US and the Saudi struggle: Can MLS take off with the Saudis buying out top players instead?

For over a decade, the Premier League has attracted billionaire owners who have consistently broken the bank to bring the world’s best players to English soil. While spending exorbitant cash is hardly unique to English football, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United have taken this into overdrive since the millennium. Now that the English Premier League has established itself as the most-watched football league in the world, regularly showcasing outrageous, magical football from the world’s most fabulous talent, other countries with similar financial capabilities are looking to get involved and attract some of these big names.


Big moves in Major League Soccer (MLS)

American football (soccer) teams have attempted to make a dent in the world scene before. Infamously, the late great Pele, undoubtedly one of the greatest Brazilian footballers to ever lace a pair of boots, played out the last of his domestic career in New York. Although the MLS rebranded and didn’t exist in its current format when the iconic Brazilian was playing for the Cosmos, this was the first high-profile attempt by American soccer to increase its profile on the world stage.

In 21st century terms, American soccer’s subsequent attempt to grab global headlines occurred when David Beckham joined LA Galaxy, considered a significant commercial success. It led to a stream of top European players flowing into the league, including Robbie Keane, who followed Beckham to LA Galaxy and engraved his name into their history books. Players like David Villa, one of the best strikers of Spain’s golden generation, signed a massive deal with New York. Once you combine this substantial commercial value with a considerable increase in the number of people looking to place bets on MLS games, it’s no surprise that the league has experienced a solid and consistent upward trend in viewing figures.

These big-money signings inevitably draw in gamblers who place bets on the MLS, and due to this popularity, there’s now a range of bonuses you can use when you place your MLS bets, whether you’re placing a wager on New York or another team in the MLS. As more American states, including New York, start looking more favourably at sports betting, the rise in fans being drawn to the MLS correlates with a swell in the numbers of bettors looking to place bets on games as they unfold.


The EPL foundation

English football existed before the Premier League, and while some players and pundits might struggle to discuss the game before Sky transformed it, it was an early indication of how much money was about to impact the English game. Although teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool have spent billions of pounds over the last few decades, the emergence of mega wages and transfer fees has many football analysts believing that the Premier League might be at the peak of its dominance. In football, there’s a cyclical nature regarding which league is considered the top one in Europe. In the 1990s, it was the Serie A in Italy; in the 2000s, La Liga emerged as the top league, rising in tandem with Spain’s golden generation and generational talents such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo playing in the league.

The deciding factor that drove the Premier League to the top of this podium was the money involved in the game. Big money attracts the biggest and best names, both with regards to managers and players on the pitch. As a flood of billionaire owners moved into the EPL, the race to keep up meant that the league’s average level of skill and quality experienced a sharp bump.

This process has accelerated and continued to broaden the gap between the leagues to a point where the EPL is considered by far the most dominant, with six English teams making it to the Champions League final in the last four years, with three of those teams going on to lift the trophy. One of the teams that has won the trophy, Chelsea, has spent an extraordinary amount of money over the last 12 months, with no signs of it slowing down, in a bid to keep up with teams such as Manchester City, Newcastle and Liverpool.


The relationship between Saudi Arabia and football

The Saudi Premier League isn’t the first inroad into professional football for wealthy investors from the Middle East. The involvement of wealthy investors in professional football dates back over a decade, when Manchester City was taken over by a multibillion-pound consortium based in Abu Dhabi. However, it accelerated the interest in English football, bringing in global superstars and highlighting to billionaire investors how profitable it can be to own a football club in England.

Newcastle United hasn’t won the league for over 95 years. To put this into context, when Newcastle United last won the league, the television hadn’t been invented. However, as an investment, it’s clear why Saudi investors were attracted to the club based in the North East of England. Despite them being a lot smaller than most other clubs in England, Newcastle has a large, modern ground, is a one-club city, and has a passionate fanbase who follow them through thick and thin, regularly drawing in attendances of 40,000 in England’s second tier, following their relegation in 2016.

With all these factors considered, Newcastle was one of the most attractive propositions in English football for a big takeover. Following the 2021 buyout and some vociferous criticism, Newcastle became the richest club in the world, which again highlighted the immense profit available for investors looking to own a top, global sporting brand.


The emergence of the Saudi Premier League

It feels as if all roads have led to the Saudi Premier League. Even when Sky first injected millions of pounds into the English game back in the early 1990s, some analysts stated that the genie, at that point, was out of the bottle. However, over the last 30 years, the record transfer fee has continued to accelerate to obscene levels, and the Saudi Premier League is now aiming for the successful blueprint that the English Premier League laid out at the beginning of the 1990s.

Cristiano Ronaldo captured global headlines when he left Manchester United and moved to Saudi Arabia. However, this was the first of many colossal money names to move to the Middle East for eye-watering sums. For instance, French World Cup winner and Ballon d’Or recipient Karim Benzema is set to earn over €300m for his three-year stay in Saudi. Sadio Mane, N’Golo Kante and Jordan Henderson are other huge names from the Premier League who now ply their trade in the Saudi Premier League. For other leagues looking to challenge and increase their quality, this is a serious headache.

The MLS has long attempted to attract huge names, and with the world’s greatest-ever footballer, Lionel Messi, making the switch, this is one way the MLS has trumped the Saudi league.

However, the harsh truth is that teams within the MLS cannot match the wealth concentrated in the Saudi Premier League. There is a more significant societal push from those in power in Saudi to diversify the astonishing oil profits held within the country, and branching out into sports entertainment is one of the most effective and efficient ways to do it.


MLS vs Saudi Premier League

At this stage, if we had to choose between the two leagues, we’d say that the Saudi Premier League has the momentum. They have signed a cluster of high-profile players and have been linked with strong, active players. Probably the most notable distinction between how both leagues have approached bringing in fresh talent is evident in the players who have actually signed. Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane aren’t in their prime, but they still have solid years ahead of them, although Messi is still setting the standard for footballers worldwide; he is 36 next year and isn’t as unstoppable as he once was.


Final thoughts

It is clear that the Saudis might have a structured, long-term plan instead of relying on quick, headline-grabbing signatures like the MLS when we consider who is being signed. There are other associated factors to consider, such as different sports moving into Saudi and hosting some of their most significant events there. The crossover boxing/MMA event between Tyson Fury and Francis N’Gannou is another example of Saudi wealth looking to branch into other avenues of sports entertainment. So, the fact there’s a reasonably detailed, multi-faceted approach to bringing more sports to the Kingdom means that we will probably see even bigger names coming to the league shortly.

With rumours that Liverpool superstar Mo Salah could be the next colossal name to make a move, the MLS has found a worthy contender that is looking to attract a similar level of player at a similar stage in their career, so the competition between the two will heat up dramatically. Make no mistake: the MLS will be concerned about this rise, but how they will adapt is another question entirely.

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