7 August 2023 in Dossier The New Cold War, Finance


Cristiano Ronaldo goes to play in the desert, in a league that, as a whole, is not worth the sum of AC Milan and Inter Milan, with a number of spectators comparable to the Hungarian league, with the only international outlet of playing a continental cup against the champions of Uzbekistan, China, Japan and Afghanistan – an Asian cup from which teams from countries like Israel, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia flee.

What do the Arabs want to achieve? Some 20 years ago, the Chinese also tried to grow their league by buying famous coaches and footballers from Europe, and the result was the same as in the first old US league with Pelé and Chinaglia: bankruptcy. The difference is that in Arabia a quarter of the Arab league belongs to the state (with the problems of pasties I leave you to imagine), that the domestic spectator market (even in perspective) is completely irrelevant: the Saudi Arabian league is conceived as a league of old glories that, for the spectators of the West, allow Ronaldo and others to play efficiently, in an impressive choreography, almost until they are 50.

This means that this is a political operation by a theocracy that, using oil billions, seeks to gain the positive attention of the people of the West – for it has learned that 62% of American wrestling spectators reside abroad and that the European market, for American football, has become so important, that it has convinced the league to play some of the most important matches of each season in England or Germany. Economically, Europe is no longer central, but culturally it continues to be.

This ‘Arabian Nights’ league comes about because other strategies in the field of sport prove inefficient: the Gulf countries pay billions to host the national cup finals of countries like France and Italy, but the public perception of this is very low. The Gulf monarchies own the strongest clubs in Europe, but the public does not care, PSG is the Parisians’ team, and English parochialism is even more pronounced. The World Cup in Qatar was an advertising own goal, bringing in Formula One, cycling and even ice hockey moved nothing but mountains of money.

The Arab championship with Cristiano Ronaldo was born, because the Arab theocracies knocked on new doors: those of those who, all over the world, decide what should be broadcast on TV and what instead sinks into oblivion. One thing that happens without the public being aware of it: every day, for a quarter of a century, in the offices of an almost unknown company called IMG, the fate of world sport is decided: padel becomes an Olympic discipline and boxing is excluded. IMG decides everything, because it has the exclusive marketing rights to the Olympics, international football, and the television distribution of more than 2,000 world-class sporting events and more than twice as many competitions of national interest.

From left: Ari Emmanuel, CEO of Endeavor, head of world sport, and his best friend, Elon Musk

IMG, part of the American multinational group Endeavor, decides that motorcycling, in which now almost only Italians and Spaniards compete, will continue to be on TV. It represents the rights of thousands of sportspeople of the most disparate disciplines, looking after their interests beyond proxies – it is not only concerned with making them earn a lot of money, but also with building around them a competition that enhances their media value – a path indicated more than half a century ago by wrestling and which, unstoppable, is extending to all other disciplines: just look at the effect of Leo Messi on the American football championship. David Beckham’s Inter Miami is last in the league, then Messi comes along, trotting along, without anyone daring to give him a shove to take the ball away – and scores at least two goals a game.

Does IMG get angry because they don’t let them play in the European super league? Then let’s move the mountain to Muhammad: let’s bring the best players in the world to play in Saudi Arabia. Because, every now and then, IMG falls in love with a project, based on a single criterion: a discipline, however strange, how many spectators does it move? What is its spectacularity if televised? How many sponsors does it guarantee? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to defend the glory of Greco-Roman wrestling, I understand the appeal of kick-boxing; electric Formula One unnerves me (because of the noise) but it is just as boring as Verstappen and Hamilton’s turbocharged Formula One.

Here we are faced with yet another profound structural change of what we had considered beautiful and immutable: the world population follows what it perceives to be like – and in the beginning this was the local team, no matter if strong or weak. Then we moved on to generations rooting for whoever wins (and therefore must continue to win no matter what), as evidenced by the financial rules of UEFA and FIFA that protect rich clubs against weaker ones. Now we are moving to openly piloted matches – like wrestling. The bet of IMG and the Saudi monarchy is that a crazy league of oldies, in which Cristiano Ronaldo scores goals even after his andropause is desirable, will be bought by TVs all over the world, and will have fans of clubs that today are a laughing stock and will never clash with those in the real leagues.

It is an experiment. Like many of the experiments of Elon Musk’s friends – yes, because the founder and head of Endeavor, Ari Emmanuel, is also one of his most trusted friends. If, as I believe, we will suddenly see youtube teeming with Arabian goals and private TVs offering live matches, then we will know that I predicted the right thing.


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