The Rise of the Saudi Pro-League and Working as a Football Agent in the Emerging Market
There are currently two leagues that are widely discussed in sports news as the hot-property of modern day football, the Major League Soccer in the USA, and the Pro-League in Saudi Arabia. In terms of finances, transfers, development and quality, they are the fastest growing in the game. However, they are both expanding and improving in different ways and take on different models. Put simply, the MLS is a single entity with franchises owned by businesses and wealthy entrepreneurs whilst some clubs in the Saudi football market are backed directly by the government in a bid to close the gap with the biggest football leagues in the world.
At the beginning of 2023, Saudi Pro-League club Al-Nassr announced one of football’s greatest ever players as their biggest ever signing. Cristiano Ronaldo joined as a free agent for a reported annual wage of over €200million after his contract was mutually terminated at Manchester United . Since then, the Saudi Arabian football market has become a major talking point within the global game. For those readers that follow football gossip pages and the likes of Fabrizio Romano or David Ornstein, you will have seen that daily rumours and links with some of the sport’s biggest stars involve Saudi Pro-League clubs and incredibly lucrative deals.
In this blog, we will aim to understand what exactly is going on, where this quite sudden emergence of Saudi Arabia as a financial powerhouse of football has come from, and the place it may hold in the turbulent future of football. We will also assess the implications for football agents, both the exciting opportunities it presents and the possible challenges.
The Rise and Future of Saudi Football
So far in the 2023 summer transfer window, the Saudi Pro-League has welcomed several global superstars to the league, including: Karim Benzema, Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy, Marcelo Brozovic, Roberto Firmino and N’Golo Kante. There has also been an extensive list of rumours and gossip around many more. Anyone with a major profile in the world of football seems to have been linked to joining a Saudi club in some capacity or another, including players such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos, Neymar, Hakim Ziyech, Andres Iniesta, Romelu Lukaku, Luka Modric, Sadio Mane, Bernardo Silva, Gianluigi Buffon, Jamie Vardy, Son Heung-Min and Wilfried Zaha. Top coaches and managers such as Jose Mourinho, who rejected a salary offer of around €50m annually, have also been linked, and last week, England and Liverpool legend, Steven Gerrard, became the manager of Al-Ettifaq on another extraordinarily lucrative deal and is already looking to recruit the likes of Premier League winning captain, Jordan Henderson.
Significantly, some of the players listed above that have gone on to sign with financially booming Saudi Pro-League clubs such as Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, and Al-Nassr, have also been linked with traditionally historic clubs. For example, Ruben Neves, still in his mid-twenties and arguably reaching the peak of his playing ability, was reportedly on the recruitment lists at European giants, Barcelona and Manchester United. As the history of football goes, young players and aspiring footballers hold the dream of playing in the Spanish La Liga, the English Premier League, and competing for the most highly-regarded personal and team accolades in the game, such as the UEFA Champions League and the Ballon d’Or. So why, people are asking, has the appeal of plying their trade in Saudi Arabia suddenly become such a prominent possibility for so many players?
Perhaps answering this question is simple. Financial motivation. Many of the players rumoured and linked with Saudi Arabian moves are in at least the twilight stage, or even the last couple of years of what has already been an illustrious and successful sports career. As players enter their early thirties, they begin to think about retirement and what comes next. This is where playing their final years in the Saudi football league becomes an extremely attractive option due to the vast, seemingly limitless, sovereign wealth of the region. The players listed above have created incredible reputations throughout their career in European football and boast immensely impressive playing CV’s. Through their hard work, success and dedication to their craft, they have reached levels of global superstardom and become household names. This puts them in the position where they are entitled to feel they have earned the lucrative offers and opportunities presented to them by Saudi Arabia.
