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Saudi Pro League: Ronaldo, Benzema lead revolution in Asian football



English Premier League teams may be struggling to come to terms with Saudi Arabian clubs moving for some of their biggest names but fans in Riyadh, Jeddah and many other big cities of the Middle East and Asia are also having to adjust to football’s new reality.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr – one of the ‘Big Four’ clubs along with bitter Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Jeddah giants Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli – in December, the country has been in the international football spotlight and the club’s yellow shirt is an increasingly familiar sight in Europe and beyond.

“Watching ‘The Yellow’ spreading across the world is so satisfying and pleasing to me but I also feel loyal to the local league,” Nassr fan Jana Mohammed tells BBC Sport.

“Seeing player after player agreeing to sign with any Saudi team makes me more excited. It’s really thrilling to witness such quality in our league.”

Talents such as N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema and Jota have joined champions Ittihad to work with coach Nuno Espirito Santo.

Hilal, the 18-time title winners, made bids for Lionel Messi and Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and have signed Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino and Edouard Mendy left the Premier League to become Al-Ahli players, with Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez set to join them soon.

Expectations are building before the new season starts in August.

“It is clear that the new football season will be a strong one with a lot of big football names that will undoubtedly be great additions,” adds Al-Hilal fan Ayman Al-Hatami.

“As for Al-Hilal, we are satisfied with our new signings as we aspire to be stronger and achieve a better position. As usual, we are the first candidate for every championship.”

Who’s who in the Saudi Pro League?
Ronaldo has talked up the potential of the Saudi Pro League to become one of the top-five competitions in the world and, while that is debatable, there is little doubt that in terms of profile it is the biggest in the Middle East and Asia.

“Europe lost a lot of quality,” the Portugal captain said recently.

“The only one that is one of the best is the Premier League; the Spanish league lost its level, the Portuguese one is not ‘top’, the German one also lost a lot of quality.

“The USA? No, the Saudi championship is much better than the USA. In one year, more and more top players will come to Saudi. In a year the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league.”

Impact on Middle East and North Africa
The big four Saudi Arabian teams, who were taken over in June by the country’s Public Investment Fund, have long had financial strength in regional and continental terms.

Now all 18 teams in the top tier, newly expanded from 16, have the ability to rival any in the Arab world.

Former Rangers and Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard has taken over mid-ranking team Ettifaq, who have been linked with another Liverpool legend in captain Jordan Henderson and are reportedly ready to make him one of the best-paid players in the world.

If they are able to offer a package so attractive that it lures Liverpool’s captain from Anfield, it is a stark reality for others in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Storied clubs such as Al-Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt, with 16 continental championships between them, Wydad Casablanca in Morocco as well as Tunisian and Algerian clubs have massive support.

But they are increasingly losing big names to Saudi Arabia, with Egypt players Ahmed Hegazi and Tarek Hamed moving to Al-Ittihad.

Even the region’s biggest stars such as Algeria’s Mahrez and Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech have been closely linked with Saudi moves.

Teams in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have signed big-name players in the past but do not have the fan bases of their big Saudi rivals or the same strength in depth.

Karim Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner, joined Al-Ittihad in June Saudi league set to dominate in Asia?
With the national team appearing at six World Cups as well as winning two Asian Cups and with clubs winning the Asian Champions League six times, Saudi Arabia has always been a regional and continental powerhouse.

The country’s new financial power in football has, however, put it on a completely different level on the pitch.

South Korea’s K-League is the most successful in terms of Asian club titles but even big teams such as Ulsan Hyundai Horangi, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Suwon Samsung Bluewings – thanks to their corporate backing – have never had pockets deep enough to sign big overseas names.

China’s league did make headlines and waves in the previous decade but the days when it rivalled the Premier League in terms of spending are over and, after a number of bankruptcies, clubs are more focused on survival.

Japan is Saudi Arabia’s rival in terms of being the best league in Asia on the pitch but it is falling behind in terms of profile and star power.

Never has an Asian league had such ambition and deep pockets.

‘Cristiano did what it takes years to do’
Al-Nassr have witnessed a surge in shirt sales, mainly bearing Ronaldo’s name
Star players do not only bring more quality but are also designed to result in more fans, broadcast deals, sponsorship, merchandise sales and investment.

Saudi Arabia’s target is that the league will be in the world’s top 10 in terms of revenue generation by 2030.

Already, there are positive commercial signs.

