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At Large | Newcastle United’s Saudi takeover is a prelude to an era of deep sporting debate

The takeover of Newcastle United by a PIF-led consortium promises transformative wealth for the Premier League club but will also prompt a re-examination of what matters in elite sport.

14 October 2021 Eoin Connolly

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To be a sports fan is to be emotionally invested in events over which you have no control.

That was always part of the bargain. But it isn’t always clear what else is up for grabs.

On 7th October, Premier League soccer club Newcastle United were sold for UK£305 million to a consortium of PCP Capital Partners, Reuben Brothers and, the senior party taking an 80 per cent stake, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia.

The English game has spent the past week coming to terms with this. Not everyone can make peace with it. Saudi Arabia is politically influential, including among western democracies with which it trades arms and oil. Its investment strategy, in its efforts to diversify a fossil-fuel heavy economy, has taken in worldwide real estate and high-profile companies across consumer technology and entertainment; its sports strategy is bringing more and more events to the kingdom every year.

All those things are true, and all of them create levels of compromise. This is different. There is little that is silent or transient about it. A foreign cultural asset now looks sure to be used as a veneer and a distraction from a well-known litany of human rights offences conducted by the Saudi state: a horrifying war in Yemen, the murder and dismemberment of foreign-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the oppression of women and LGBTQ groups, the alleged torture and disappearance of dissidents.

It sits uneasily, to say the least, no matter how familiar the approach. There is conflict in many sources of cash throughout the sport. National funds from Qatar and Abu Dhabi have been deployed at Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and beyond. Yet there are also degrees. When even those doe-eyed idealists at the Financial Times write of ‘a sad commentary on English football’ that ‘should prompt soul-searching over the English game’s ownership model’, it is probably reason for pause.

The Premier League has tried to create some distance from that debate by gaining assurances that the Saudi government will not interact with Newcastle United and that the PIF will operate its interest independently. That distance may well be the width of a cigarette paper – the PIF’s chair is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – but it has now been granted a legal basis.

PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan will be the non-executive chairman of the club but the face of the negotiations is the British financier Amanda Staveley, who has become a director. Speaking to the media in the hours after the takeover was completed, she rebuffed any charges of sportswashing.

“If that was the intention,” she told The Times, “we would have bought a major franchise in the US, not a football club currently sitting in the relegation zone in the Premier League.”

It is an unconvincing argument. This was a carefully chosen target. Mike Ashley, the budget sportswear mogul who had owned the club since 2007, was a willing seller. The Newcastle United fanbase were very willing to get rid of him, after years of neglect and abrasive communication.

Not every supporter will have been as gleeful as those celebrating with cans of lager – saved for the occasion of Ashley’s departure – outside St James’ Park, the erstwhile Sports Direct Arena. Enough of them, however, have weighed any negatives against the transformative potential of the PIF’s wealth for the club and the local area and given their qualified backing.

That, ultimately, is their right and it is worth retreading the steps that took them here. Newcastle United were one of the last of the generation of English clubs who became truly competitive through the backing of a local business magnate – in their case, the property developer Sir John Hall. By the end of the 1990s, however, the pool of owners who could sustain a Premier League side was shrinking. Ashley himself found that he had the means to buy Newcastle, but not do much after that except wait for the chance to cash out.

The only realistic way to stop the distorting effects of investment from billionaires, oligarchs and nation states from taking hold was to look at the structures that governed the sport. Yet an open market was too temptingly productive. Amnesty International has sought an urgent meeting with the Premier League to ask it to institute ethical and human rights standards in its owner’s and director’s test. That, though, would do little to remove the financial incentive for a compromise on values.

Economic sustainability is not a uniquely English problem, either. The world’s richest sport is somehow in constant need of liquidity. Now that a dispute with Qatari broadcast benefactor BeIN Sports has been resolved, it would be no surprise at all if other outward-facing Saudi properties, such as a soon-to-launch media group or a mooted national airline, become popular sources of income. Fifa, soccer’s global governing body, looks set to press on with its own deepening relationship there.

The details of the Newcastle deal, with the intimations in some quarters of British government intervention to protect future trade partnerships, create the overwhelming impression of events happening way above the head of the average fan. It is a recipe for fatalism. This is a generation that talks big on individual choice. For some – with very pointed exceptions in this case – there has never been more of it. Yet the individual has never seemed smaller.

Ranged against all this, the pragmatic responses of Newcastle’s official supporter groups – seeking outreach, rather than outrage – can be put into context. The financial currents about to gush through sport, powered by private equity as well as sovereign wealth, may prove easier to ride than to resist.

And yet. The terms for protest are being set as well. This is an era of more outspoken athletes – Formula One heads to Saudi Arabia in December wondering what its world champion, Lewis Hamilton, will have to say about it. There is a cohort of fans – especially in elite soccer – whose patience with the motives of big money has worn thin. That opposition will often be priced in but there will always be missteps, as the spring’s Super League breakaway showed.

As the sports industry pushes harder on social issues, making a commercial pitch of a better world, it is creating an open forum. There will not be one voice on any of these issues – there will be many.

It may lead to changes in many lifelong relationships, even the end of a few. Either way, some important conversations lie ahead.

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