When the Saudi Arabian-backed LIV Golf series announced an agreement to join with the PGA Tour on Tuesday, it shocked deal makers across the sports world.
“It’s been a mix of stunned and in disbelief,” Alex Michael, a managing director at the investment bank LionTree, told DealBook about the general reaction.
Industry insiders quickly moved on to wondering which sport could be next.
Saudi Arabia’s enormous sovereign wealth fund, which is known as the Public Investment Fund, or P.I.F., has an appetite for sports. It has made investments in WWE, Formula 1 and a national soccer league (for which the country created an enormous war chest to sign big stars like Lionel Messi, who turned down an offer this week).
But the kingdom’s history of human rights violations has been an obstacle to some deals in the United States. In 2019, the entertainment giant Endeavor returned the fund’s $400 million investment after the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. And until recently, the PGA Tour was eager to use Saudi Arabia’s record against it.
That moral concern seems to have been overridden by the PGA Tour’s business concerns. The deal with LIV Golf came together after the rival circuit picked up traction and lured players away with lofty purses, ultimately making it infeasible for the PGA to compete.
“The Saudis didn’t change history or change who they were,” said Lyle Ayes, chief executive of Verance Capital, which invests in sports. “The deal just made sense.”
Effectively a commercial partnership, the deal may open the door for more sports businesses to accept P.I.F. funds, Ayes said. (Critics would say that was one of Saudi Arabia’s goals in pursuing sports investments in the first place.)
It would be difficult to pull off the LIV Golf playbook in another sport. Baseball faces challenges that would make an investment in a rival league risky: Its fan base is aging, the regional sports model is collapsing, and there aren’t a lot of spare baseball stadiums big enough for a major-league team. A rival to the National Football League would require a large number of players, and past efforts to create competitor leagues have flopped.
The National Basketball Association might be the easiest team league to challenge. Basketball requires fewer players than baseball or football, and courts are fairly easy to find or build. But given how much U.S. players are already paid, it’s unclear what a rival league could offer.
Tennis is probably the best candidate for a rival tour. Like golf, it’s an individual sport, which makes it easier for P.I.F. to lure athletes with big checks. And while there’s a smaller cohort of stars to recruit than in golf, a rival league would need only about a dozen players for an elite tour. Some tennis stars, including fifth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, have already played in Saudi Arabia at the Diriyah tennis exhibition. The threat of Saudi competition is likely one reason the WTA raised money from the private equity firm CVC Capital this year.
Not all options involve poaching athletes. Insiders say they expect the Saudis to begin investing in U.S. sports teams. The N.B.A. has already changed its rules to allow it. And while the N.F.L. doesn’t allow any institutional investors, many expect that to change soon, too.
And while the path didn’t seem available a couple of years ago, the most efficient route for P.I.F. to own a major sports series like the PGA Tour may now be to just acquire one.
“It certainly would be easier to come through the front door,” LionTree’s Michael said.
“If the PGA had, from the get-go, said, ‘Hey, you can value us at some massive premium to what we think we’re valued and give us $3 billion,’ we would have never had LIV Golf.” — Lauren Hirsch
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The far reach of Saudi money
For decades, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — a state-owned investment vehicle that invests in an array of assets, including stocks and private companies — was a quiet investor, less well known than those run by other Persian Gulf nations and Singapore.
And then Mohammed bin Salman rose to power as the kingdom’s de facto ruler in 2015.
Since then, the sovereign fund, the Public Investment Fund, has become the engine of Prince Mohammed’s vast effort to shift Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil. In a key part of that campaign, Vision 2030, the state fund has poured billions of dollars into foreign businesses, becoming one of the world’s splashiest investors.
The Public Investment Fund has taken multibillion-dollar stakes in Uber and the electric carmaker Lucid; made a $45 billion bet on the Vision Fund, the wildly ambitious tech investment vehicle created by SoftBank; and invested $20 billion in a Blackstone-led infrastructure fund.
Here is how P.I.F.’s deal-making efforts are spread across the globe, including the stakes it has taken as a limited partner in investment firms.
Person in the news: Yasir al-Rumayyan
LIV Golf’s deal with the PGA Tour could give Saudi Arabia new prominence in pro sports. It may also bring new prominence to the kingdom’s point man on all types of investments: Yasir al-Rumayyan, the golf- and cigar-loving governor of P.I.F.
A sudden rise to prominence. For much of his career, al-Rumayyan, 53, has operated far from the global stage. A graduate of King Faisal University, he worked his way up the ranks of Saudi brokerages and the kingdom’s financial markets authority. His ascent coincided with the rise of Prince Mohammed, who in 2015 appointed him to lead P.I.F.
Under al-Rumayyan, P.I.F. began flexing its financial might globally, including in the sports world. And cementing al-Rumayyan’s centrality to Saudi Arabia’s economic campaign is his dual role as chairman of Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s oil giant and the font of its vast wealth. Under him, the fossil fuel producer began trading in the world’s biggest initial public offering, which now commands a $2 trillion market value.
But that new prominence has threatened to put al-Rumayyan in difficult positions: The PGA Tour’s bitter legal fight with LIV could have forced the Saudi financier to sit for a deposition, exposing P.I.F.’s internal workings and the true power that he wields within it. That threat appears to have receded — at least, so long as the deal goes through.
Ultimately, however, al-Rumayyan must still answer to his powerful client. Prince Mohammed has insisted that Saudi Arabia will become a tech-enabled society of the future, abetted by its global deal-making and its staggeringly expensive investments in internal infrastructure projects. The fund has also sought to beat back reports that its investments are the products of freewheeling decision-making, not necessarily beholden to traditional structures like investment committees.
Last year, in the P.I.F.’s only public performance disclosure to date, it said it had made a 25 percent return in 2021. But if its vast investment campaign fails to pay off, it will be al-Rumayyan who is likely to answer for that.
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