In a jocular response to the Saudi Public Investment Fund offering a record $1.1 billion to PSG and Kylian Mbappé for the French icon to play one season in Saudi Arabia, two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo offered up his services to the Al Hilal club.
As fascinating as it would be to swap ideas about 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. A few hours later, LeBron James joked about taking his talents to Saudi Arabia.
It’s all fun and games until they set their sights on a precious domestic league. After seeing those dollar signs, a growing number of soccer talismans have taken the plunge into Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing operation.
Now, Saudi involvement with American sports is becoming too common to track. The NBA hasn’t had to contend with competition or checkbooks that could match theirs since the old ABA merged into the NBA’s fold. The NBA’s monopoly has allowed them to artificially lower the earning potential of its biggest revenue generators. As much money as modern stars make, they’re theoretically underpaid.
Thankfully, the thirst for hoops isn’t as strong in Saudi cities as much as it is for European football yet. The Saudi Basketball League has existed for 40 years and existed in anonymity. They don’t have the infrastructure or the relevance. It’s not exactly clear if the Saudi family even knows it exists, but let’s assume they elect to pour billions of resources into hoops. After all, money talks.
I’m not as personally concerned about their interest in interfering with pro basketball as a number of hyperventilating NBA squawk boxes have been in regard to a mass poaching of the league’s top talent, but what if they TRIED? In that reality, I could envision a future where an occasional NBA star spends a single season in some trillion-dollar Saudi rec league. it would become a final payday destination for superstars in the same vein as Messi in MLS.
Rather than warming some bench and earning veteran’s minimums or mid-level exceptions on NBA benches, past their prime stars would have a market for their talents more lucrative than Europe, or China’s top leagues. However, there’s a few reasons why they won’t be going in their prime. For one, these guys are competitors first, and foremost. If the Saudi Public Investment Fund wanted to throw $100 million at Bol Bol, he’d be nuts to turn it down. However, that’s not a sound strategy for growing your league’s global footprint. Attracting a top-20 superstar is the only one who could get that sort of momentum going. I wasn’t even aware there was a Saudi domestic football league until Ronaldo inked with Al Nassr for the equivalent of $220 million.
But a one-year rental would have to make a player’s time worth it. When Jaylen Brown is receiving $304 million over five years, why would a max player of his ilk, or risk injury to hoop for one year if he’s not getting an upgrade? Making this even more complicated is that players would have to explore these deals in free agency.
It’s hard enough getting American-born players to live in Toronto. Good luck convincing super wealthy mid-20s black men to stay long-term in Riyadh. European stars like Luka Doncic or Antetokounmpo might be their most logical targets. The repercussions of even one star leaving would draw attention to the NBA’s cap on salary maxes. The player’s union could use it as a bargaining tool to blow the roof off the built-in salary cap.
However, there’s one group of athletes who would be open to the cause. NBA prospects have a unique value too. Most of them have garnered followings since they were teens. LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton and Victor Wembanyama, Luka Doncic all played abroad before returning to the States once they were draft eligible. The next Zion Williamson or Wembanyama may have to contend with a lucrative offer from the Saudis instead of NIL cash and the NCAA’s prying eyes.
You’d hope NBA veterans wouldn’t need the headache given that we are a few years away from multiple active players earning a billion in career earnings alone, but after witnessing the improbable PGA, and LIV alliance, and Qatar’s interest in purchasing a piece of the Washington Wizards, anything is possible.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex