The UAE Pro League is reaching out to expatriates, women, and families in a bid to boost attendance. This is a prudent plan but there is no substitute for a quality product when the goal is putting fans in the stands.
A bigger audience for local football
The year is 2008 and five British expatriates are contemplating which local club to adopt and follow throughout the UAE's upcoming football season. Sadly, their efforts to get information about fixture lists, ticket sales and directions to stadiums are met with indifference.
Fast forward to 2011. The UAE's professional league is in a healthier state. The league has more exposure. Information about matches and clubs is readily available. And as The National's sports section reports today, the UAE's Pro League football clubs are at long last targeting those outside their traditional demographic. They want to tap into the enthusiasm that expatriates, families and women can bring to the sport.
"Historically, our fans have been almost 100 per cent male Emiratis," said Abdullah al Naboodah, the chairman of the Dubai-based Al Ahli club. " We were content with our local Emirati fan base."
Considering the number of Emiratis and the number of clubs competing, this is a prudent plan. A model of how the new approach could work is on display at Abu Dhabi's Al Jazira club, which now boasts the highest average attendance in the country at just above 15,000. An impressive stadium, free season ticket offers and a series of half-time competitions offering attractive prizes have swelled their stands.
There remain major challenges in raising attendance across the country. The Pro League is under pressure from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which is calling for an average attendance of 5,000 per match by 2013. The current average attendance is just above 3,500, many of whom are non-paying fans.
Clubs in the UAE have made marquee signings, Al Ahli's Italian World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro being the most notable. In the long term, however, as they continue to attract talent from overseas, clubs must set up academies that nurture the country's young talent and create a higher standard of football. In doing so the UAE Pro League will create a product that will hopefully attract fans - young and old, Emirati and expatriate, male and female - who are excited about the quality of play and competition. The number of viewers tuning into the English Premier League, Italy's Serie A, Spain's La Liga and the UEFA Champions League shows that the interest is there. To encourage support for the nation's local clubs, there is no substitute for a competitive league that provides top class entertainment.