DUBAI: Saudi sporting history will be made on Feb. 24 when Riyadh hosts the country’s first mixed martial arts event, the “PFL Champions v Bellator Champions” at Kingdom Arena.

Having bought the rights for Bellator at the end last year, the Professional Fighters League is set for strong expansion in the region over the coming years, with PFL MENA expected to launch in April.

Working closely with PFL to bring mixed martial arts to Saudi audiences is the PIF-owned SRJ Sports Investments, who in August acquired a $100 million minority stake in the organization founded by Donn Davis in 2018.

“I think combat sports is clearly one of the fastest growing sports in the world,” Danny Townsend, CEO of SRJ Sports Investments, told Arab News. “PFL have demonstrated that they’re innovative and looking at ways to really develop a connection with the MMA community, and particularly, as they view the regionalization of their global league, we’re really excited by that proposition.

“If you think about what we’re mandated to invest in now, it is to invest in sports IP that is global and growing, but equally delivering on our localization strategy, which is to grow the participation, engagement of sports, and combat sports are really important to the Kingdom.”

Townsend joined SRJ in October of last year, having previously spent two years as CEO of the Australian Professional (Football) Leagues, following four years as CEO of Sydney FC.

A month into his role, PFL announced its acquisition of Bellator, with the newly merged brands now providing a genuine rival to UFC.

“We were extremely supportive of the Bellator requisition and worked closely with the PFL and our shareholders on that,” Townsend said. “It was about clearly marking out territory and being a dominant force in the MMA industry. I think with that acquisition and the merger of PFL and Bellator, it really sets those two promotions up into that space, to really start to take points off UFC. They do a fantastic job, UFC, but I think there’s certainly room in the industry for a second player that will continue to work with UFC to grow the sport.”

With its leagues structure, PFL has a different format to UFC and has made clear its intention to become the “Champions League of MMA.”

“I think product differentiation is really important to consumers, they want to see different things and they want to be engaged in different ways,” Townsend said. “The pathways format that the PFL are investing in and rolling out around the world, they’ve shown it with PFL Europe, it’s been enormously successful in its first year. We’re launching PFL MENA this year with four events, which are going to be fantastic for the MMA community in the MENA region, and specifically to those in the Kingdom that have aspirations to fight at the highest level. I think you need pathways, and the PFL and Bellator have committed to (these) pathways, and we’re really excited to be a key partner in that.”

PFL already has two Saudi fighters on its books in Abdullah Al-Qahtani and Mostafa Rashed Neda, and the target is to develop more local talent in the coming years.

“I think the plan is really twofold,” Townsend said. “It’s to bring world class in MMA to the Kingdom to inspire young Saudis to participate and learn the craft. I think that’s the first thing you need to participate in. And then you need big development, and the PFL MENA League provides that elite pathway. And in between that, over time, we’ll make other announcements around the commitment to the development pathway in the Kingdom with other stakeholders who are already here in the Ministry of Sport, MMA Federation. So it’s certainly a joint effort. We’ll play our part, but we do that in partnership with other stakeholders.”

Townsend was also delighted at last month’s unveiling of Hattan Alsaif as the first female Saudi fighter to join PFL.

“It’s fantastic, we’re really excited about that announcement,” he said. “It’s about inspiring young females to take up combat sport. At the end of the day, the disciplines within MMA are extremely popular all over the world with females. So we want to make sure that Saudi females have that same opportunity and get inspired by the best of the best. And we’re really excited about that happening in the PFL.”

Townsend was keen to point out that many of these recent landmarks are a result of a Saudi sports ecosystem that already existed.

“Saudi sports culture has been there for many, many years, this is not new,” he said. “Our job is to accelerate the growth of the sector, working with the PIF, with the really important key stakeholders in the Saudi sports ecosystem. That’s the Ministry of Sport, obviously, playing a really critical role, and the General Entertainment Authority. Then bringing fantastic events to the Kingdom, for the Riyadh Seasons and the like. So we really need to rely on working together to ensure that we continue to bring world-class sporting events to the Kingdom to inspire young Saudis to continue to be interested and engaged in participating in sport.”

Ultimately, Saudi Arabia is aiming to develop individuals and teams that can compete for titles at the highest level of international sports, and not just be content to take part.

“The Saudi Arabian football team demonstrated that they’re not a long way away from the top of world football, having performed very well in the World Cup,” Townsend said.

“We’re not trying to create something new, we’re building on some really strong foundations that the Ministry (of Sport) and the federations have been working on and investing in for many, many years.

“I think domestic performance is really, really important, driving engagement with Saudis with domestic sports assets is key,” he said. “Developing elite talent, whether it be in team sports or individual sports, and seeing more Saudis deliver on the world stage, whether that be with medals or just really credible performances in what are extremely competitive global sports. So I think all those component parts are there, I think that our roles as stakeholders and contributors to the industry is to accelerate that growth. And that’s what we’re looking to do through international investments and the localization of those investments.”

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