Receive free Sport updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Sport news every morning.
A vehicle created by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is to make the kingdom’s first foray into mixed martial arts by investing $100mn in the US’s Professional Fighters League and creating a regional tournament.
People familiar with the discussions said the acquisition of the minority stake was the first deal by SRJ Sports Investments since Saudi Arabia’s $650bn Public Investment Fund established the vehicle earlier this year.
The transaction marks the PIF’s first significant involvement in mixed martial arts following previous investments in football and golf. The people familiar with the discussions said that under the deal the PFL would establish a Middle East and north Africa league in the second quarter of 2024. The venture will have its headquarters in Saudi Arabia.
The PIF bought the English football club Newcastle United in 2021, while teams from Saudi Arabia’s football league have spent nearly $1bn this year to recruit stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo. In golf, the PIF in June signed a partnership deal between the US’s PGA Tour and its LIV golf tournament, drawing opposition from US lawmakers.
Critics have described the campaign as “sportwashing” aimed at deflecting criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. But Saudi officials insist it is an important plank in a plan to diversify the economy beyond oil revenues while attracting tourism and investment.
In combat sports, Saudi Arabia has already hosted high-profile boxing matches. The kingdom will host a bout between heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and mixed martial artist Francis Ngannou in October.
However, the stake in PFL, which was founded in 2017 by entrepreneur Donn Davis, signalled a shift towards hosting leagues, the people involved said. The PFL’s Middle East league will be one of six regional leagues where martial artists compete in seasons then go on to fight in a global championship.
The move will challenge the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, which has long been the patron of combat sports in the region. Saudi Arabia is vying with the UAE to become the region’s financial centre.
The UAE previously held a stake in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the leading mixed martial arts organisation, and regularly hosts their fights. It also has its own UAE Warriors league.
The PFL’s separate league could dominate the sport in the region, its backers hope. PFL, which pays up to $1mn in prizes, has signed up Olympic champions such as Kayla Harrison, the American judo gold medallist. It was aiming to replicate that approach in the Middle East, one of the people said.
Saudi Arabia will also form a partnership with PFL to host its PFL PPV Superfights, pay-per-view matches with fighters such as Ngannou and influencer and boxer Jake Paul.
The stake in PFL follows the template for previous Saudi investments in sectors where it wants to expand. The PIF has sought to take stakes, and in some cases outright ownership, in newer companies such as Lucid, the electric-vehicle manufacturer, or Scopely, a video games publisher it acquired for $5bn earlier this year.
PFL says it is the second most popular league in mixed martial arts by viewer numbers, after UFC. Its investors include Waverley Capital, Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Wizards basketball team, and Ares Capital.
Additional reporting by Samuel Agini in London
Read the full article here