One of the most controversial sports stories of the year is Saudi Arabia’s attempts to penetrate professional golf and soccer. Previous rivals PGA and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf recently agreed to a merger. On the soccer front, the country has big plans to sign the top talent to the Saudi Pro League.
How much of the readership surrounding golf and soccer is tied to Saudi Arabia? How has the narrative and sentiment on Saudi Arabian “sportswashing” shifted over time? We analyzed over 7,000 articles between May 14, 2022 – June 27, 2023 across major national, local, and sports publications to identify readership trends around what could be the biggest political debate in sports history.
PGA and MLS saw 1.5x more readers on articles mentioning Saudi Arabia.
Controversy can propel brands onto a larger stage and expand readership audiences. PGA and MLS articles mentioning Saudi Arabia and its respective sports leagues drove nearly 1.5x more readers than articles just discussing PGA and MLS. In national news publications, Saudi Arabia mentions increased readership by 172% compared to articles that didn’t include the country’s involvement in the sport.
5.4 million people read about “sportswashing.”
If you don’t shape the narrative, the industry will do it for you. In this case, the term “sportswashing” made a resurgence. “Sportswashing” is when a country uses sports or events to overshadow human rights issues and improve the image of their country.
While the term was coined in 2015, it reemerged relating to Saudi Arabia’s investment in sports. Over 260 articles mentioned the term “sportswashing,” driving 5.4M readers, peaking the week of June 4th, as the PGA and LIV announced their merger.
Positive sentiment is growing while player reactions drive negativity.
By the end of June, sentiment around Saudi’s involvement in sports was mostly positive. Specifically, positive sentiment saw a large spike following the announcement of the PGA and LIV merger on June 6th after a year of tension between PGA and LIV. Several articles around the merger described it as a benefit to all, “coming together to unify the game of golf.”
This is proof that crafting your own narrative can shift sentiment over time. That PGA and LIV narrative prompted a wave of positive sentiment that is drowning out negativity.
Negativity largely came from articles describing PGA player responses, as they feel betrayed by leadership in the LIV union and general shock around the merger. Some called PGA “a hypocrite” for the deal with LIV, fueling more negativity. Loyal PGA golfer Rory McIlroy, who was vocal about disappointment surrounding the merger, claims he feels like a “sacrificial lamb.”
Soccer star Lionel Messi generated buzz when he chose MLS’ Inter Miami over both Barcelona and Saudi Arabia, reportedly rejecting a $1.6 billion offer. Regardless of political favor, fans are clearly eager to see how these monumental changes to the sports world will impact their favorite players.