the PGA Tour. It promised more money. A lot more of it. And it said that it was going to shake up the established order with shorter tournaments, music and deejays and stuff. Needless to say, some pro golfers immediately defected for lucrative deals.
Now guess who was behind LIV Golf…Saudi Arabia and its sovereign wealth fund! Yup, it’s quite ironic that a desert nation was going to establish a tournament held on rolling greens, but, that’s what it was.
And for the next 2 years, the world of golf got quite messy. The PGA Tour sued LIV Golf alleging breach of contracts. LIV Golf sued PGA Tour for monopolistic practices. And they kept trading barbs at each other.
But then, something crazy happened last week. Out of nowhere, these two entities announced that they were going to set aside their differences` and merge their operations. And the bottom line is — Saudi Arabia owns the world of golf!
Golfers were shocked. Journalists wanted answers as to how this happened. And there’s one question that caught our eye. Reporters asked the head of the PGA Tour— “How will you explain this deal to your daughters?”
Okay. Wait…why on earth are they asking him about his daughters???
Well, there’s something that we didn’t tell you. This story actually isn’t just about golf. It’s about politics and money in the world of sports. That’s what we want to talk about. Or rather, a term that’s gaining quite a bit of popularity in the past few years — sportswashing.
Simply put, it’s the use of sports to hide a few unpleasant details. And it’s something Saudi Arabia may been using to its advantage.
See, the country isn’t a beacon of women’s rights. Or even humans rights for that matter. They’ve jailed women who’ve demanded the right to be able to drive cars. They’ve arrested people who called for peace when Saudi and Qatar were at loggerheads. And in 2018, the kingdom was even responsible for killing Jamal Kashoggi, a Saudi dissident and a journalist at the Washington Post, in cold blood.
You can imagine that these are things that the rest of the world frowns upon.
These things could then spoil Saudi Arabia’s ambitions. People may not want to invest in the country. They’ll not include the middle eastern nation in its list of ‘Top Travel Destinations’. And Saudi’s grand Vision 2030 project to transform itself from oil-dependency to tourism and business revenues could hit a roadblock.
So it needs to paint a rosy picture. And the kingdom believes that sports is the best way to do this. Bit by bit.
In 2021, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund bought Newcastle United, one of the tops clubs in English football. It then lured superstar Cristiano Ronaldo into playing for a Saudi football club called Al Nassr.
In 2023, there were rumours that it wanted to buy Formula 1 from its American owners. It didn’t evolve into anything but it still hosts a race every year that involves some of the fastest drivers in the world zipping around its street track.
Then there were whispers that it wanted to conduct the glitziest T20 cricket league in the world. Yup, bigger than the IPL. And even if that doesn’t work, it has wiggled its way into the sport — if you watched the IPL, you would’ve seen ‘Visit Saudi’ ads each time the batsman struck a six.
It has even dipped its toes into boxing, It has hosted some of the most high profile boxing matches in the world featuring Anthony Joshua. And now it probably will control golf too.
But why sports, you ask?
Because there’s really nothing else that unifies people across income, social, and religious spectrum like sport. Sport is apolitical (mostly). It’s about the emotional connections that people form with their favourite teams. That emotion overpowers the negatives.
And countries have harnessed the power and emotion of sports for PR since ages. Apparently, one of the first instances of sportswashing took place in the original Olympics in 416 BCE.
You see, Athens and Sparta were at war. And things weren’t looking good for Athens. But then, a politician named Alcibades had a brainwave. He decided to participate in the legendary chariot race and claimed all 3 spots in the podium. Now this was an expensive affair. But it was his way to signal to everyone that Athens was still strong and mighty. It was a force to reckon with.
It wasn’t sportswashing as we refer to it today, but think of it as a PR strategy to change perception.
Fast forward to the Olympics in Nazi-Germany in 1936 and something similar played out. They had a slogan “I Call the Youth of the World!”, a mega stadium that could seat 100,000 people, a documentary about the Olympics. And they even took down signs that said “No Jews” from public places. People took it as a sign that the regime was turning a new leaf. They relaxed. And we all know what happened after that.
Everyone uses sports to obfuscate reality — China, Qatar, and Russia included. It’s just that with Saudi now practically owning the entire sport of golf, it has taken things up a notch. And with its immensely deep pockets, it’ll be hard to stop it too.
So yeah, sport isn’t apolitical. It’s as political as it gets. And we just have to accept that sportswashing was and will always be a part of it. Whether we like it or not.
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Update: We have amended the story to correctly reflect that it's the PGA Tour and not the PGA which is involved in the merger. The PGA of America is an organization that includes even teachers and workers in the golf industry. The PGA Tour is for golf professionals or the players.
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