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Qatar, Saudi Arabia & Opening the Sportswashing Floodgates in the US

The proposed Qatar investment in Monumental Sports & Entertainment would have a lasting effect on American sports.

The Washington Wizards transformed the trajectory of their team during NBA Draft week, but there may be more profound changes on the way for the franchise. In fact, those changes could alter the landscape of American sports.

The Qatar sovereign wealth fund, the Qatari Investment Authority, is reportedly close to buying a minority stake in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards. In addition, MSE also owns the Washington Capitals, Washington Mystics, a G-League team, three esports teams, Capital One Arena, two practice facilities, and D.C.’s local regional sports network, Monumental Sports Network.

With MSE valued at $4 billion, the investment would mark the first time a foreign sovereign wealth fund would buy into a major American pro sports franchise. It could also open the floodgates for similar investments, bringing the sportswashing phenomenon to the United States.

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It’s the natural progression of events after the NBA Board of Governors voted last November to allow what it called “passive, non-controlling minority investments” into NBA teams by institutional investors like university endowments, foreign and domestic pension funds, and sovereign wealth funds. For these sovereign wealth funds, only one fund is reportedly allowed to buy into a team per country and only own shares in one team.

“All such investments require league review, NBA Board approval and compliance with the policy,” Mike Bass, the NBA’s head of communications, said in a statement. “The NBA Board is currently reviewing a potential investment by QA in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Washington Wizards, among other sports properties. In accordance with the policy, if approved, QIA would have a passive, minority investment in the team, with no involvement in its operations or decision-making.”

QIA subsidiary Qatar Sports Investments bought 70% of global soccer giant Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, and the country’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup came with a dizzying amount of alleged wrongdoing and scandal. There were widespread allegations of bribery surrounding Qatar winning the bid to host in the first place, amid criticism of the country’s stance on and treatment of women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and migrant workers. Qatar admitted to 400-500 worker deaths in the lead-up to the tournament, reportedly underestimating that total by several thousand.

Hosting massive global events like the World Cup is meant to obscure these human rights abuses. This practice is more popularly known as sportswashing.

If the league improves the Monumental Sports investment, Qatar would join Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in the American sporting landscape. Earlier this month, the PGA agreed to merge with the PIF’s LIV Golf, investing billions and essentially gaining control of men’s professional golf. The deal has come under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Justice. Congress later invited representatives from the PGA, LIV, and the PIF to testify next month on a hearing discussing “the anticipated role of the PIF in U.S. professional golf.” 

The PIF is also playing a large role in the country’s Saudi Professional League, where hundreds of millions have been invested to bring in top soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo, N’Golo Kante, Ruben Neves, Hakim Ziyech, Eduard Mendy, and more. It helped SPL club Al-Hilal offer Lionel Messi a reported $1.3 billion deal before the soccer GOAT elected to sign with MLS club Inter Miami.

Earlier this month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke about Saudi investment in sports on “The Dan Patrick Show.” Silver noted that when the Saudis invest in pro sports it gets outsized attention, but they’re also already investors in some of America’s largest corporations. He also admitted that it’s a double-edged sword.

“I hear the comments about sports-washing,” Silver said, adding that it gets people talking about these countries’ issues when they host these major global events. “In the same way the World Cup brought enormous attention to Qatar, I think people learn about these countries, learn about what’s happening in the world in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. So I think the media does its job.”

Having said that, Silver implied an openness to deals like the Qatari Investment Authority’s investment in Monumental Sports.

“I think people are a little too dismissive these days about the benefits that come from the commonality around sports,” he said. “With a sport like basketball, our finals are distributed virtually everywhere in the world, the sport is played everywhere in the world. It’s an opportunity to bring people together.”

Silver’s comments make it seem like Qatari and Saudi investments in major North American pro sports is only beginning and is here to stay. The last year turned on the faucet for sportswashing to become even more commonplace around the world, and for better or worse, that trend will only continue. If the money is too large to pass up, it’s up to the media and fans to ensure that this looming and continuing issue is too large, important, and problematic to ignore.

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