Sportswashing: What's All the Hoopla About?

August 17, 2023

What does a country do when they have a PR problem? In some cases, countries utilize a strategy called sportswashing, associating yourself with big name athletes and/or sporting events to improve your public image and distract from negative aspects. This tactic can be highly effective as sports reach a wider and different audience than other communication tools and has a deep connection and passion for many people. Recently, sportswashing has been in the news a lot so we’ll take a look at Saudi Arabia to see how sportswashing is taking shape and on the flip side why some people say these actions are not about sportswashing at all.


Since 2021, the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, has spent $6.3 billion on sports deals. This equates to more than four times the amount spent from 2014-2021. In 2021 the Public Investment Fund bought English Premier League team Newcastle United F.C. and more recently they have begun targeting players to join the Saudi Pro League by offering extremely lucrative contracts. This strategy is working and some of the biggest names in soccer have now signed with Saudi Pro League teams including names like Ronaldo, Benzema, Kante, Firmino, and Neymar. In February it was announced that Saudi Arabia will host the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup. In addition to soccer, Saudi Arabia has also targeted the golf world. Large contracts were offered to lure some of the best golfers in the world away from the PGA tour and to the new LIV Golf tour. An estimated $2 billion was spent to create LIV golf. The PGA feared they couldn’t continue to compete with the virtually bottomless pockets of the Public Investment Fund and thus were pressured into the current proposed merger of LIV, PGA, and the European Tour with the governor of the Public Investment Fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, slated to be the chair of this new body. The Public Investment Fund would invest another $1 billion in the new golf conglomerate if the deal is completed, as it is currently being investigated by a US Senate committee. In addition to increasing Saudi Arabia’s influence in the golf world, this deal would also mark a major step in legitimizing the country as a business partner in the U.S. after many businesses cut ties after a CIA investigation concluded that Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, approved the operation that resulted in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


As we have seen, the case for sportswashing is fairly evident but some people are adamant that sportswashing is not the leading motive for this increase in sports spending in Saudi Arabia for two main reasons. First, every time the Public Investment Fund shells out more cash on sports, a new wave of reporting comes out covering the sportswashing angle and highlighting the human rights abuses that Saudi Arabia is trying to draw attention away from. The second point revolves around Saudi Arabia’s economy. In 2016 Mohammed bin Salman unveiled his Vision 2030 plan which aims to expand the country’s oil dependent economy and embrace a moderate Islamic approach to allow the country to no longer be an entertainment desert. Sports are a main piece of this, but additionally cinema, music and food festivals, fashion shows and more have been introduced to Saudi Arabia since 2016. While these social freedoms have been expanding, it has come at the cost of greater political repression. Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic government has arrested peaceful protestors, dealt out decades-long prison sentences for criticizing government on social media, and nearly doubled Saudi Arabia’s rate of executions since he came to power in 2015. In this light, Saudi Arabia’s sports spending is not an attempt to improve their standing in the eyes of international viewers, but to expand their economy and buy complicity and power from their citizens.


Increased spending from Saudi Arabia and other countries has certainly shaken up the sports world and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Whether you think it is based on efforts to improve public image or expand economies and increase power, it is interesting to see how players and leagues deal with the ethical dilemmas associated with money from authoritarian regimes.

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