Al-Nassr play Benfica on Thursday then face Paris St-Germain and Inter Milan in Japan later this month.

The club have also signed a shirt deal with Nike, with an official telling the BBC the American sportswear giants can help ensure the yellow shirts worn around the world are official.

In November, there were 10,000 visits to the merchandise page of the club’s website. In January – the month Ronaldo signed – that number had increased to 300,000.

“We have seen more Al-Nassr shirts since last season and it’s increasing so much,” says Mohammed.

“Cristiano did immediately what it takes marketing campaigns and trophies many years to do.

“We played against Celta [on Monday] and many fans were there wearing Nassr’s shirt with Cristiano’s name on the back and Nassr’s logo on the front.

“It’s all about raising the bar, it’s such an improvement.”



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Messi’s famous Barcelona napkin auction opens in London



Lionel Mess

The auction for the napkin which famously launched Lionel Messi’s Barcelona career as a 13-year-old opened this week with a guide price of £300,000-£500,000 ($374,700-$624,500).

Bidding for the item stands at £220,000 and will be open with the British auction house Bonhams until May 17.

The sale was originally slated for for March but was postponed due to a dispute over the ownership of the napkin, which has been in the hands of Horacio Gaggioli, an Argentine agent, for the last two decades.

Josep Minguella, another advisor involved in the deal to bring Messi over from Argentina, claimed possession of the napkin following the news it would be auctioned earlier this year.

Gaggioli disputed this, while Bonhams told ESPN there were “no problems” regarding the sale of the napkin, which is listed on their website as “property of Horacio Gaggioli.”

The auction for the napkin has opened after a dispute over it original ownership. Bonhams
Minguella has not replied to ESPN’s request for comment. With Messi’s father, Jorge, beginning to doubt Barça’s commitment to his son in 2000, the club’s director of football at the time, Carles Rexach, hastily scrambled together an agreement on a napkin.

It was signed by Rexach, Minguella, who had helped bring Messi over from South America, and Gaggioli, who helped broker the deal, serving as a promise for a first contract.

Since then, it has remained under the ownership of Gaggioli in a secure vault in Andorra, the Principality to the north of Barcelona sandwiched between Spain and France.

Negotiations for it to be incorporated into Barça’s museum at the club’s Spotify Camp Nou stadium broke down in the past.

The napkin was originally signed on Dec. 14, 2000 at a tennis club in Barcelona after Rexach had received a frantic call from Jorge Messi threatening to take his son back to Argentina.

“That was when, thinking on my feet, I decided everything,” Rexach told ESPN in 2020 to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing.

“Why a napkin? Because it was the only thing I had available to hand. I saw the only way to relax Jorge was signing something, giving him some proof, so I asked for a napkin from the waiter.

“I wrote: ‘In Barcelona, on 14 December 2000 and in the presence of Messrs Minguella and Horacio, Carles Rexach, FC Barcelona’s sporting director, hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi, provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon.’

“I told Jorge that my signature was there and that there were witnesses, that with my name I would take direct responsibility, there was nothing else to talk about and to be patient for a few days because Leo could already consider himself a Barca player.”

Messi, who now plays for MLS side Inter Miami, went on to become Barça’s greatest ever player, making more appearances (778) and scoring more goals (672) than anyone else who has played for the club.

During over 20 years in Barcelona, he won 10 LaLiga titles, seven Copas del Rey and four Champions League trophies while playing for the club before joining Paris Saint-Germain and later Inter Miami.

Individually, he has won the Ballon d’Or a record eight times and has also been named The Best FIFA Men’s Player on three occasions.

International success with Argentina had eluded him until recently, but he finally won the Copa América in 2021 and the World Cup in 2022 to go with the Olympic Gold Medal he won in 2008.



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F1 signs multi-year extension to ‘US$40m-a-year’ DHL deal



Formula One has agreed a multi-year expansion of its global partnership with logistics company DHL.


  • DHL will continue as the series’ global logistics partner
  • The extension is described as a ‘longer-term commitment’, suggesting a longer contract than the four-year extension signed in 2021.


This latest extension builds on a 20-year relationship between Formula One and DHL, with the most recent deal worth around US$40 million per season, according to sponsorship analytics platform Luscid.

Recently, DHL has worked with Formula One on reducing emissions produced by logistics, with a biofuel trial during the European leg of last season resulting in an 83 per cent reduction.


