The Premier League’s Investment Game: American Money, Saudi Influence, and Ethical Scrutiny
By Sam Croteau ’25 Principal
In my insight last year, titled Kicking it Across the Pond, Venture Capital in the European Soccer Market, I spoke to the newfound investment by American firms in the English Premier League, England’s top division of soccer. Come a year later, a lot has changed. Most notably, my team, Arsenal, came up short in the race for the Premier League title, losing out to the seemingly-insurmountable, unforgiving, and absolutely formidable force of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. I’d like to believe that this is our year though. Spending over $100M on a midfielder gives you that kind of hope.
In a more macro sense though, a lot has changed within the Premier League. Last year, spurred by the acquisition of Wrexham by Ryan Reynolds, American investment was at the forefront of the collective, global soccer mind. This year though, there’s a new player: Saudi Arabia, the recent acquirer of Newcastle United.
With the context of my insight last year, investments by American firms make sense. The Premier League is growing rapidly, especially on an international scale, and lacks the regulations that hinder corporate ownership in domestic leagues. As I stated last year, “Investors… face a choice, take the risk on a potentially overvalued asset in America, or turn to the undervalued assets of European clubs.” That being said, these investments are undertaken by private companies. Thus, the question must be asked, what is the Saudi Arabian government, through it’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), doing with the investment in the northernmost member of the Premier League, Newcastle United?
To answer this, let me provide some additional context. The Saudi PIF is an arm of the Saudi Arabian government. Built through the nation’s incredible oil wealth, it possesses more than $700M in assets, and is wholly controlled by Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It invests both domestically and internationally, with notable recent projects involving partnerships with Pirelli, Hyundai, and a recent investment in Heathrow airport. Among these more mundane investments though, sports reign supreme as the PIF’s most visible investment. Within the last two years, the PIF has been behind LIV golf, the aforementioned acquisition of Newcastle United, as well as the influx of cash in Saudi Arabia’s domestic soccer league, the Saudi Pro League.
As I’m most interested in the soccer aspect of the PIF, I want to further expand upon this last point. The summer transfer window of 2023 was like no other. The majority of deals within a transfer window typically occur in Europe — but that was not to be the case this past summer. In total, teams in the Saudi Pro League spent over $957M on player transfers, bringing stars like Neymar and Sadio Mané to the same league as Cristiano Ronaldo. This nigh-billion-dollar sum is only surpassed by the English Premier League in its size — and it could have been greater. Attempts were made to sign players such as Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, and Mohammed Salah. For people who may not be acquainted with these names, they’re equivalent to Lebron James, Shohei Ohtani, or Tom Brady. In short, the PIF spared no expense, and saw no dream is too large.
With context delivered, let me discuss the rationale behind these investments. I would be remiss to state that there is no financial incentive — the Premier League is simply the most lucrative soccer market — but there’s more to it than that. Allegations of sportswashing, the use of sport to redirect public attention away from unethical conduct, have plagued Saudi Arabia and the PIF since the investments began. Human Rights Watch states, “The fund has been directly involved in human rights abuses linked to the crown prince. They include the 2017 “anti-corruption” crackdown that involved arbitrary detentions [and] abusive treatment… as well as the 2018 murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” In an era where Saudi human rights violations are shared widely in news coverage, these investments exist as a way for the Saudi government to garner more favorable international coverage.
This all being said, why does sportswashing matter? In short, it’s about soft power, marketing, and image. To allow sportswashing to succeed would be to diminish and excuse the actions committed by the government in favor of entertainment. Kyle Fruh, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Duke Kunshan University, states the wrongs of sportswashing twofold: “first, it makes participants in sport (athletes, coaches, journalists, fans) complicit in the sportswasher’s wrongdoing, which extends a moral challenge to millions of people involved with sport. Second, sportswashing corrupts valuable heritage associated with sporting traditions and institutions. ”
Now, for a pivot. Greenwashing, a word of the same suffix, and more familiar to the world of investing, is a common topic in Rines. Greenwashing occurs through dishonesty in environmental responsibility efforts and programs from large corporations. It’s equally damaging, as it discredits legitimate environmental enterprises, and allows for an acceptance of the complacency of the perpetrators. Similarly to sportswashing, it’s done with the motivation to augment, supplement, and enhance an image — falsely. Such egregious examples of greenwashing can be seen right now, with the current COP 28 conference, held in Dubai, UAE, headed by Sultan al-Jaber, the President of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company extracted 2.7m barrels of oil a day in 2021.
As such, I find it imperative that firms of all sizes, from the next Premier League team to consider a PIF investment to a small firm like Rines, consider the ethical implications of its investments. With the ideas of greenwashing in mind, thoroughly vet a company’s claims to sustainability. As the late Charlie Munger often stated, “Good businesses are ethical businesses. A business model that relies on trickery is doomed to fail.” Let’s heed his advice.
Sam is a junior from Bolton, MA pursuing a degree in Analytical Economics. On campus, Sam is the Vice President of the Entrepreneurship Club and a Research Assistant in the Decision Sciences Department. His interest in business and entrepreneurship started with the video game FIFA, where he would trade cards on the in-game market rather than playing the game. Sam also serves as the North Bay Angels Liaison within the Fund, coordinating deal flow between North Bay and Rines. His favorite part of the Fund is seeing how its investments can empower entrepreneurs.