x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Big names like Michael Owen will not bring big changes to Pro League

Developing a strong pool of players coming through grassroots programmes – and not big-name players who are past their prime – is the need of the hour.

Michael Owen, in action for Manchester United, is close to the end of his career and neither Al Shabab nor the Pro League will benefit in the long term from his arrival to the UAE, according to our columnist. Lindsey Parnaby / EPA
Michael Owen, in action for Manchester United, is close to the end of his career and neither Al Shabab nor the Pro League will benefit in the long term from his arrival to the UAE, according to our columnist. Lindsey Parnaby / EPA

The Pro League took one step forward by expanding to 14 teams but took three steps backwards by insisting to follow the Major League Soccer strategy of hiring "big name" players, who are mostly at the end of their careers and not able to play at the top level anymore, to promote the league.

The Pro League and the Dubai Sports Council insist that this is the way forward, and they are convinced that the recent hiring of the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, David Trezeguet, Luca Toni and Asamoah Gyan have put the UAE on the map of world football, and they believe Al Shabab could make a nice addition with Michael Owen.

"I think Michael would add value, with his higher level of technical skills that Shabab needs," said Rashid Al Kamali, the director of marketing and sport promotions at DSC.

"The more big stars we have will help us to raise up the presence of the fans. This is where the biggest challenge lies - to create that unique atmosphere for more communities to be engaged with these matches.

"Bringing in big stars from different countries will add value. We're looking forward to see a different experience this season."

But does it add value? I don't think so, no. Apart from Al Ain FC, almost all the other clubs play before nearly empty stadiums and have a hard time putting even 2,000 fans in the stands. And not to mention the fans that do go are all paid (Dh50 plus transport and food) to get in, sing and clap.

Why don't more fans show up? Is it because the weather is too hot or games are on weekdays or the quality of the football is just not exciting? Or the population is too small?

Maybe a mix of all.

I was amazed to see the World Cup 2014 qualifier between Japan and Jordan, where a stadium of 60,000 was completely packed. The reasons Japanese love football? The quality of the J League is just good enough.

Japan's clubs do not focus on hiring "stars", but the structure of football there is solid.

The UAE has become a destination for players who are at the end of their careers and want a final big payday and a vacation. They use their fame to get a deal done, as seems to be the case for Owen, now 32, whose agent offered him to all the clubs in the UAE and other Middle East countries.

The whole strategy is wrong, possibly spending millions on the likes of Owen or Didier Drogba. Sure it gets exposure all over the world, but what does it actually do in terms of improving the quality of the league? So far it has not worked.

The MLS can use this strategy in the US as it is a country with a population of over 300 million. They have a huge market to capture and can sell their TV rights, get sponsors and partners on board and generate income.

(Whether they ever can match the more popular American sports like the basketball, American football and baseball is another question. But they can make a start, at least.)

Where does the UAE Pro League want to go with this strategy? Who is it targeting to sell its TV rights to? There are about one million Emiratis in the country and the rest of the population are expatriates.

The Pro League must accept that the league here is in a little niche market.

More emphasis should be put on youth development, coaching structure and allowing young players from other nationalities to be selected from the academies and given UAE citizenship, so they can play in the Pro League.

The league should also focus on tapping into the expat market. Most football fans here believe that the league is not marketed well and for that they need huge campaigns, and they need English commentary on the game telecasts and punditry shows.

sports@thenational.ae

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