Saudi Arabian fund buys stake in PFL mixed martial arts league

Fund created by Saudi sovereign wealth fund invests in MMA promotion company and will create a regional tournament.

Saudi fighter Abdullah al-Qahtani
Saudi fighter Abdullah al-Qahtani arrives to fight against US fighter David Zelner in the PFL in New York, US, on August 23 [Angela Weiss/AFP]

A company formed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has acquired a minority stake in the United States’ Professional Fighters League (PFL) and will create a regional tournament as the kingdom’s sports investment push expands into mixed martial arts (MMA).

The acquisition announced on Wednesday is the first deal sealed by SRJ Sports Investments, a new company unveiled earlier this month by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), that aims to draw “major global events” to Saudi Arabia.

“Today marks a new milestone for SRJ as we make our inaugural investment,” SRJ chairman Bander Bin Mogren said in a statement. “This investment aims to nurture the local and regional talent pool in martial arts, promote gender equality in sport, and bring new opportunities directly to Saudi Arabia and the wider MENA region.”

PFL will launch its MENA (Middle East and North Africa) league next year and will stage other “mega-events” in Saudi Arabia, Wednesday’s announcement said.

“PFL’s mission is to become the global co-leader in MMA with our fighter-first mission and disruptive sport-season format,” said PFL founder and chairman, Donn Davis. “This investment by SRJ continues the monumental growth that PFL has experienced throughout the world, and there is no better partner in global sports than SRJ.”

The value of the deal was not disclosed, but the Financial Times reported it was $100m.

Sport has been a major component of oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s efforts to rebrand as a global business and tourism destination under the Vision 2030 reform agenda pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the PIF chairman.

Saudi Arabia has made major investments in recent years in golf, Formula One and football, with Saudi clubs signing top footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.

But the flurry of deals and negotiations has also spurred allegations of “sportswashing” or using sports to distract from Saudi Arabia’s frequently criticised human rights record.

MMA had a limited following in Saudi Arabia just a decade ago, but that started to change when the kingdom hosted the popular regional Desert Force competition in 2014.

The sport’s popularity has since soared with the rise of fighters from across the Middle East and the establishment of a national MMA foundation to nurture Saudi talent.

This month saw Saudi fighters Abdullah al-Qahtani and Mostafa Rashed Neda win high-profile bouts in New York’s Madison Square Garden organised by the PFL, which has come up in the wake of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s success.

It launched PFL Europe in 2023 and plans to have six international regional leagues by 2026, including creating what it calls the first-ever “Champions League of MMA”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies