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What is the Saudi Pro League and why are top players signing there?

Some of the best players in the world are flocking to the Saudi Pro League.

FBL-KSA-NASSR-RAED Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images

The Saudi Pro League has been making waves recently by making some world class signings along with plenty of rumors of more to come. Considering you’ll likely be hearing about the SPL more often in the coming months and years, let’s take a closer look at Saudi Arabia’s top flight league.

What is the Saudi Pro League?

The Saudi Pro League was founded in 1976 by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation. It’s the top league in a Saudi Arabian football system that sees promotion and relegation between five tiers. Starting in 2023-24, the SPL expanded to 18 teams, so last season saw just two teams relegated while four teams were promoted from the First Division League instead of the usual three. The most decorated club in the SPL is Al-Hilal, who have won 18 titles in total.

Who are some notable players joining the Saudi Pro League?

You may have first heard of the SPL when they made worldwide news by signing Cristiano Ronaldo at the beginning of the year. Al-Nassr signed the 38-year-old superstar to a two-year deal reportedly worth $200 million per year. Real Madrid star Karim Benzema will be making the move to Al-Ittihad starting in July, while Chelsea staple N’Golo Kante is set to join him at Al-Ittihad on a four-year deal worth roughly $109 million.

The SPL was close to signing Lionel Messi, reportedly offering him a deal worth $1.6 billion over three years. Instead, Messi opted to sign with MLS side Inter Miami.

Why are these players joining Saudi Pro League?

In short, money has a lot to do with it. Saudi Arabia is striving to turn the SPL into one of the world’s top leagues and with a massive amount of money being thrown into it, they’ve been able to afford some of the world’s most iconic players.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Invest Fund (PIF) recently bought 75% stakes in four of the SPL’s clubs. Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal, and Al-Ahli will all be benefactors of PIF’s cash injection and will hope to keep attracting top talent from around the world. PIF also owns 80% of EPL side Newcastle United.

Can these players compete in the Champions League?

Players in the Saudi Pro League will not be able to compete in the UEFA Champions League, as the Saudi league is part of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). However, the AFC has their own Champions League tournament of which Al-Hilal has won four titles. Although it’s not as widely known or as prestigious as the UCL, the winner of the ACL each year books a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.

Can I watch Saudi Pro League on TV or livestream?

ESPN will show some select SPL matches throughout the season, but Shahid will carry exclusive streaming rights for Saudi Pro League matches. Shahid will show other original content with their soccer livestream package which will set you back $18 per month.

Will this movement have a major impact on the future of domestic soccer?

While Ronaldo, Benzema, and Kante’s signings have certainly brought more attention to Saudi Arabia’s top flight league, they’ll have a long way to go before they can begin to compete with the top European leagues. 38-year-old CR7 and 35-year-old Benzema have a few years left at most, and 32-year-old Kante isn’t too far behind. The more signings they make in the coming months and years will certainly garner a lot of attention, and they could compete with some of the best leagues in the world someday down the road. But that would still likely be decades away and they’ll have to continue working tirelessly to sign well-known names to pick up more traction.