Thursday, March 14, 2024

Princess Reema call


Inside Saudi Arabia’s $1billion sales pitch: Plan for Princess Reema call with top female players

Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., during a panel session on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. The annual Davos gathering of political leaders, top executives and celebrities runs from January 15 to 19. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images


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For more than a year, the leaders of tennis have been trying to gauge just how serious Saudi Arabia is about getting involved with tennis. 

Was the country prepared to mount a takeover and start buying off players, as it did in golf, or was it merely content to hold an exhibition or two? Or perhaps something in between? 

There is now little doubt that the country and its sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are intent on pursuing a broad push into the sport at every level. The leaders of the Saudi effort have shifted their attention to working with the top officials in tennis on selling their plan to the public, and they are determined not to let entrenched interests, and even some of the biggest names in the sport, stand in their way. 

Saudi Arabia has offered roughly $1billion (£1.3bn) in investment in the sport in exchange for hosting major events — a move that has now become a part of the emerging chess game between the organisers of the Grand Slams and the men’s and women’s tours, in which the sport’s leaders are battling to control tennis.  

Among Saudi Arabia’s next steps are finalizing and announcing the pending deal to host the WTA Finals, the end-of-season tournament that features the top-eight players — but several of the biggest names in the sport, including Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, are among the loudest critics of the deal because of the country’s repressive laws toward women and homosexuals, and are partly responsible for a delay in the announcement, according to people with knowledge of the process who remain anonymous to protect relationships. 

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Navratilova and Evert, long-term rivals and the closest of friends who won a combined 36 singles Grand Slam titles, co-wrote an essay in The Washington Post in January, stating that bringing the WTA Finals to Saudi Arabia would represent a step backwards for women and women’s sports. 

Some current players are not completely comfortable with playing in Saudi Arabia, given current laws that limit the freedom of women and criminalize homosexuality.

Inside Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in sport

To push back against Evert and Navratilova and assuage those concerns, the people with knowledge of the process said the women’s tour is working with Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, to schedule a conference call with the top 20 players in the game and other big names outside the top 20. 

Some of those players had asked to hear from women who grew up in the region. The idea of the call is to have the ambassador and other successful women from Saudi Arabia speak about the changes the country has already made and other plans to make it less repressive in the coming years. They want this to happen before the WTA Finals deal is announced, which may come as soon as the end of this month, according to people involved with the planning.

The approach is very different from last fall when players participating in the elite WTA Finals received a series of responses they could consider should they face questions about bringing the event to Saudi Arabia.

If asked about Saudi Arabia, where players who are gay may feel uncomfortable given the country criminalizes homosexuality, the WTA is understood to have advised players to consider saying, “I’m happy to play wherever the WTA Finals is hosted, it’s a prestigious event.” That advice was not well received.

In an interview on Wednesday at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, where she is working as a television commentator, Navratilova said her position had not changed. 

“Bigger changes need to happen first before we go there,” Navratilova said. “I can’t go there and announce that I am gay. We have some gay players. Are they going to be safe? People say, well, just behave. But what does that mean?” 

The Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to messages seeking comment. In a lengthy post on X, formerly Twitter, in response to Navratilova and Evert’s essay, Bandar Al Saud wrote that by trying to keep the WTA Finals from going to Saudi Arabia, the stars had turned their back on women they had inspired.   

“Perfection cannot be the price for admission,” Bandar Al Saud wrote. “For a tennis tournament or any other once-closed space that our women want to enter.”

Saudi Arabia’s push toward tennis goes beyond the professional level. David Haggerty, president of the International Tennis Federation, the sport’s world governing body, traveled to the country in the fall to attend the ATP Tour’s Next Gen Finals in Jeddah, a tournament for the best men’s players aged 21 and under.

Arthur Fils and Hamad Medjedovic
Runner-up Arthur Fils, centre left, and winner Hamad Medjedovic, centre right, at last year’s Next Gen Finals in Jeddah (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Haggerty met with sports officials there about the country’s grassroots investments in tennis. He shared information about what similarly sized countries in the region have done to develop the sport and received a commitment from leaders there to vastly expand their facilities, with millions of dollars in investment and opportunities for boys and girls to participate in the sport.

In a statement on Wednesday, the ITF said its mission is to help grow the sport in all of its 213 member nations.

“Western Asia is an important area of potential growth for the sport of tennis and, along with other countries from this region, we have witnessed Saudi Arabia actively investing in sport, both internally and externally in recent years.”

