In an amusing response to the Saudi Public Investment Fund offering a record $1.1 billion to PSG and Kylian Mbappé for the French icon to play a season in Saudi Arabia, two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has offered his services to the Al Hilal club.
As fascinating as it would be to exchange ideas on how Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mbappé could Parent Trap Al Hilal, the flood of Saudi money into the sports economy raises the specter of them disrupting the NBA model. Hours later, LeBron James joked about taking his talents to Saudi Arabia.
It’s all fun and games until they turn to a valuable national league. After seeing these dollar symbols, an increasing number of football talismans have embarked on the Saudi Arabian sports wash operation.
Now, Saudi involvement in American sports is becoming too common to track. The NBA didn’t have to deal with competition or checkbooks it could match theirs since the former ABA merged with the NBA. The NBA’s monopoly allowed them to artificially reduce the earning potential of its biggest earners. As much money as modern stars make, they are theoretically underpaid.
Fortunately, the thirst for hoops is not yet as strong in Saudi cities as it is in European football. The Saudi Basketball League has been around for 40 years and has existed in anonymity. They don’t have the infrastructure or the relevance. It’s not exactly clear if the Saudi family even knows they exist, but suppose they choose to pour billions in resources through hoops. After all, money talks.
I’m not as personally concerned about their interest in interfering with professional basketball as a number of the NBA’s hyperventilated squawk boxes have been. to a massive poaching of the league’s top talent, but what if they tried? In this reality, I could imagine a future where an occasional NBA star would spend a single season in some trillion dollars. Saudi Recreational League. it would become a last pay day destination for superstars in the same vein as Messi in MLS.
Rather than warming up some benches and earning veteran minimums or mid-level exceptions on NBA benches, their top stars would have a more lucrative market for their talents than Europe or China’s top leagues. However, there are a few reasons why they won’t peak. For one, these guys are competitors first and foremost. If the Saudi Public Investment Fund wanted to throw $100 million at Bol Bol, it would be crazy to refuse. However, this is not a good strategy for growing your league’s global footprint. Attracting a top 20 superstar is the only way to get that kind of momentum. I didn’t even know there was a Saudi national football league until Ronaldo signed with Al Nassr for the equivalent of $220 million.
But a one-year lease should make a player’s time worth it. When Jaylen Brown receives $304 million over five yearswhy a max player of his ilk, or risk hurting himself in the hoop for a year if he doesn’t get an upgrade? To make this even more complicated, players should explore these free agency deals.
It’s hard enough to bring American-born players to live in Toronto. Good luck convincing super rich black men in their twenties to stay long term in Riyadh. European stars like Luka Doncic or Antetokounmpo might be their most logical targets. The repercussions of even a star’s departure would draw attention to the NBA’s cap on maximum salaries. The player’s union could use it as a bargaining tool to blow the roof off the built-in salary cap.
However, there is a group of athletes who would be open to the cause. NBA prospects also have unique value. Most of them have garnered followers since their teenage years. LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton and Victor Wembanyama, Luka Doncic all played overseas before returning to the United States once draft eligible. The next Zion Williamson or Wembanyama may face a lucrative offer from the Saudis instead of NIL money and NCAA prying eyes.
You hope NBA veterans wouldn’t need a headache considering we’re a few years away from several active players earning a billion in career earnings alone, but after witnessing the unlikely PGA and LIV alliance, and Qatar’s interest in buy a piece of the washington wizardseverything is possible.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex