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Dakar Rally kicks off new year of sports in Saudi Arabia


DUBAI: The world’s 100 highest-paid athletes earned $3.6 billion in 2020, a fall of just 9 percent compared with 2019, despite the coronavirus pandemic forcing many international sporting events to be scrapped or postponed during the year.

Tennis great Roger Federer took the earnings crown in this year’s annual Forbes list with $106.3 million, followed by footballers Cristiano Ronaldo ($105 million) and Lionel Messi ($104 million). Scrolling down and sitting at number 16 was mixed martial arts (MMA) star Conor McGregor, who took home $48 million.

While McGregor earned $30 million from a fight against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in January 2020 and claimed sponsorship deals from the likes of Reebok, the feisty Irishman is tipped to soar up the rankings in 2021.

First up on Jan. 23 he has a fight against Dustin Poirier at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, but the real excitement is around his much discussed clash with superstar Manny Pacquiao. The Filipino’s last big fight against Floyd Mayweather saw him claim the second spot on the 2015 Forbes highest earnings list with a whopping $160 million haul.

“Yeah, both fighters want that fight,” McGregor’s agent, Audie Attar, founder and CEO of Paradigm Sports Management, told Arab News.

“McGregor is committed to fighting Manny. There’s interest from the fans and we’re having active discussions. We’re keen on making that event happen in 2021.”

It helps that Attar manages both McGregor and Pacquiao, so the question really is where will the fight be staged? “I can tell you that we’ve had some conversations with different jurisdictions and entities to host,” Attar said.

“It’s more than money. I think you have to look at all the different variables. One of the most important things is safety, ensuring that the fighters, the camps are safe wherever we put this on. And, hopefully, you can put it on in a place where you can actually have some fans in a safe way as well. So you have to weigh those elements up. I think there are several different things to take into consideration when making the final decision,” he said.

The Middle East is certainly on the cards. If it was purely about money, Saudi Arabia has one of the biggest cheque books in the world and is keen to develop itself as a major global sporting destination as part of its Vision 2030 goals. While Attar doesn’t rule the Kingdom out, it would seem everything is still to play for.

“First and foremost, I’m just impressed. Hats off to the leadership of the Saudi government for really starting to execute the 2030 Vision. I was proud, as an Iraqi American, as a Muslim American, to see what they’re doing, not only for their people, but for the Muslim world and the region,” he said.

“I applaud that because not only do they have big economic ambitions, they also have ambitions of driving cultural awareness and integrating sports and entertainment in a way that really is powerful and potent. And it’s bringing eyeballs to the region, which is a good thing.”

In a recent interview with Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Sports, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, outlined how much the Kingdom’s sporting ambitions are adding to the diversification of the country’s economy, pointing out that its contribution to gross domestic product has risen from SR2.4 billion ($640 billion) in 2016 to SR6.5 billion ($1.7 billion) last year.

So, will a major, headlining boxing contest help add to the Kingdom’s sporting coffers? Attar is the man who ultimately will decide that.

“If we are fortunate enough to be able to do something in Saudi Arabia, we’d be honored and absolutely excited at the opportunity. We’ll continue to have discussions about different ideas and opportunities. I think that we have some time between now and 2030, so hopefully we’re successful at something,” he said without giving too much away.

Going back to the Forbes list, analysis of Federer’s $106.3 million showed that 94 percent of his earnings came from endorsement and commercial deals off the court, from partnerships with the likes of Japanese apparel brand Uniqlo.

There are many instances where sports stars have been able to command huge commercial deals, while others equally if not more talented fail to command the same attention from fans and brands.

“At the highest level of professional sports, there are those that are going to get the attention. And sometimes you get the unicorns that are both phenomenal athletes but also captivating and iconic in their own way. It’s all about authenticity and staying true to who you are,” Attar said.

McGregor is certainly one of those characters, and his colorful lifestyle and controversial actions outside the octagon have generated headlines in both the sporting press and redtop tabloids.

In addition to his $5 million deal with Reebok, the fighter also has a fashion partnership with tailoring brand David August and, in 2018, founded Irish whiskey distiller Proper No. Twelve, which is now sold in Ireland, Australia, Canada, Russia and the US.

The 32-year-old Dubliner in November teamed up with a mobile phone game, and Attar hinted that more commercial deals are in the works, including a health and wellness project and even a move into reality TV.

“While it’s not ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians,’ we do have a big series coming out that we will be announcing soon and it will give you a little bit more of a glimpse as to who he is as a human being. In this digital age of social media, you have, for better or worse, all that attention — some true, some not. Sometimes you have to take control of that narrative and let them know who the real person is.”

Attar set up Paradigm Sports Management in California in 2009 and this year  established an international office in Dubai. Two of his biggest clients may be set to clash, but the real fight is where the showcase will be staged, as regional powerhouses such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia slug it out to land a knockout deal to stage one of the most anticipated sporting events of 2021.

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