The ITF said it has been developing a strategy with the Saudi Tennis Federation to drive the growth of the sport in the country, including expanding junior programs and securing expertise and funding to enhance facilities, coaching, competition and opportunities for homegrown talent to flourish and to compete nationally and internationally.  

“We have already seen encouraging signs,” the statement said, noting that in 2023 a Saudi national women’s team traveled to Burundi to compete in the regional championship of the Billie Jean King Cup, the international women’s team competition. Also last year, Saudi Arabia’s national junior girls team competed in the Billie Jean King Cup Juniors Asia/Oceania pre-qualifying event in Sri Lanka.

The ITF also organizes the international men’s team competition, the Davis Cup, in addition to the Billie Jean Cup. The final round of those events generally changes location every few years, though there are no plans as of now to bring them to Saudi Arabia.

In October, Saudi Arabia will host an exhibition it is calling the 6 Kings Slam, which will include Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune. All, except Rune, have won a Grand Slam singles title.

For now, plans for official tennis events in Saudi Arabia include only the WTA Finals and a top-level mixed tournament similar to the one underway in Indian Wells. Both of those events are included in the $1billion of investments in the sport that Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the ATP Tour, presented to other leaders of the sport last weekend. 

The investments also include additional sponsorships. PIF has already committed $100million to sponsorships of the men’s rankings and multiple tournaments, money that was included in the proposal.

A portion of the money may also go toward funding a revived tour for senior players, increasing prize money for current players, and providing support for the smaller tournaments that provide opportunities for developing players to compete, and for more established players to earn appearance fees.

Taken together, the investments could immediately increase the total revenues and investment in professional tennis — which are between $2.5billion and $3bn — by roughly a third.

(Top photo: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Matthew Futterman

Matthew Futterman is an award-winning veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.”Before coming to The Athletic in 2023, he worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently writing a book about tennis, "The Cruelest Game: Agony, Ecstasy and Near Death Experiences on the Pro Tennis Tour," to be published by Doubleday in 2026. Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattfutterman


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Ulf S.

· 4h 4m ago

Incredible moral leadership from Everet and Navratilova. Thoughtful, clear eyed, and courageous. Can think of very few men in sport who have met the challenge in such a way.

Looking forward to the courageous men on this board explaining how money talks, it’s just business, it’s the same as our government having strategic alliances with countries that don’t always share our values. These two “athletes” have more smarts and sense; we all benefit when they don’t “stick to sports”.


Dan B.

· 4h 1m ago

The irony of a Saudi princess in a f*#king burkha telling women they are free in Saudi arabia is too much for me. Have fun with the blood money sport


Bimbo O.

· 3h 52m ago

For a country with zero world class athletes across any sport, this obsession with taking over major sports by simply overwhelming it with humongous amounts of money is simply mind-boggling.
If I were a conspiracy theorist - which I'm not - I would think this is about re-orienting the world away from the West to the East - culture speaking.

control tennis


Saudi Arabia’s new $1billion proposal and the battle to control tennis

RIYADH, SAUDIA ARABIA - FEBRUARY 28:  In this handout image provided by PIF, Massimo Calvelli, CEO, ATP (Sitting, Left) and Kevin Foster, Head of Corporate Affairs, PIF (Sitting, Right), Raffaella Valentino, VP Sales, ATP (Standing, Left), Daniele Sano, Chief Business Officer, ATP (Standing, Center Left),  Mohamed AlSayyad, Head of Corporate Brand, PIF (Standing, Center Right), Alanoud Althonayan, Head of Sponsorships & Events, PIF (Standing, Right) unveil a new multi-year strategic partnership, marking a shared commitment to enhancing global tennis for players, fans, tournament organizers and stakeholders at all levels of the sport on February 28th, 2024 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  (Photo by PIF via Getty Images)
By Matthew Futterman
Mar 13, 2024


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After months of waiting for the leaders of the Grand Slams to come up with a plan to reshape tennis and produce billions of dollars in growth, the rest of those in charge of the sport may be on the verge of taking matters into their own hands.

Following months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the leaders of the men’s and women’s professional tours are attempting to secure financial viability with at least $1billion of investment from Saudi Arabia.

The move comes amid mounting tension in the sport, which players and executives say is primed to undergo the sort of once-in-a-generation realignment filled with rich promises of transformation, but often results in doing little to solve the long-standing structural problems — a season that is too long, too confusing to follow, too taxing for players and doesn’t allow for more than the top 80 or so players to meet their expenses. 

Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the ATP, the men’s tour, shared details of the proposed investments from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), many of which have been discussed or even agreed to previously, at a contentious meeting among the sport’s leaders on Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.

