SPL focused on sustainable growth, says Al Lazeez at FT Business of Football Summit

Saudi Pro League (SPL) Vice Chairman Saad Al Lazeez highlighted sustainable growth as a strategic objective of the league during the coming years.

Speaking at the Financial Times’ Business of Football Summit in London, Al Lazeez reflected on the achievements of the first year of the SPL Transformation Strategy, launched at the start of 2023, citing growth in attendances, global engagement, and improved structures and processes as some of the early success stories of the league.

“This is a long-term investment for us. We are not in it for a window or a couple of seasons,” Al Lazeez said. “We have put together a long-term investment to make sure the SPL sustains its growth and becomes part of the football landscape globally.

“This is not only short term, it is not only about signing players. It has more pillars to it in terms of financial sustainability, commercial growth, [and] putting robust governance in place.

“The strategy was launched in early 2023; it aims to put the SPL as one of the top leagues in the world. We are pleased with what has been achieved so far.

“In fact, we are already ahead of schedule, and we continue to build on the success we’ve had so far. And hopefully the most important thing for us is growth and sustainability of the league.”

The Vice Chairman’s comments were part of a panel titled “Will Saudi Arabia become a major football power?”. The discussion was moderated by Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper and featured Robert Klein, Head of Global Football for IMG Media, and Alex Philips, World Football Remission Fund Administrator and former UEFA Head of Asia-Europe affairs.

Figures announced by the SPL earlier in February showed attendances for the first half of the 2023-24 Roshn Saudi League (RSL) season have tallied at more than 1.4 million fans, with 19 matches attracting over 20,000 fans and five matches recording attendances of more than 50,000.

Al Lazeez said there is huge scope for improvement as the league pursues its ambition of becoming one of the top five leagues in the world in the next 10 years.

“We are putting all the success factors and enablers in place to ensure this is sustainable growth,” Al Lazeez explained. “You have to do this for the long run to be able to compete with the products you see out there, be it the Premier League or the top five European leagues.

“Viewership and attendance are the name of the game. It is an area of improvement for us, and we continue to do that. There is more to it than just bringing in the stars. There is 25 percent growth from last season - and not to mention the second half of last season was already growing with the arrival of Ronaldo.

“But this is a big opportunity for improvement for the SPL. Fan engagement is one of the focus areas for us; in-stadium attendance is an important area.”

The first phase of the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatisation Project, launched in June 2023, saw the Public Investment Fund acquire a 75 percent stake in four RSL clubs: Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Nassr and Al Ahli, which contributed to an influx of marquee signings to the league.

Al Lazeez said the second phase of the project has already prompted both local and foreign investors to express interest in clubs.

Growth in Saudi football has not been limited to the men’s game, with women’s football making tremendous leaps in a short span of time. The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Premier League is approaching the end of its second season, underscoring the gains in women empowerment in Saudi Arabia under Vision 2030.

Al Lazeez said: “Just a couple of years ago, we had no organised women’s football, and now we have a league in place and the number of female footballers registered is now six to seven times what it was two years ago.

“We have plans to incorporate the women’s league in SPL, and it is one of the areas where we have a lot of focus in the Kingdom.

“Over the past five to 10 years, the empowerment of women that happened within Vision 2030 is unheard of. In my opinion, we will only continue to grow from here.

“Many of the cultural barriers that existed are no longer there, and this was enabled by the great leadership of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the vision he put together since 2016.

“It is not only a sports conversation, but also about the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia in general.”