The Pro League must expand beyond its traditional male Emirati fan base and embrace expatriates, women and families if it wants to draw larger crowds, the league's chief executive and club officials say.
"Historically, our fans have been almost 100 per cent male Emiratis," Abdullah al Naboodah, the chairman of the Dubai-based Al Ahli club, said. "It's because we didn't reach out and were content with our local Emirati fan base."
The league is under pressure to meet attendance mandates from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which wants to establish standards at leagues across the continent.
The AFC has called for an average attendance of 5,000 per match by 2013. Penalties for missing the target include the loss of berths in the prestigious and potentially lucrative Asian Champion League tournament.
Even with steady gains since 2008/09, the Pro League is averaging only 3,576 fans per game halfway through this season, according to league figures, leaving the domestic top flight with a big attendance gap to fill and not much time to do it.
The answer, league officials say, is tapping into the huge numbers of expatriates and women who rarely, if ever, see matches.
"We can't reach our business goals without a wider audience," Carlo Nohra, the league's top executive, said. "What I would like to see at a football game in this country is a cross-section of the UAE's demographics.
"I would like to see families, expats, Emiratis, the young and old, male and female enjoying the match. I would like to see the same people you see at any successful shopping mall in the country."
He said the league's goals for marketing to expatriates and women would lead to football crowds made up of "a lot more non-Emiratis than Emiratis because of the realities of population in the UAE", where nationals make up about 15 per cent of all residents.
Nohra has called for a "culture change" in a league made up almost entirely of tradition-steeped clubs founded more than 30 years ago and originally meant to encourage culture as well as sports among Emirati citizens. Football was just part of the package, and one that attracted male and nationals from the start. "We need a more homogeneous support for the sport," Nohra said.
"The clubs still often expect people to flock to them. We have to slowly introduce the clubs to the concept of thinking of their football team as a product, and marketing that product, and to view themselves as a commodity that all people want to be a part of."
Tim March, an executive with the Sharjah club, said the seemingly all-Emirati make-up of many football crowds across the country usually is because the clubs "made no attempt to engage with expats".
He added: "It wasn't off-putting. People weren't actually told 'don't come'. Expats just didn't know about the clubs. They became a preserve of Emirati males, mostly young Emirati males aged 16 to 25. But that fan base won't support a professional club. There aren't enough of them."
Phil Anderton, the chief executive at the Abu Dhabi club Al Jazira, which leads the league in average attendance (15,159) by a wide margin, has seen his club successfully attract expatriates and women with the most aggressive marketing the league has seen, including promotions offering large cash awards in fan contests at half time.
He said that when he joined the club a year ago, they were dependent on "our core Emirati fan base, which was about 5,000 and wasn't going to change much no matter what we did".
The club decided they needed a bigger pool of potential fans and paid for a marketing survey. Anderton said he was on tenterhooks while awaiting the results. "What we dreaded hearing from people in Abu Dhabi was: 'We know all about the club and have no interest in going.' But what we got was a lot of, 'What? Who? Where?'"
He said many people in the survey said they had seen the 40,000-seat Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, Jazira's home ground, but did not know who played there.
"When we told them we were playing professional football with foreign internationals, almost all of them were interested," Anderton said. "And what we discovered was that our first job was very basic: getting the word out to the expat community."
Jazira attracted a league-record crowd of 28,164 on October 22 for a match with Al Wasl that included a high-profile promotion: the offer of Dh1 million to any of five fans picked from the crowd who could kick a football and hit the crossbar. None were successful, but Jazira had accomplished a goal - getting fans to sample their product.
Anderton believes Pro League clubs need to sell "an experience" and view themselves as competitors in a battle for the entertainment dirham.
To that end, the club has hired an announcer and made food and drink available at the stadium, common in many parts of the world but unusual in the UAE. "If you're asking them to come out of their home and go to your stadium and not the cinema, who have to offer at least a similar experience," he said.
Nohra said Jazira stand out in their ability to lure new fans and concedes that the team are responsible for much of the league's 35 per cent attendance gain this season. "They have created a lot of noise in the marketplace and made people aware of their existence and they have been rewarded by the crowds we have seen at their matches."
Anderton said Jazira's market survey helped focus the club's attention on groups where it might be able to gain in attendance: Arab expatriates, families and Western expatriates, in that order. He said women are a target, too; currently, about 15 per cent of Jazira's crowds are women, and most of them sit in the specially marked "family" section in the east stand.
"Part of the low numbers for women is cultural," he said. "Part of it will be because no one ever invited them and they didn't see it as something that would be relevant to them. But if they come, we think that they will have a good experience in a nice environment."
Nohra said the league plans its own marketing survey, but suspects new fans will probably be found in the areas Anderton cited.
"There are plenty of football-lovers in the country, and we see that every time when a large European club comes here to play, or when a national team from an Arab country plays here," Nohra said. "Fans come out of the woodwork. That demonstrates there is a football following in the country, and we need to capitalise on that to build a proper fan base for the clubs."
He said Emirati fans should not feel threatened. "I like to think that football by its nature is a unifying force," he said. "I believe it could be a positive, something that could lead to a lot more interaction between the Emirati and non-Emirati population."