All of the players listed above have been reportedly offered contracts in excess of €30m base wages annually, most likely exceeding any basic income they will have ever received or been offered before, even in football’s top and most revered leagues. It provides a final payday for their career that will not only provide them with a brilliant platform for the rest of their own life, but enables them to support their families and loved ones for several generations. Financial security is almost all but guaranteed and is an opportunity that is too difficult to turn down for many.
We have seen a similar pattern before. Many football fans will remember a period of time between 2015 and 2018 where the Chinese Super League and its transfer rumours also seemed to dominate the football media. These clubs were also incredibly wealthy and quickly made headlines with enormous pay-packets, inflated transfer fees and major signings, such as Oscar, Hulk, Paulinho, Jackson Martinez, Ramires, and Marko Arnautovic. This seems to have settled in more recent seasons and windows, so what makes Saudi Arabia’s future different?
Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the middle-east region have actually been established in European and global football for a significant period of time, primarily through club ownership and investment. The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) recently acquired Newcastle United in the Premier League, for example. The same PIF also owns 75% of the country’s biggest clubs, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al-Hilal, the same clubs you may have seen previously mentioned and coincidentally heavily linked with football’s most recognisable stars. Furthermore, the football leagues in the UAE and Qatar are common ‘feeder’ leagues for the Saudi pro-league, and provide something which the Chinese Super League did not have to the same extent. These other leagues are backed by similarly wealthy states and organisations and are involved with European-footballing royalty such as Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, and may soon own Manchester United. Beyond clubs and leagues, the PSG President and Qatar Sports Investment Chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, is also the president of the European Club Association (ECA), increasing the power and presence of influential figures in European football that are also involved in the middle-east.
There are big and, more importantly, long-term plans for the Saudi Professional League that the nation’s sports ministry are implementing and acting on that aims for the region’s football market to be generating a revenue of nearly $500m by 2030, over four times what it currently creates. This becomes possible if the game continues to grow at a rapid rate and continues to attract some of the most ‘fan-captivating’ players. At the forefront of plans is the Saudi Arabian bid to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup, having withdrawn their bid for 2030. If the region is able to host the world cup in just over a decade, and on the back of a memorable and iconic tournament in Qatar last year, it will only add to the excitement and the meteoric rise of football in this part of the world. With Ballon d’Or, multi-Champions League victors and World Cup winners amongst the names of those already joining up with the Saudi football movement, the trajectory suggests that with gigantic sponsorship deals, player and team endorsements, global tournaments, and landscape-changing broadcasting rights deals, the ambition is not as far fetched as one may originally believe.
Broadcasting rights could be a major contributing factor to the rising calibre and widening reach of football in the middle-eastern region. beIN Sports, the Qatari television network already claims rights to televise some of the biggest sports and football events across the biggest competitions and leagues so is in a powerful position to propel Saudi and middle-eastern football into the public spotlight. Saudi football has not only invested into the sporting side of things but also has extended into media and commercial rights in many countries to help promote their growth.
Conveniently, we can also assess and compare what Saudi Arabia has achieved in the sport of Golf so far as a measure of success and direction for where football might go. The Saudi-run LIV golf league has also dominated the sport since its recent introduction and has now become so powerful it has forced the historic, 1929-established PGA tour into an unprecedented and controversial merger, largely due to the incredulous sums of money it is able to offer the world’s best golfers.
The lifestyle that living in Saudi Arabia and the middle-east presents also adds to the attraction and temptation for elite footballers. It is an incredibly wealthy country with the highest quality of infrastructure and development, as well as being a very safe place to live. Its close proximity to other hotspots such as the tourism and business hub of Dubai only adds to its value. For players with families, the growing number of international schools appearing in the region means that young children can relocate with their parents and begin new lives within a sophisticated education system.
