Why was Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo asked about playing in Saudi Arabia?

In a video published to its site this week, TMZ Sports asked Giannis Antetokounmpo and his youngest brother, Alex, about playing in Saudi Arabia following the Milwaukee Bucks star’s social media posts playfully asking to play for some of the Saudi Arabian soccer teams owned by the government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

In the undated TMZ Sports video, Giannis said he would “of course” play in Saudi Arabia after his NBA career is over – he could opt out of his current contract following the 2024-25 season – and added it would take “A lot of money, baby!”

Alex shouted, “Saudi, we on the way, baby!”

Giannis stopped and then added with a smile and a shrug, “If the NBA can maybe work out a trade between the NBA and the Saudi Arabia League, I’m there.”

In the edited video, TMZ Sports again asked the Antetokounmpos about playing in Saudi Arabia.

“Man, Saudi Arabia, man, unbelievable culture, up-and-coming league,” said Alex, who started at Dominican High School and played with the Wisconsin Herd last season. “Love it. Love it out there in Saudi Arabia. We on the way.”

He tapped Giannis on the knee and asked, “What you got to say?”

Giannis leaned over and said, “We on the way, baby!”

He then wished his friend, soccer star Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, good luck on his season with the Al-Hilal Saudi Football Club of the Saudi Pro League.

Why was Giannis asked about playing in Saudi Arabia?

Giannis Antetokounmpo had shared several posts over his personal, and verified, social media accounts on Instagram and X (the platform formerly known as Twitter), noticing how the PIF-backed clubs began luring soccer stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (among others) to their four teams with massive contracts.

Once 24-year-old Kylian Mbappé was courted with an offer reported at around $775 million to join Al-Hilal, Antetokounmpo took to X on July 24 to quip, “Al Hilal you can take me. I look like Kylian Mbappe” with laughing and eyeball emojis.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) and French soccer star Kylian Mbappé.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) and French soccer star Kylian Mbappé.

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James also sent out a social media post on July 24 joking about him running to Saudi Arabia for such a lucrative one-year deal.

Following those posts, The Ringer “Mismatch” podcast featuring Kevin O’Connor and Chris Vernon discussed if the Saudi League could present itself as a financial opportunity for NBA players as the PIF-backed LIV Golf tour did for professional golfers.

Following its dalliance with Mbappé, who declined the offer, Al-Hilal eventually landed Neymar for $100 million annually on Aug. 15.

The next day, Al Hilal Saudi Club tweeted from its account to Antetokounmpo that “your jersey is ready” and “Welcome “GIANNIS” to our family” with photos of a No. 34 on a soccer kit and card that read “You are part of Al-Hilal family, NOW” with a winking emoji. Antetokounmpo replied shortly thereafter with a photo of him and Neymar together with the captain “best duo in the Saudi League.”

Does Saudi Arabia have a pro basketball league?

Yes. The Saudi Premier League has 12 teams and its champion competes in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup. That tournament has not resumed since being postponed due to the global coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Is the PIF luring basketball stars?

Not yet. The PIF owns 75% of the soccer clubs Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli. It is unclear if they own similar interests in the affiliated basketball teams.

Can the PIF buy an NBA team?

Not outright, as of yet. The NBA currently allows sovereign wealth funds to buy a non-controlling, minority interest in its teams.

In late June, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund Qatar Sports Investments (QIA) purchased a roughly 5% stake in the Washington Wizards – along with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the NHL’s Washington Capitals.At the Associated Press Sports Editors convention in July, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about a sovereign wealth fund buying controlling interest in an NBA franchise (15%).

“I don't want to say what could ever happen, but there's no contemplation right now,” he said. “I mean, it's very important to us, putting aside sovereign wealth funds that individuals are in a position to control our teams, be responsible to the fans, be responsible to their partners and to the players.”

Why did PIF sign European soccer stars?

The PIF, valued at $650 billion, is part of Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” campaign, which began in 2016 under the direction of Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman. Broadly, its objectives are to “enhance government effectiveness and enable social responsibility, grow and diversify the economy and strengthen Islamic and national identity.”

A big part of those broad goals was increasing the kingdom’s visibility globally and broadening its appeal to Western nations through sport – including landing the 2030 FIFA World Cup. It was reported in late June, however, the kingdom withdrew that bid.

In 2021, the PIF purchased an 80% share of Newcastle United of the English Premier League and European outlets have reported the Saudi League will be petitioning the UEFA Champions League for its league champion to be included in the prestigious tournament in the coming years.

Bucks co-owner Wes Edens is a co-owner of the Premier League team Aston Villa, along with Nassef Sawiris. Their club has not lost a player to any of the PIF-controlled teams.

Is this related to LIV Golf and the PGA Tour?

Tangentially. In June 2022, LIV Golf – founded and funded by the PIF – began play by luring PGA Tour and DP World Tour stars like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Sergio Garcia with deals reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Then on June 6, after a calendar year of contentiousness in and out of courtrooms, the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf tour announced that they would end their lawsuits against one another and form a for-profit partnership. That deal has yet to be finalized, as the United States Department of Justice is investigating the proposed deal to determine if violates federal antitrust laws.

Shortly after that announcement, radio host Dan Patrick asked NBA commissioner Adam Silver about his feelings regarding the planned golf partnership.

“Golf, just like basketball, is extremely global,” Silver said. “There’s interest around the world. I was listening to some of the prior comments on your show and I hear what people are saying about Saudi Arabia. But on the other hand – and this is for good and bad – that when the Saudis invest in sports, it gets outsized attention. Now, I don’t want to complain about that because we want to get outsized attention ...

“And I also think it’s a two-edged sword. I hear the comments about sportwashing. On the other hand, you’re talking about it, others are talking about it. It’s not as if some errant golfer can say one thing about his reaction to Saudi Arabia investing in golf and it’s left at that. I think people are pretty sophisticated.

“In the same way the World Cup — the football World Cup, soccer 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.

“But at the end of the day, now talking specifically about the NBA, where we’re such a global sport, I think people are a little too dismissive these days about the benefits that come from the commonality around sports. That 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.”

What is sportswashing?

It is the use of athletic events by an individual, groups, corporations or governments to promote its reputation amid controversy and scandal. This term has been applied by human rights groups to major international sporting events in countries that suppress individual freedoms and commit human rights abuses and atrocities.

When asked about sending the Bucks and Atlanta Hawks to the United Arab Emirates for a pair of preseason games in 2022 despite “significant human rights issues” reported by the U.S. Department of State, Silver said: “We continue to believe that using sports, using basketball, we can improve people’s lives through sport and that, as Nelson Mandela famously said, sport can change the world. I think that we bring our games all over the world.”

More: Milwaukee Bucks to play two preseason games in Abu Dhabi in the NBA's first venture into the Middle East

What is Giannis’ contract status with the Bucks?

Giannis Antetokounmpo is under two years of team control, through the 2024-25 season. He has a player option for the 2025-26 season worth $52 million.

Antetokounmpo will be eligible to sign a three-year contract extension prior to the season worth roughly $173 million. No players his age (28) and with multiple years on their contract have done so, and he told the New York Times he will not be the first.

More: In new interview, Giannis Antetokounmpo says he wants to see championship-level commitment from Bucks before re-signing

He will be eligible for a longer deal worth more money in following extension windows at “supermax” level. The newly signed collective bargaining agreement says the salary cap can rise as much as 10% year-over-year.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Why TMZ asked Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo about Saudi Arabia