Taken together, the investments could immediately increase the total revenues and investment in tennis — which are between $2.5billion and $3billion — by roughly a third. According to people familiar with the proposal, who remain anonymous to protect relationships, the bulk of the money will go toward purchasing a license for a new top-level mixed event in Saudi Arabia. There is also money for additional sponsorships. 

PIF has already committed as much as $100million to sponsorships of the men’s rankings and multiple tournaments, money that was included in the proposal that Gaudenzi presented last weekend. The proposal also accounted for Saudi Arabia’s pending deal to host the WTA Tour Finals, which is yet to be announced but is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks. 

Inside Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in sport

A portion of the money may also go toward funding a revived tour for senior players, increasing prize money for current players, and providing support for the smaller tournaments that provide opportunities for developing players to compete and for more established players to earn appearance fees.

The meeting and the proposed $1billion investment from Saudi Arabia were first reported in the Telegraph. Representatives of Saudi’s PIF did not return messages seeking comment.

The investment proposal arrived at a time when leaders of the sport were expecting an altogether different plan for revitalizing the sport and reshaping its structure.

Since the summer, the leaders of the men’s and women’s professional tennis tours and the owners of their biggest tournaments have been waiting for the Grand Slams to deliver a proposal to overhaul the sport and secure its financial future. 

First, they were told it would come in November in Turin, Italy, at the ATP Finals. Then the delivery date slipped to January in Australia. Finally, it arrived on Saturday in Indian Wells, the home of the first mixed tour event of the year, which is colloquially referred to as the ‘fifth Slam’.

Many of the top officials in the sport gathered to hear what the Grand Slams had to offer. They anticipated a carefully designed plan for a streamlined schedule that would be easier for fans to follow and that would reduce the strain on top players, something those players have been demanding for years.

Most importantly, they expected that the leaders of the sport’s four richest and most important events — the Australian, U.S. and French Opens and Wimbledon — had come up with at least a framework for how they might combine their media and commercial rights with those of the top tournaments on the tour in a way that would provide everyone with an opportunity to build a more profitable and sustainable sport.

What quickly became clear as Craig Tiley and Lew Sherr, the leaders of the organizations that control the Australian and U.S. Opens, delivered their presentation on Saturday was that the Grand Slams had far more work to do. After months of talks, the Grand Slam leaders still had not come to a financial agreement among themselves and therefore could not propose anything with dollars or rights attached.

They proposed the same idea they had talked about informally for months — a premium tour that included the four Grand Slams and 10 other top events, with a combined ATP and WTA Finals at the end of the season. They shared a proposed schedule, with the weeks of play delineated, but it was largely similar to the current schedule and did not specify which tournaments would take place during which weeks.

“There was no meat on the bones,” said one leader who was present at the meeting.

When the other officials peppered them with questions about financial arrangements, Tiley and Sherr told them they first needed buy-in on the broadest of broad strokes and asked for the formation of a working group to figure out the money. That idea quickly got shot down. According to people involved in the discussions, the Grand Slams were told that whatever negotiations eventually come to pass would be handled by Gaudenzi and his counterpart at the WTA, Steve Simon. 

Simon has been largely supportive of the Grand Slams’ initial efforts toward creating a premium tour. Gaudenzi has not. When Sherr met with him last month in Europe, Gaudenzi told him the sport already had a so-called premium tour — the tournaments that, like Indian Wells, are known as Masters tournaments for the men and 1000 events for the women, to signify the number of rankings points the winner receives. 

Six of those events are mixed, though the tournaments at the National Bank Open in Canada are divided between Toronto and Montreal and switch each year. 

The Grand Slam organizers, especially Tiley and his colleagues at Tennis Australia, are desperate to maintain control of the tennis calendar, which, for much of the year, is built around regional swings that climax with their events. However, Gaudenzi and Simon have held talks with leaders in Saudi Arabia about holding a new, top-level mixed event in the country in January.

That could jeopardize the viability of the tour events in Australia and New Zealand that lead up to the Australian Open. Tennis Australia controls those events, leading Tiley to jump into the fray last summer when word first spread that Gaudenzi was working with leaders in Saudi Arabia. 

The two have been battling with each other indirectly ever since, but Gaudenzi has moved ahead for the moment. That is down to one simple reason — he has money to offer the rest of the sport; Tiley and Sherr do not.

