TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — The International Olympic Academy (IOA) invited Andrew Billings, Ph.D., to speak in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at the International Sport Media and Journalism Seminar. 

The seminar was a three-day event from January 7-10 and focused on training Saudi Arabian sports journalists in different aspects of their work. Among other speakers from across Europe, Billings lectured on understanding audience trends in media surrounding the Olympic games. 

“I was honored to be a part of it,” Billings said. “I was the only American speaker, so I felt I could bring a unique set of insights while learning so much about Saudi Arabia beyond what I watch and see on TV.” 

Billings worked with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) before on initiatives like study grants, training modules for branding, and teaching a European master’s program on Olympic studies. These previous efforts resulted in Billings’ invitation to this year’s conference in Riyadh, which was co-sponsored by the IOA and the Saudi Olympic Academy. The IOA helped to pay for Billings’ flight and travel accommodations. 

Dr. Andrew Billings sits among a panel of sports experts and researchers at the International Sport Media and Journalism Seminar in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Billings (second from left) sits among a panel of sports experts and researchers at the International Sport Media and Journalism Seminar in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

In recent years, Billings has seen growth in the Saudi Arabian sports industry, which created a demand for incoming sports journalists. This year’s conference saw 120 attendees training for professions in sports media. 

“[Saudi sports media professionals] are eager to learn, but many of these are new opportunities that previously were much less plentiful,” said Billings. “There’s a desire to more firmly enter into the international sports scene, and many of the questions pertained to this topic.” However, he noted that Saudi Arabian sports media would navigate tradition and culture to reach this end. 

A first-time visitor to the region, Billings said the experience was “broadening.” 

“They are seeking more ways to interact with Western culture while still seeking to reserve elements that they have traditionally valued. That’s likely a difficult line to walk.” 

Billings said that international conferences like this one show the similarities and differences in sports journalists’ practices from nation to nation. He added that researchers from the Riyadh conference are already collaborating on ways to conduct further research there, including on Middle Eastern societal values regarding sports and on the effects of watching sports in Middle Eastern nations. 

Outside of the conference, Billings visited Riyadh’s city center, museums, and entertainment and tourist attractions like Boulevard City and Boulevard World. 

Billings is the associate dean for faculty in C&IS, the director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication, the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media (JCM), a co-director of the Beyond Sports Initiative, and a co-editor of the journal Communication and Sport