It’s ironic that in an age of “Buy American,” event owners of sports tournaments usually held in the USA are pulling up stakes and moving the action to Saudi Arabia. The latest destination to lose out is Newport, Rhode Island (all 11.37 square miles of it), whose longtime event, the WTA Finals will shift to the Middle East.
GoLocalProv noted that final year for the Hall of Fame Open will take place in Newport as scheduled from July 14-21, 2024.
After that, it’s The Kingdom’s game.
Newport managed to take the high road. Discover Newport's CEO Evan Smith told reporters at GoLocalProv, "The world of sports is constantly changing and Tennis is no exception. I have mixed emotions about today's announcement. From a nostalgic standpoint, we will certainly miss the ATP tour stop in Newport, so many great memories. On the other hand, we’re excited to learn more about new tennis events coming to Newport."
In 2022, the event was estimated to draw more than 30,000 visitors and to be responsible between $0 to $50 million in economic impact. And as anyone will tell you, that’s hard to replace.
And John McEnroe (never one to shy away from speaking his mind), had warned about the potential growing influence of Saudi money on the sport. Tennis, he noted, does not need Saudi Arabia: “I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think our sport needs it. I don’t think it would benefit from it, and I don’t think we should do it. But as Chris Evert said, it’s not up to us. Someone else is going to make that decision. They’re talking about Next Gen Finals going there. This is just something that I don’t understand why we’re going in that direction.”
In the past few weeks, the Atlanta Open also shared the news that its the July 2024 Atlanta Open will be the final iteration of the tournament. In 2025, the ATP will retire the Atlanta Open and five other 250-level sanctions, as a result of 500-level upgrades to tournaments in Dallas, Texas, Doha, Qatar, and Munich, Germany.
It’s not just tennis. Cricket has gone to bat for the Middle East, golf has already seen the impact of Saudi money on the game with multiple players signing on for LIV events (Tiger Woods’ comments notwithstanding), and FIFA already changed its stadium regulations, effectively giving the okay for the next 2034 World Cup to be hosted in Saudi Arabia.
Those new World Cup regs, noted the Mirror, were met with fury from environmental campaigners, who accused FIFA of being “totally detached from reality” in vastly increasing air miles by spreading venues out amid a climate crisis.
“But amid the shock of that announcement came another: bidding for the 2034 World Cup will only be open to countries from the Asian Football Confederation and Oceania Football Confederation. By spreading the 2030 World Cup across three continents, FIFA effectively paved the way for Saudi Arabia to host in 2034. Before people could even take stock of the 2030 World Cup announcement, Saudi Arabia were already announcing their intention to bid for the following tournament.”
So… wow. What dominoes will be the next to fall?
“When the NBA needed a new country to continue its global expansion, it turned to the United Arab Emirates, which was eager to help stage preseason games an ocean away. “It checked a lot of boxes for us,” said Mark Tatum, the NBA deputy commissioner who oversees global strategy for the league.
When boxing promoters dreamed up a fantasy match between heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and mixed martial arts star Francis Ngannou, they partnered with Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich country that’s doling out impossibly large checks and upending the sporting establishment.”
“They’re taking over the game ... Within five years, 10 years, they’re going to be the powerhouse of all sports,” Fury said. “All of the big sporting events will be in Saudi Arabia.”
When Ted Leonsis was looking for an investor to bolster Monumental Sports, the D.C.-based company that owns seven sports franchises, he found willing — and deep-pocketed — partners in Qatar. “Big money is coming in from all over the world because sports has become a big, influential business,” Leonsis said. “We punch way over our weight class in terms of our value.”
But the money coming in, the article noted, is not just causing relocations, it is causing anger, particularly because of Middle Eastern nations’ treatment of women, workers, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups. But the sad truth is this: the money is difficult to resist – just as it was with the LIV Golf group.
“This is only going one direction right now,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who’s leading a congressional probe of the PGA TOUR’s alliance with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, said in a recent interview with Washington Post reporters. “... So I think it’s worth asking: What does that mean? What are the ramifications and potential consequences?”
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has used sports and high-profile athletes to launder its global image, a phenomenon that critics have termed “sportwashing.” At least they’re admitting it, though, ESPN noted.
"We are in a really huge transformation, softening the image," Majed Al Sorour, chief executive of the Saudi Golf Federation, said on the sideline of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October.
Saudi Arabia is not the only up-and-coming sports destination in the Middle East, though; the United Arab Emirates, located in the Southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula (and sharing borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia), have also been hosting an increasing number of events. Most recently, the UCI and MyWhoosh announced that the fourth edition of the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, will be held in Abu Dhabi, part of the UAE, in October of 2024.
And by the way, ESPN has a timeline of the growing Middle Eastern influence on sports, found here. It starts all the way back in 1971 and runs through present day, although it will likely need to be updated soon enough, as more events move and more athletes sign on.
Whether a Middle Eastern Olympics will be scheduled is unknown but many believe it will be the next big goal.