Saudi football league draws fewer fans than Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham

Al-Nassr fans wave a banner bearing the image of Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of a Saudi Pro League football match. (Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Al-Nassr fans wave a banner bearing the image of Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of a Saudi Pro League football match. (Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images) (Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

By Fahad Abuljadayel

(Bloomberg) — Saudi Arabia’s football spending spree may have transformed it into one of the world’s biggest transfer markets, but relatively low attendance numbers and minuscule revenue from media rights illustrate the scale of the challenge facing the local league.

The Saudi Professional Football League has so far averaged 8,500 spectators per game this season. While that’s a 24% increase from last year, it’s lower than the average for Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham AFC which until recently competed in the fifth tier of British soccer. Games in the English Premier League and Bundesliga average about 40,000 fans each.

The latest season runs through May 2024 and will include more games featuring clubs backed by the Public Investment Fund, which may help boost attendance figures. Still, that’s a modest return for teams in the kingdom, which spent US$875 million bringing in foreign players from June 1 to Sept. 1.

Brazilian star Neymar and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema made the move to Saudi Arabia this year for big money contracts, following Portuguese icon Cristiano Ronaldo who signed on in late 2022.

Source: FIFA

Those signings helped the Saudi league secure deals to broadcast games in more than 130 territories bringing in four times as much as last season’s total revenue of about US$710,000. That’s still a fraction of the US$4 billion of revenue from broadcast rights in the 2022/23 season of the English Premier League.

“They are not massive revenues to finance all the activities that we’ve got, but it’s certainly significant movement,” the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer, Carlo Nohra, told Bloomberg News in an interview last month. The SPL’s growth is a long-term process and there’s no set timeline for when it wants to break-even, he’d said at the time.

Games in the latest season involving the four major clubs backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund made up 90% of the total attendance. Al Ahly – a newcomer to the league – has so far accounted for a fifth of the attendance.

The marquee Al Hilal-Al Ittihad clash featured a packed stadium, but it took place in a venue that has a capacity of 20,000. The larger 60,000 seater in Jeddah is being upgraded for December’s FIFA Club World Cup, which may have affected attendance and impacted overall numbers.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which manages close to US$800 billion of assets, has majority stakes in four of the biggest clubs including Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Ahly and Al Nassr. The local league aims to quadruple annual revenue to US$480 million by 2030.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.