Will Saudi Arabia’s sports investment trigger an athleisure boom?

    Saudi Arabia’s sports sector today would have been unimaginable a few years ago. And with the rising participation comes new opportunities for brands.
    Fitness and wellness brand Kayanee was launched by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia in 2023. Image: Kayanee
      Published   in Fashion

    Lamya Al-Nahdi, a 29-year-old from Jeddah, made basketball history when she became the first accredited Saudi international basketball referee in 2023.

    “Women in sports was not a thing five years ago, but things now are really different,” she tells Jing Daily. “Even though it [has been] a short period of time playing sports, they [have] really managed to accelerate their growth and innovate in the field.”

    Al-Nahdi is the first Saudi international referee in basketball to be accredited by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). Image: Courtesy
    Al-Nahdi is the first Saudi international referee in basketball to be accredited by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). Image: Courtesy

    Al-Nahdi is a testament to the shifts transpiring within Saudi Arabia. In addition to promoting women’s participation in sports, the kingdom has aggressively invested in developing its sports infrastructure, hosting major competitions, and even recruiting stars like Cristiano Ronaldo.

    By 2030, the government aims to increase the ratio of individuals exercising at least once a week to 40 percent.

    With an expanding base of sports practitioners, the country’s sportswear and athleisure apparel market is set to boom. In 2022, the category generated $1.3 billion (SAR 4.9 billion) in sales, and by 2027, it is expected to reach $1.5 billion. Could Saudi Arabia be the next frontier for sportswear?

    Women change the game#

    Social media trends, health awareness, overseas education, and government initiatives are the four main factors driving the sportswear trend in the kingdom, says Reiting Lee, founder of The Oriental Hybrid, a consulting agency that connects Arabic and Chinese-speaking markets.

    The Sports for All Federation (SFA), a non-profit organization that serves as the governing body for competitive functional fitness in Saudi Arabia, has ramped up sports involvement dramatically by establishing nearly 1,000 community sports groups and organizing marathons and tournaments.

    Meanwhile, the Ministry of Sports, which sets policies and represents Saudi Arabian sport at an international level, encourages participation through cash prizes, incubation programs, and social media campaigns.

    Organized by the SFA, the Riyadh Marathon 2024 welcomed more than 20,000 participants from 125 countries on February 10. Image: Saudi Press Agency
    Organized by the SFA, the Riyadh Marathon 2024 welcomed more than 20,000 participants from 125 countries on February 10. Image: Saudi Press Agency

    And these efforts are paying off. A 2022 survey by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Statistics reveals that 48.2 percent of the population practices physical and sporting activities for at least 30 minutes a week.

    “The Saudi Sports Ministry and the Saudi Federations for each sport are doing some amazing things to get people, especially women, excited about sports with programs, competitions, courses, teams, and lots of events they are holding,” says Yara Alsaleem, a Saudi university student who enjoys yoga and running. “They’re actually making sure everyone has what they need to dive into the world of sports and have a fantastic time! It’s like a fitness revolution.”

    Certainly, the inclusion of women is nothing short of revolutionary. The government only granted licenses for women-only gyms in 2017 and lifted the ban on women driving in 2018.

    As opportunities for women to participate in sports surge, demand for apparel tailored to these activities has increased.

    “For Saudi women, as the community is very competitive, they always look into what the others are doing on social media, and there is an increasing amount of girls showing their gym life and cute gym #ootd (outfit of the day) to their close circle of friends on Snapchat, Instagram story, or personal TikTok,” says Lee.

    Social media sparks sportswear desire#

    With a staggering 63 percent of the population aged under 30, it’s no surprise that younger generations also constitute a key sports demographic. According to a study by Astute Analytica, Saudi Arabia’s fitness studios and gyms market reached a valuation of $968 million in 2023, with the 18-34 age group accounting for more than half of its revenue.

    Apart from the rising health consciousness, social media plays a significant role in promoting sports — and sportswear — culture among youth.

