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Knicks deal Saudi sportswashing a loss by dropping PIF-backed jersey patch before the season

After NYC Mayor Adams steps in to stop the deal, there’s an emerging lesson in this story for LGBTQ sports advocates.

Houston Rockets v New York Knicks
Julius Randle could’ve been wearing a Riyadh Season patch until the Knicks eventually made the proper call and turned down the sponsorship.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Going into the 2023-24 season, the New York Knicks were all set to announce a jersey sponsorship deal with Saudi Arabian state-funded entertainment and sports festival Riyadh Season.

But just before things got underway, the Knicks walked away from the deal and showed up on Opening Night wearing patches advertising their ownership group’s property Sphere instead.

In a sports world notable for recent events like LIV Golf’s merger with the PGA and annual WWE Crown Jewel pay-per-views, it was a rare moment where Saudi sportswashing suffered a defeat.

It also spotlighted an even bigger rarity: the Knicks doing something right.

There was a lesson in that story for LGBTQ advocates. Even in the face of millions of dollars, principled opposition to sportswashing can still win out.

NBA: New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets
After considering a PIF-sponsored jersey patch, the Knicks blocked the deal.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

According to a report from SportBusiness reporter Matthew Glendinning, before the new season got underway, the proposed Riyadh Season patch had gone through several stages of approval within Knicks ownership group MSG Sports. The Saudi government-affiliated sponsorship would have amounted to $30 million per season.

But then the office of New York City Mayor Eric Adams stepped in and let the Knicks know that Adams objected to the proposed partnership. Shortly thereafter, the deal was off.

Perhaps nothing emphasizes how draconian the Saudi regime’s human rights abuses and its anti-gay/anti-woman laws are better than this: they inspired a joint decision between the Knicks and Mayor Adams that no New Yorker could complain about.

That’s almost as unprecedented as the Knicks allowing a team legend to watch an entire game.

Glendinning’s story implied that Adams opposed the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF)-backed sponsorship because of the nation’s connection to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

As he reported, Adams had previously been urged by 9/11 victims groups to rescind approval for a 2022 Saudi state oil company-sponsored golf tournament scheduled in The Bronx.

The takeaway for LGBTQ activists is clear: perseverance matters, even when going up against absurd amounts of money.

While the 2022 golf event still took place, the protests from the 9/11 victims groups clearly made a lasting impact on Adams. A year later, when word reached his office that the Knicks were thinking of partnering with a PIF entity, his office contacted team ownership and helped put a stop to that.

It took a while but those of us interested in the fight against sportswashing got a big win. While cynicism is an important quality to have going up against the forces of politics and business, it’s just as vital not to let it overwhelm the desire to keep fighting.

Sometimes never giving up works. Even when it involves the Knicks.