Saudi-backed LIV Golf series spotlights "sportswashing"

June 10, 2022
Sports BusinessGolf
Saudi-backed LIV Golf series spotlights "sportswashing"
Saudi-backed LIV Golf series spotlights "sportswashing"

The GIST: This week’s official start of the Saudi Arabian–backed LIV Golf series has thrust sportswashing into the spotlight. And while men’s golf tournaments may be the bedrock of the country’s golf strategy, it is hardly the only part. Also caught in the sportswashing spin cycle? Women’s golf.

The details: The 2020 Aramco Saudi Ladies International was the first women’s golf event held in the country, backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) — Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — as part of the Ladies European Tour (LET). The following year, Golf Saudi invested $5 million into additional LET tournaments.

  • Though women’s rights are a contentious issue in the country, the Aramco Saudi Ladies International attracts some of the LGPA Tour’s best. Lydia Ko won the 2021 tourney and returned for a share of the $1 million 2022 kitty.

Beyond golf: Golf is just the tip of Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing iceberg. The PIF completed a $409 million takeover of English soccer club Newcastle United in October, much to the excitement of fans. Even more surprising? The new owners have taken a noticeable interest in the women’s team.

  • Under Saudi ownership, the Lady Magpies played one game at the 52K-seater St James’ Park, the men’s home stadium. A crowd of over 22K turned up, nearly nine times the size of a full house at the team’s regular venue, 2.5K-seater Druid Park.

Zooming out: The country’s growing women’s sports portfolio takes sportswashing to an even more exploitative level: Caught in the middle of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with both the LET and Newcastle are female athletes who simply don’t earn enough to reject the investment.

  • Unfortunately, the financing creates the false impression that Saudi Arabia supports women abroad and at home — and, similar to the LIV Golf Invitational, distracts from the country’s continuing human rights violations.