    “Influencers, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have helped popularize sports and athleisure products among the younger population, driving demand for these products,” notes Nahar Almarzougi, founder of Chapter4, a local multi-brand fashion platform that sells international designer brands.

    Although Saudi Arabia’s everyday fashion scene is still dominated by streetwear and casual wear, there has been “a gradual shift to sporty style due to the effect of social media and people starting to notice the flexibility of sportswear,” adds Osama Afesh, a Saudi Gen Z model who has worked with local athleisure brands.

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    Adidas reigns supreme#

    As for what these young sports enthusiasts are purchasing, Ahmed Alharbi, founder of Saudi concept store Crowdless, says, “This demographic segment [aged 12–30] shows a keen interest in purchasing sports products, particularly soccer-related items such as jerseys and soccer shoes.”

    The country’s love for soccer has given certain brands a leg up. In 2022, Adidas Group, Nike and Puma goods accounted for more than 50 percent of total sales in Saudi Arabia. Adidas was the market leader, accounting for 29 percent of Saudi sportswear sales, according to a report by the Saudi Fashion Commission.

    Released in February 2024, Adidas’ “You Got This” global campaign features Farah Jefry, the first Saudi woman to play professional football. Image: Adidas
    Released in February 2024, Adidas’ “You Got This” global campaign features Farah Jefry, the first Saudi woman to play professional football. Image: Adidas

    “Saudis trust Adidas because it’s German. We all know German products have amazing quality, so their labels are trustworthy — people here just automatically trust [Adidas],” says model Afesh, who walked last year at Riyadh Fashion Week.

    “The second thing that made it even more popular was the collaboration between Kanye and Adidas. When Adidas dropped Yeezy, it was on fire here, which makes Saudis want it even more because they want to be seen as the cool kids,” he adds.

    The Oriental Hybrid’s Lee echoes that Adidas’ success stems from its name and strategic partnerships. “They select unique retail points and collaborate with local talents like Omar Shabra [a Saudi KOL] for attractive localized campaigns,” she says.

    Local brands on the rise#

    But with the kingdom bolstering its fashion credentials through incubation programs like Saudi 100 Brands, local sportswear players are starting to emerge. Armed with a nuanced understanding of Saudi culture and consumer preferences, these brands offer a local alternative to industry stalwarts.

    One such brand is Mazrood. While primarily recognized for its casual streetwear aesthetic, the Riyadh-based label also offers puffer jackets, swim shorts, sweatpants, and joggers.

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    “We prioritize modesty in our sportswear and athleisure lines, ensuring that each piece reflects the cultural values of our Saudi customers,” says Saud Alajaji, owner of Mazrood. “Additionally, we incorporate elements that evoke national pride — using color schemes and patterns inspired by local art and architecture.”

    Other Saudi labels gaining attention include 1886, which recently released a ski wear collection, as well as Kayanee, a wellness and fitness luxury sportswear brand that is supported by the country’s Public Investment Fund.

    “As more Saudis prioritize their healthy lifestyle, we’re supporting Saudi sportswear brands’ presence so they can expand not only in our country but internationally too,” says Gen Z student Alsaleem.

    “We envision our sportswear appealing to a diverse audience, including Saudi expatriates seeking a connection with home and global consumers interested in the rich narrative of Saudi culture and design,” Alajaji adds.

    A budding opportunity#

    While global giants and local labels will present stiff competition, Saudi Arabia offers exciting opportunities for sportswear makers seeking to diversify and expand in the Middle East. Still, there are some things they should note.

    “It’s a youthful population [so] also make sure it’s affordable,” Chapter4’s Almarzougi says. “Be bold; don’t be afraid to introduce edgy looks and styles [as] there is plenty of demand.”

    Additionally, Crowdless founder Alharbi observes, “While younger demographics tend to gravitate towards trendy and hyped-up items like sneakers, older consumers often prioritize comfort and functionality in their choices.”

    As Saudi Arabia ramps up its sports initiatives and more citizens participate, demand for functional and fashionable apparel will only soar. Brands that want to score big in this billion-dollar market would do well to study local preferences, leverage social media, and build relationships with Saudi women and youth.

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