Lionel Messi is an ambassador for Saudi Arabia and a regular visitor to the region. However, he recently confirmed that he had decided to take the opportunity to play at Inter Miami rather than join the Pro-League. This is understandable as he has invested in real-estate in the region for a while, the Florida area is a short flight from his home nation of Argentina, and there is also a vast Argentine population in the city of Miami. Therefore, despite rejections from household names such as Lionel Messi and Jose Mourinho, who decided to continue to pursue European success, everything we have seen over the last season suggests that Saudi Arabian football dominating the transfer market is not just a one-season phenomenon. Instead, it marks what may be the beginning of a global shift in the football landscape that sees a newly emerging market and league begin to strive for world domination. We are likely to see more and more players making the move to the region, perhaps at an increasingly younger age, and a growing number of games shown on our television screens.
Implications and Opportunities for Agents
As a football agent, a large proportion of one’s time and career is dedicated to understanding and succeeding in the ever changing world of football. It is a turbulent sphere that evolves with the modern era, powered by driving forces such as fan-interest, global growth, and perhaps most commonly, finances. Although many agents may focus on specific markets, often locally, for most of their negotiations and transactions, it is absolutely vital that they are aware of developments across the footballing world as they will have collateral effects on the market they are concerned with themselves. The rise and prosperous, ambitious future of Saudi Arabian football is a prime example of how a change in one region, has such a profound impact further afield. For the purposes of this section, we will consider part of this widespread impact that has significant positive and negative connotations for the profession of football agents.
Understanding your clients becomes an even more integral part of business as an agent. If, from the outset, you understand that your client prioritises football successes, such as the ambition of winning a Champions League, then perhaps the appeal of Saudi Arabia will be lost on them and something that you, nor they, need to concern yourselves with. Instead, whilst many other players may jet off to the Saudi Pro-League, more opportunities may present themselves to the client that you can identify and use to propel your client’s career and aspirations in Europe, the rapidly growing Major League Soccer, or elsewhere. With increasingly more players vacating competitive markets to Saudi Arabia, clubs left behind know that they must look elsewhere for replacements and as an agent, having the relevant contacts can help place clients into positions that could open up a beneficial career step into one of these clubs. On top of this, these clubs now know they will have to push the sums of money they are able to offer players, to avoid recruitment targets being tempted away to the financially superior middle-eastern region.
This works both ways. Many clients may have a different perspective. In recent times, Saudi Arabian football has established itself as a desirable destination for numerous footballers. If they share this with their agent as an enticing opportunity, the agent then has the responsibility of considering and seeking the option for them to fulfil this ambition. It is already evident that for highly talented players that could still compete at the very pinnacle of football, the financial pull and life changing appeal of the Saudi market can alter their preferences. As the agent, you must ensure that your client is fully informed and understands what exactly a transfer to a Saudi Pro-League club entails, and how exactly it embeds itself into their career path thus far, and into their future. Remember, you must focus exclusively on the best interests of your client. A decision to seek and negotiate a deal in the middle-east must be borne solely from your client’s wants and wishes, regardless of any selfish motive.
It is important to note that working as an agent and representing clubs, players and coaches in the middle-east in the current environment is already incredibly competitive. With the astronomical transfer fees and player wages being distributed by clubs in the region, the possibility for sizable commissions is inevitably going to be tempting to an array of professionals and individuals operating in the football industry. Coupled with the new FIFA Commission Caps restricting earnings and making sustaining a career as an agent difficult in other leagues around the world, the Saudi finances are leading many agents to shift their focus onto the emerging market.
A client coming to the end of their career in football would traditionally and ordinarily accept a significant pay-cut and decreased overall earnings as they commit to short-term contracts to play out the final days of their career. For top clients, they may be willing for you to find them opportunities in markets such as Turkey or in the US MLS; attractive places to live, a good standard of football, and a last chance to earn money as a footballer. However, the same clients may now receive offers from Saudi Arabian clubs, above anything they have earned before. If the client is willing to explore the idea and to take such an opportunity, this can also be financially beneficial for the agent. The difference between the potential commission for an agent is stark and most lucrative in Saudi Arabia. However, this should never precede the best interests of the client.
