Saudi Arabia’s Next Billion-Dollar Sports Play: A Boxing Takeover

Saudi Arabia has already launched a hostile takeover of professional golf. It has invested billions of dollars in world soccer. Now it wants to own professional boxing, too.

An ambitious and expensive Saudi plan that would reshape the economics, structure and future of boxing is in the final stages of approval, according to two people with direct knowledge of the plan.

Saudi Arabia’s giant sovereign wealth vehicle, the Public Investment Fund, would finance the project. The fund is holding final negotiations about dispersing the initial investment — said to be as much as $2 billion — that the plan would require, according to the two people involved in the planning. Both people declined to be identified because the project does not have final approval.

The Public Investment Fund, known as the P.I.F., declined to comment.

Under the Saudi proposal, about 200 of the top men’s boxers in the world would be signed and then divided into 12 weight classes in what would amount to a global boxing league.

Each class would include about 15 fighters each, allowing the best talents to regularly face off. The move would effectively create a single boxing entity that would replace the sometimes chaotic and frustrating system of dueling promoters and warring sanctioning bodies. The new entity would have the resources, and the fighters, to stage high-profile cards around the globe.

And unlike many of the sports Saudi Arabia has previously attempted to disrupt, professional boxing may be ripe for reimagining. The sport has lost its luster and some of its allure in recent decades and is currently run by a tangled web of rival promoters and disparate sanctioning bodies that arrange their own fights and award their own titles. That leaves fans to sift through a confusing system that frequently stymies meetings between the best boxers and one that boasts multiple “champions” in the same weight classes.

The new series would operate under one brand name, an arrangement similar to the business model of the hugely popular Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has steadily eroded boxing’s global popularity. In the U.F.C., 15 fighters are ranked in leagues per weight division as well as one ranking for the best “pound-for-pound” fighters. In the Saudi-backed event, boxers would be able to move up the rankings tables but also be eliminated from the series and replaced by new talent.

The project has been under discussion for more than a year, and developed with the help of multiple consultancy firms, including Boston Consulting Group, which has helped the P.I.F. on several projects. Should an investment decision be confirmed in the next few weeks, the series could start as early as the first half of next year, according to one of the people involved in the planning.

At that point, the P.I.F. would again provide what the project needs most: money.

For years, the fund has been the vehicle Saudi Arabia has used for its cash-soaked assault on the sports industry with efforts like the LIV Golf series and the signing of dozens of European soccer stars. Its moves have plowed huge amounts of fresh capital into clubs, teams, events, federations and sporting organizations. But they also have unsettled entire industries, from professional golf to soccer to tennis, and brought criticism that Saudi Arabia has sought to reshape perceptions of the kingdom through what is derided as “sportswashing.”

The biggest sticking point to the Saudi plan for boxing may be long-term contracts that some of the best boxers already have with high-profile promoters, many of whom are often separately tied to different television networks.

To resolve that issue, discussions have already begun on the possibility of full or partial investments from the P.I.F. in several of the biggest boxing promotion companies, according to the planners.

Two of the biggest promoters, Top Rank and Queensbury, declined to comment on any talks.

Partnerships are also under discussion with some of boxing’s traditional organizations, which control the rights not only to key boxers, but also to highly valuable intellectual property like archival video, historic results and the title belts once held by boxing royalty like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

In the new series, there would be a requirement for boxers to perform in a minimum number of events per year, a move designed to prevent some of the top boxers from taking prolonged time away from the sport, a cause of frustration among boxing fans.

Should the plan for the boxing league go ahead, a P.I.F. entity called Sela has been earmarked to promote the events, which would be held not just in Saudi Arabia but around the world. Sela, a sports events company, has already staged boxing events in Saudi Arabia, including the recent heavyweight unification bout between Britain’s Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk of Ukraine.

In that fight, Usyk became the first unified heavyweight champion in more than a generation.

Sela declined to comment on the new Saudi boxing plan.

That fight was just the latest in a series of high-profile boxing cards held in Saudi Arabia in recent years, turning the kingdom, thanks to the richest purses in the sport, into the top destination for the biggest bouts.

Saudi and Sela will soon be branching further afield, with events under the headline Riyadh Season now set to take place overseas.

The first will be in August in Los Angeles, when Terrence Crawford and Israil Madrimov meet for the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organization super-welterweight title. That may be followed by an even bigger event at London’s Wembley Stadium featuring the former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.

That event has already been talked up by the Saudi official who has quickly become the most prominent figure in boxing, Turki al-Sheikh, the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority.

Al-Sheikh is at the center of the plans to restructure boxing, and alluded as much in a recent interview with ESPN in which he reportedly said he planned to “fix” a “broken” sport. The interview did not reveal details of the new Saudi league.

The boxing effort he is leading dovetails with broader projects already underway in the kingdom. It also aligns with the desire of the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, to reshape the image of the gulf’s biggest nation, wean it away from its dependence on oil exports and also deliver broad changes to its conservative Muslim society.

Al-Sheikh, who is one of Prince Mohammed’s most-trusted lieutenants, is often the most visible presence from the royal court at high-profile sporting events. At the Usyk-Fury fight, for example, he sat in a ringside seat next to the soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and other invited celebrities. After Usyk won, al-Sheikh entered the ring to speak with both fighters.

But his growing influence in boxing is apparent in other ways, too. He has been name-checked in interviews and in social media posts by top boxers, promoters and even major broadcast networks.

And as Saudi Arabia has replaced Las Vegas, Los Angeles and London as the destination for the biggest fights, he is also helping to change the way the sport is broadcast. The recent heavyweight title fight — which reportedly earned Fury $100 million — was essentially given away to broadcast partners to air for free on the condition that they share some of their revenue with the host nation. Broadcast partners typically spend millions of dollars to acquire such rights.

The broadcast of the fight was also curious in another way that boosted viewership: Hundreds of illegal online streams were easily available and lasted for the duration of the fight. No effort, it seemed, was being made to take them down and prevent audiences from viewing the latest Saudi showcase.

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