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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Biden, the ball is in your court

The U.S. government should respond to the Gulf Corporation’s bid on sports.


President Biden and Middle Eastern leaders are pictured at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in 2022.

On Feb. 8, the Biden-Harris Administration announced a historic partnership with 14 professional sports leagues and player associations across the United States. The partnership features commitments to food provisioning, education and physical activity. It is part of a slate of commitments in the White House Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities.

The White House Instagram infographics – and the president – frame the agenda as a way to address health issues in the United States. Indeed, sports are an important means for children to get active, become more social and boost their self-esteem. But, under the surface, the plan represents a necessary commitment to social, political and economic progress through sports. These partnerships will increase youth sports participation and, hence, excitement, especially in impoverished areas.

The sports and sports entertainment sector is a huge — and growing — part of the nation’s economy, bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars a year via ticket sales, tourism, merchandise, sponsorships, broadcasting rights, company partnerships and sports betting. Sports or sports-adjacent industries employ approximately eight million Americans. These benefits, alongside increased nationalism and a global projection of the United States as the home of entertainment, provide further incentives for governmental support of the sports industry.

Though the United States is the only nation that does not directly fund its national teams, government officials have made it easier for the sports industry to flourish across the nation, from taxpayer subsidies for decadent stadiums to exemptions from antitrust laws.

In the past few decades, the United States — alongside China, Germany, Japan and France — have controlled a large share of the sports industry. Most of these countries are American allies or, in China’s case, focus more on promoting domestic players in sports with less American interest, such as table tennis and badminton. Moreover, in China’s case, a large part of revenue came from product manufacturing.

The Middle East has become more invested in sports over the last few decades with the efforts of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to support the industry domestically spiking in the early 2000s. Following the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment’s purchase of Manchester City in 2008, investments in European soccer have increased in countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Since then, American leagues — like the NBA — have looked for the UAE to host preseason games. Organizers in boxing, Formula 1, tennis and even eSports are staging, or set to stage, key contests in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, these Gulf nations have turned inwards, attempting to grow their own domestic leagues. The Saudi League has even attracted the likes of soccer legends Neymar Júnior and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2023.

Though some commissioners and business owners jump for deep pockets of cash, others remain skeptical. The enrichment of the Gulf nations provides more money and global sway to elites and countries with low civil liberties and political rights. Perhaps, as critics have suggested, these countries are engaging in “sportswashing” — hoping to replace their negative global perceptions through sports. In reality, this term is an oversimplification. As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud explains, his goal is growth. “Well if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by one percent, then I will continue doing sportswashing,” he said. “I have 1% GDP growth from sport[s], and I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that 1.5%.” This enrichment could be beneficial for Middle Eastern countries. A shift to a more diversified economy will become increasingly important as oil runs out or as we plan to shift to more sustainable sources. Moreover, diversification could lead to more economic stability, an essential to peace in the Middle East region.

In truth, whether one labels the Middle East sports’ growth as a positive or a negative, the U.S. must respond similarly. While it is hard to compete with huge paychecks and free cars, the higher levels of play and pull of large audiences bode well for the U.S. so far. We do not want sports stars like Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Serena Williams or Connor McDavid leaving to play overseas. American leagues have recently pushed creative revenue boosters with in-season tournaments, celebrity-filled all-star games, games abroad and limited-edition merchandise, but further action is needed.

 Los Angeles is set to host the 2028 Olympics, and the United States is set to host the 2026 World Cup. With these huge global events fast-approaching and with the increasing Gulf sports expansion, the U.S. government, private investors and sports leagues need to work together. Congress will decide if NCAA players who help reap in billions in revenue and donation money for their schools can benefit from their Name, Image, and Likeness. Lacrosse plans to return to the Olympics in 2028. Lionel Messi has placed the spotlight on U.S. men’s professional soccer. The next few years will dictate whether America leverages — or loses — their foothold on sports.