(Top photo: PIF via Getty Images)

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Matthew Futterman

Matthew Futterman is an award-winning veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.”Before coming to The Athletic in 2023, he worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently writing a book about tennis, "The Cruelest Game: Agony, Ecstasy and Near Death Experiences on the Pro Tennis Tour," to be published by Doubleday in 2026. Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattfutterman


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Daniele R.

· Yesterday

I hate this whole thing, but I am also amazed to learn that only the top 80 players cover their expenses, that's clearly not sustainable.


Nicholas F.

· Yesterday

"Never Forget" seems to be forgotten when you throw billions of dollars around.


Robert S.

· Yesterday

This is making a deal with Satan. Not even one mention of Saudi human rights record or their treatment of women. There’s a far simpler solution to expanding the number of players supported by the Tours: take more of the money distributed to the bureaucrats at the top of the sport in both official organizations and the likes of apparel/racquet companies and give it to the players. Voila! Problem solved without selling your soul!

quarter-finals underline


Blockbuster Champions League quarter-finals underline its attraction and flaws

Manchester City captain Ilkay Gundogan holds up the trophy with his team at the presentation ceremony following the UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester City and Inter Milan at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on June 10th 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)
By Jacob Whitehead
Mar 14, 2024


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Follow live coverage of Aston Villa vs Ajax in the Europa Conference League today

Take yourself back to the evening of August 31. It is the last days of summer, early season hopes have not yet been quashed, and the Champions League group-stage draw has just been made.

Imagine you are in a bar, a nice restaurant, the queue in a fish and chip shop — any of them work for this exercise. You are deep in discussion with a friend. To settle a point, you grab a napkin and write down the eight clubs you think will make the Champions League quarter-finals in April. Run through those eight sides in your head. How similar are they to what we have ahead of us now?

After the last of the round of 16 games on Wednesday, the 2023-24 Champions League’s quarter-finalists have now been set: ArsenalManchester City, Paris-Saint Germain, BarcelonaReal Madrid, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.

Maybe there were a couple of changes — Napoli to replicate last season’s Serie A form in Europe or AC Milan to emerge from the group of death. By and large, however, the identities of these teams were entirely predictable.

There is a thrill to the sides remaining, of course. Eight storied clubs, four heavyweight clashes looming. When the draw is made tomorrow (Friday) at 11am UK time (7am ET), every match will have narrative stitched into its fabric. Elite-level club football is a small world; the crossover between each team is a web, not a line.

Into tactics over backstory? Consider the managers: Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, Luis Enrique, Carlo Ancelotti. Even those set to leave at the end of the season — Thomas Tuchel and Xavi — have intriguing styles and players with the ability to win any game.

Pep Guardiola, trophy
Can any of Europe’s elite coaches stop Guardiola? (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

And as for those players? For all the investment of the Saudi Pro League — and, to a lesser extent, MLS — the Champions League is where the sport’s best perform. Though certain individuals in The Athletic’s tactics department may disagree, the general fan is far more likely to want to see Kylian Mbappe running at Real Madrid’s defence than the likes of Royal Antwerp or Red Star Belgrade.

There is a flip side.

For all the imminent excitement of the last eight, the names of those clubs imply a predictability to the competition’s previous rounds that have taken seven months to produce these quarter-finalists. The Champions League’s preliminary stages are meant to be complete by the start of the group phase in September — not extended until the middle of March. The Champions League should be the best club competition in the world because of its drama, as well as the sides involved. Without a surprise presence in the last eight, is that just what has happened?

As The Athletic’s Michael Cox explained in September, the group stage has become less exciting, with the average gap between the group’s winners and losers growing by the year.

To give this season’s competition its due, there has still been intrigue. Group F, featuring PSG, Dortmund, Milan and Newcastle, was a thrill ride — with a crazy final day seeing all four clubs retain a chance of progressing at some point. FC Copenhagen, with a budget just five per cent of Manchester United’s, went through to the last-16 at the Premier League side’s expense. Porto just took Arsenal to penalties.

Be that as it may, the big teams have still emerged on top. That is by design, not coincidence.

Watching Sergio Conceicao’s Porto was an instructive exercise. Porto were arguably the last ‘surprise team’ to win the Champions League — its most recent champions who did not come from a big-five European league, in any case — when they triumphed under Jose Mourinho in 2003-04.

Just as back then, Porto are one of the most dominant sides in Portugal and, similarly to 2003-04, produced an outstanding tactical performance. In that round-of-16 tie against Arsenal, it felt as if they came far closer to their best display than the Londoners, but Mikel Arteta’s side still went through. Arsenal’s potential, with the depth of their squad, is simply far higher than Porto’s. There are different levels between the elites of the Premier League and La Liga and those from other divisions.