“As our longest-standing partner, DHL has become such a crucial part of the delivery of our events, so we’re delighted to continue that successful collaboration for many more years,” said Jonny Haworth, director of commercial partnerships for Formula One.

“Our partnership has seen the sport transform and grow, and DHL have been hugely supportive in our transition to become a more sustainable sport.

“This will continue to be key as we move towards 2030 and as sustainable logistics continue to develop, I look forward to seeing the positive innovations that come next.”

Coming next:

The 2024 Formula One season gets underway this week with the Bahrain Grand Prix from 29th February to 2nd March.


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CAF to make about $75m in estimated revenue for AFCON 2023



At the Stade Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan last Sunday, mixed emotions filled the air. Heartbreak for the Super Eagles of Nigeria and joy for the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire, who clinched the AFCON 2023 trophy with a 2-1 victory over Nigeria.

Ivory Coast’s remarkable journey to lifting the trophy concluded a thrilling AFCON, making it the best experience so far.


During the Africa Cup of Nations opening ceremony on January 13th, CAF President Patrice Motsepe expressed optimism that AFCON 2023 would be the best so far. The events and drama that unfolded in Abidjan undoubtedly support this claim.


Before the final of the competition, Dr Patrice Motsepe mentioned in a press conference that nearly 2 billion people had tuned in to watch AFCON 2023.


The notable rise in viewership was linked to broader broadcast rights, media coverage, commercial partnerships, and the influence of social media.

CAF had 17 commercial partners for the tournament, which included TotalEnergies as the title sponsor, official sponsors such as 1xBet, Visa, and Orange, along with regional sponsors like Ecobank, Unilever, and MTN.


Matches were shown in about 180 countries through deals with partner broadcasters like Sky, Canal+, beIN Sport, BBC, and MultiChoice, as well as 45 Free To Air broadcasters.


Media accreditation saw 6,000 journalists apply, which is double the number from the last AFCON in Cameroon in 2022.

How Many People Viewed AFCON 2021 and how it compares to AFCON 2023? 

The CAF activity report for 2021-2022 indicates that around 500 million viewers from 160 nations tuned in to watch AFCON 2021 in Cameroon, marking an increase of 40 nations compared to AFCON 2019 in Egypt.


Additionally, CAF recorded 1.4 billion streaming impressions on its digital platforms, and there were 351.4 million online video views associated with AFCON Cameroon 2021.


By sticking to the earlier estimate of 2 billion people before the final, it suggests that AFCON viewership saw an increase of over 300%, and this could be more when the official report from CAF is released.

Estimated Sponsorship Revenue for AFCON 2023 

According to GlobalData, a London-based market research firm, it is projected that CAF will generate approximately $75 million in sponsorship revenue from the current AFCON.


The tournament featured 17 commercial partners, including TotalEnergies as the title sponsor, along with 1xBet, Orange, and Unilever.


In the fiscal year 2021-2022, CAF’s overall revenue reached $103.6 million. The sponsorship funds derived from Competitions contributed significantly to this total, generating an impressive cumulative revenue of $79.8 million.


This marked a notable increase of $3.6 million compared to the previous year’s sponsorship funds.


The projected sponsorship revenue for the AFCON 2023 alone is estimated to be $75 million, underscoring the substantial and commendable contribution of CAF to this achievement.


In January, prior to the commencement of AFCON 2023, CAF disclosed a 40% increase in the prize money.


The champions, Ivory Coast, are set to receive USD 7,000,000. The Super Eagles of Nigeria will be awarded USD 4,000,000, while South Africa and DR Congo will each receive USD 2,500,000.


The other four quarter-finalists, Mali, Angola, Guinea, and Cape Verde, will individually get USD 1,300,000.


AFCON made a big impact on social media, from lively fan chats to live updates. But it wasn’t just for fun; some people also made money from it.


Last year, Twitter started an initiative where users could earn a share of the ad revenue from sponsored posts under their tweets.


Some folks partnered with brands, joined subscription programs, or got tips from their followers.


For example, a video of the final moments of the Côte d’Ivoire vs. Nigeria match, posted on the official CAF account, got over 15 million views, 1.5 million likes, and 300,000 retweets.


According to Statista, the average cost per thousand impressions for social media ads globally was $4.33 in the second quarter of 2023, making the estimated ad revenue around $65,000.


The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations was undoubtedly a success both on and off the field. The Confederation of African Football, CAF can take pride in organizing a splendid tournament.


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