Saudi Pro League to focus on signing U21 players

Saudi Pro League (SPL) Vice Chairman Saad Al Lazeez has reviewed the progress of the Player Acquisition Centre of Excellence (PACE) in its inaugural season.

As Head of the PACE Program, Al Lazeez participated in the Ministry of Sport’s periodic media briefing on Sunday, detailing the challenges, objectives and successes of the program, which was launched last year as part of the SPL Transformation Strategy. The strategy aims to place the Roshn Saudi League among the top 10 leagues in the world.

Alongside PACE, the six pillars of the SPL Transformation Strategy include establishing a leading governance model, enhancing the competition’s operations including broadcast and commercial rights, creating a framework for club development, setting up a player management ecosystem, and nurturing the human capacity of the SPL as an organisation.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced when PACE was launched was the lack of a clear approach to the recruitment of global stars,” Al Lazeez said on Sunday.

"The average age of signed players was high, the clubs faced high losses and incurred large sums in terminating player contracts. Disputes and wage-payment delays were rampant and there was a lack of quality talents across the league."

Al Lazeez continued: "PACE is designed to be a collaborative tool for the management of foreign players and as a support system to supply clubs with elite international players with the skill and experience to raise the level of the league and take it to a globally competitive level."

Explaining the objectives of the PACE program, Al Lazeez cited several areas including growing SPL revenues, creating an attractive professional environment for the best players in the world and conducting data-analytics-driven recruitment processes.

He also cited raising the market value of the league to be within the top 10 in the world, enhancing the league’s status as a destination for future stars, honouring the contractual obligations and mitigating excessive contract terminations, as well as boosting the level of competition on the pitch.

Al Lazeez said: "PACE was designed with seven steps, starting with the allocation of budgets, supporting the clubs to understand their technical needs, helping the clubs scout international talent, analysing scouted players’ data to assess their suitability for the league, governing the transfers and negotiations process, boosting acquired value through the sale of players’ contracts, and ending with a program to nurture players and their families to adapt to their clubs and environment."

In response to questions regarding the mechanism of the recruitment process, the SPL Vice Chairman replied: "The process always starts ahead of every transfer window by allocating budget. I would like to stress two things: budget allocation depends on a lot of variables available to us, and all 18 clubs are notified in advance about the allocated budgets to them through their official representatives.

“After that, we communicate with the clubs, sit with them to understand their needs and draw a road map identifying their technical requirements and priorities. The following step includes scouting targets and available players.

"At PACE, we allow the clubs to get to know the players; we do not direct players to join any clubs and have never done that. The clubs choose the players and we document that through request forms signed by the clubs and both the technical and financial department of the SPL.

“Once a player is selected and the green light was given to negotiate with them within the allocated budget, the club has the full freedom to negotiate the deal based on the player’s market value and the assigned budget.”

Since the launch the program last year, PACE has successfully recruited 97 players to the league. However, in negotiating the deals, only 10 such agreements were done with the support of PACE, while the rest were signed following negotiations exclusively by the clubs.

The role of PACE is not limited to transfers, though. The program played a significant role in reviewing more than 200 contracts between Saudi clubs, foreign players and their agents. A full player welfare unit has also been set up within PACE, with the objective of taking care of the players from the moment they depart their previous countries of residence.

Reflecting on the impact of the PACE program in the 2023-24 season, Al Lazeez highlighted the positioning of the SPL among the top leagues in the world.

“Nowadays, it is no surprise that any international star is targeted by SPL clubs," he said. "Last summer, we had plenty of resistance from players, but now when we contact players and their agents, moving to the SPL is always an option in their minds."

Ten of the top 100 players in the world now ply their trade in Saudi Arabia, with the RSL now broadcast across 160 countries. Its commercial-rights revenue has doubled while its market value has tripled. The cost of contract terminations has decreased by 64 percent, while the average age of players signed has gone from 29 years to 27.5 - a number the SPL is aiming to further reduce next season.

Concluding the press conference, Al Lazeez listed the program’s focus areas for the upcoming seasons, including substantial investment in improving quality on the pitch, signing players under the age of 21, and growing the player-welfare program.

PACE will also continue working on its centralised data system, which is aimed at helping improve the quality of sporting decisions and supporting the clubs to recruit top talent in football management.