There is nuance to this. This is the first time Arsenal have reached the quarter-finals since 2010, but that is more due to the strength of the Premier League limiting their opportunities to qualify than the strength of the Champions League itself.

The semi-finals in 2018-19 were a high point for the competition thanks to two classic comebacks, with two of the clubs involved, Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax, relative strangers to the latter stages of the tournament in the 21st century.

Since then? No teams from outside Europe’s top five domestic leagues have reached the semi-finals, with the only ‘surprise teams’ being RB Leipzig (2019-20), whose funding makes that classification debatable, Lyon (2019-20), historically one of France’s largest teams, and Villarreal (2021-22), who, in fairness, have been relegated since their previous burst of European form in the mid-2000s.

This season, not even one of the final eight could be considered a ‘surprise’. Their concentration at this stage promises a captivating end to the competition — and please do enjoy it! – but their presence is also a symbol of a problem.

European football seems designed to aid the biggest clubs, such as Real Madrid (Maria de Gracia Jimenez/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

UEFA were furious at the prospect of a European Super League. The Super League remains a terrible idea for competitiveness, for fan culture, for viewers.

But the UEFA competition we have ended up with is a Super League in everything but name. Aside from the German sides, who were approached by the proposed competition’s organisers, every team remaining in this season’s Champions League would have been involved in that prospective competition as it was initially designed.

In every knockout tie so far, barring Inter Milan versus Atletico, the club with the higher revenue has progressed. According to Deloitte’s Money League, six of the eight quarter-finalists are among the top 10 revenue-generating clubs in the world. The other two — Dortmund and Atletico— are 12th and 15th respectively.

This Champions League marks the end of an era — next season’s competition will bring the advent of the so-called ‘Swiss Model’. In that, 36 teams, up from the current 32, will be split into four pots of nine (a change from eight four-team pools) based on seeding — and rather than play against all the eight other sides within their pot, clubs will play against two teams from each of the four groups. The top eight sides will immediately advance to the last 16, with the ones finishing ninth to 24th facing off in two-legged ties for the right to join them.

Do not expect any imminent change — this format makes it harder still for big clubs to be eliminated in the group stage. Its structure will not usurp the established order but merely change the way teams get there. Think of it as taking the stairs rather than the lift to reach the top floor.

The more significant rule change was introduced more quietly in April 2022 when UEFA brought in new financial regulations to replace the financial fair play system. This introduced what UEFA termed a “squad-cost rule” — where a club’s total expenditure on transfers, wages and agent fees cannot exceed 70 per cent of its revenue.

Now in effect — though the full 70 per cent cap is being phased in by 2025-26 — the regulations are likely to benefit those sides who already enjoy large revenues. Smaller ones, without large commercial deals and international followings, have a massive bridge to cross.

Take Porto — as mentioned, the last Champions League winners from beyond the top five leagues. According to Deloitte’s figures, they now sit outside Europe’s top 30 revenue-generating clubs. The same goes for 1995 winners Ajax, the outsiders who arguably came closest to triumphing in recent seasons before that astonishing late collapse against Tottenham in the semi-final second leg nearly five years ago — both clubs generate less than the likes of Everton and Crystal Palace, who are both in the bottom half of the Premier League.

Under current conditions — and those to come — larger sides are given a leg-up. Take prize-money distribution, where a proportion of broadcasting revenue is distributed according to historic success, benefiting the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, who have all qualified in each of the past 10 years.

This season’s final eight sides all come from storied backgrounds — but as exciting as the matches are likely to be, that is also a symptom of wider problems. Enjoy the ties to come, by all means, but accept these match-ups are by design.

See it for what it is: the Champions League is not as far away from a Super League as it might think.

(Top photo: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

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Jacob Whitehead

Jacob Whitehead covers Newcastle United for The Athletic, and previously worked on the news desk. Prior to joining, he wrote for Rugby World Magazine and was named David Welch Student Sportswriter of the Year at the SJA Awards. Follow Jacob on Twitter @jwhitey98


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Ross H.

· 11h 32m ago

Very exciting, some of the biggest names in European football are in the draw, and Arsenal.


Matilda L.

· 10h 19m ago

This is why I believe the Europa League and Conference League are better in terms of actual storyline. Oil Club #2 vs Perennial Champion #3 for the fourth time in five years is way less interesting than Azerbaïdjani plumbers vs Finnish electricians


Ridzki H.

· 10h 34m ago

Knockout stage without away goal rule is boring.