As modern football develops and changes with the times, it becomes more and more imperative that football agents view their work as global, rather than confined to a certain region or even a sole country. Opportunities for clients and the next steps in their career now present themselves further afield, in the middle-east and other markets beyond just European football. The most successful agents in the contemporary era of football are the ones that will be able to adapt to this and continue to operate professionally in the newly emerging markets.
There are many challenges and obstacles that agents will come to face in the market, however. Dealing, negotiating and transacting with Saudi clubs and officials is very different to how agents may have conducted their business in other football markets. Agents that are looking to operate in the middle-eastern region must not do so naively; it is imperative to learn and become accustomed to the stark differences and intricacies in local custom and culture. Many agents we have spoken to on the matter have raised a broad variety of points regarding how this can have a damaging or beneficial effect on a possible deal.
For example, it can be the case that rejecting a single deal that they view as fair in their opinion, and giving the impression of greed, will not only jeopardise the deal in question, but also prevent them from ever working with that agent again, making any future deals impossible. Additionally, it is important to be aware that the culture in the region emphasises the importance of sharing and generosity. This becomes apparent during football transfers as often there will be many different individuals included within a deal that will all be contractually entitled to receive some level of remuneration. This is simply a part of common business practice in the region and is unavoidable. Disputing such inclusions can cause undesirable consequences and deter them from future interactions. Agents that have not educated themselves on professional behaviour and custom in the region will find it extremely challenging and difficult to produce favourable outcomes for them and their clients.
One final point to consider and to monitor is that this situation may change in the future. As well as coaches and players, clubs are also increasingly looking to recruit board members, Sporting Directors and other technical staff that have extensive European football experience and are well-rehearsed in the processes of running a successful football club and dealing professionally with highly scrutinised transactions and transfers. This may mean that agents will find it easier in future to deal with Saudi clubs and the number of ‘middlemen’ will decrease. The more professional individuals working on the club side inevitably means a more efficient system for agents to work with.
A Further Thought for the Local Players…
Despite such a global and seemingly never-ending coverage of all of the gossip, rumours and transfers involving Saudi Arabian football and some of the biggest salaries football has ever seen, there is actually a forgotten party in all of this. Rarely, if ever, have people discussed what the implications of this market shift means for Saudi Arabian national footballers and professional players that have been playing for Pro-League teams for years. Needless to say, however, this transition in the presence of Saudi football within the global game has a drastic impact on their livelihoods and their careers.
With major stars and legends of the game joining teams in the Saudi Pro-League for unprecedented annual wages, there is a dramatic gulf between the earnings of the established local players, and the new ‘global superstar’ arrivals. Something that we may see change in the coming transfer windows and seasons is measures put in place to reduce this divide. Perhaps a system that implements a ‘minimum wage’ may be brought in by those running football in the region with the biggest priority being to protect upcoming youth talent, homegrown players, and the development of the Saudi Arabian national team. It will be very interesting to see the longer term effects for players in the league, other than the superstars that everyone is talking about.
In summary, almost every football fan, player, and professional that works within the beautiful game, will be aware of the rising number of headlines surrounding Saudi Arabian football and the calibre of players being linked with the top Pro-League clubs. Everything that we have seen and heard so far suggests that, unlike the mid-2010’s Chinese emergence, the rise of middle-eastern football is part of a longer term project that may inadvertently cause drastic alterations in the global football landscape. For agents, the sheer financial superiority and enticing scope for continued growth provides an exciting opportunity to conduct business. Although still largely an unknown entity, agents that are able to build contacts within the region and create irresistible opportunities for clients may be able to capitalise on the market for the benefit of their own careers as well as that of the players and coaches that they represent.
Don’t forget we are also running an online course providing the perfect preparation for how to pass the FIFA football agent exam on the 12th August. You can register for the course by clicking here. Alternatively, for readers based in Germany, we are also conducting an in-person event in Frankfurt on the 2nd September which you can register for by clicking here.