Business of sport: Packed out shisha cafes showing live football matches and the fact that 90 per cent of males in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco follow sport on TV are testament to a huge market.
Champions League a trophy season for advertisers
Millions of Middle East football fans are expected to gather in homes and shisha cafes to watch the Uefa Champions League on TV when the knockout phase begins in February.
The Champions League ranks as the second most-watched league across the entire region, according to the sports marketing agency Relay Mena. But while the competition scores highly among consumers, the monetisation of major sporting events in this region is yet to enter the big leagues, say media executives.
In the 2012-13 season, the Champions League and Uefa Super Cup global commercial income is estimated at €1.34bn (Dh6.4bn), including media rights and other commercial contracts.
Al Jazeera holds the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) rights to broadcast the Champions League from 2012 until 2015. The Qatari broadcaster does not disclose its subscriber figures for its sports channels, thought to amount to millions, or its advertising revenues.
But Raed Kablawi, the director of sports marketing at Relay Mena, says the high interest in the competition in this region marked a "huge opportunity" for the broadcaster.
"The Spanish league is number one. And the Champions League is number two," he says.
"Al Jazeera has a lot of sponsors during the Champions League as well. So that does create a big opportunity for brands to use it as a platform to try and communicate with their target audience."
Donal Kilalea, the chief executive of Promoseven Sports Marketing in the Middle East and Asia, agreed that the Champions League was popular in this region.
"In my view it would be very high profile," he said. "The Champions League ranks up there up at the top. It's about the same as the English Premier League, if not higher."
Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns and publishes The National, holds the Mena-region television and digital broadcast rights for the English Premier League (EPL) over the 2010-2013 seasons.
Perhaps surprisingly, the EPL ranks as the third most popular league for viewers in the Mena region. Top is Spain's La Liga, ahead of the Champions League, with the Italian Lega Serie A in fourth and the German Bundesliga in fifth, according to Relay Menad.
Mr Kilalea says the Champions League was growing in popularity.
"It attracts a lot more audiences from other nationalities that live here," he says. "I think in this region, it has grown so much over the last couple of years because it's just such a competitive league now."
It is not known how much Al Jazeera paid for the regional rights to broadcast the competition but Mr Kilalea estimates it at "tens of millions" of dollars a year. The broadcaster did not respond to a request for comment.
Yet, despite strong audiences, Mr Kilalea does not see a proportionate level of advertising and sponsorship around the Champions League.
"I don't think it is as active as it is in Europe," he says. "It's true of other sports and other rights that TV stations have out here as well."
Levels of spending on advertising are lower in this region compared with other markets, indicating a potential for growth in the industry.
According to the Arab Media Outlook, advertising spending per capita in the Arab world stood at just US$15.90 (Dh58.38) last year. That compares with the $466 per person spent by advertisers in the United States, and $262 in western Europe.
Mr Kablawi says advertising and sponsorship around sports events was also lagging in the Middle East market.
"We are far behind in terms of using sports as a medium.
"The spending is much less than in other markets. Historically, the US is the leader in terms of spending on sports."
Yet growing popularity means a great opportunity for brands when it comes to European football teams, including the UAE's two major airlines. Arsenal, whose ground is sponsored by Emirates, and Manchester City, sponsored by Etihad. In mainland Europe, Barcelona has a five-year sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation.
"These are brands for which it makes sense for them to spend outside the region because of the nature of their business," says Mr Kablawi.
There is a big opportunity for greater monetisation of major sporting events in the Middle East region, according to the Arab Media Outlook.
"Time spent watching sports in the region is very high and shows great potential for further monetisation," it says.
Football is by far the most-watched sport in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, with more than 90 per cent of the male population following sports on TV, the Arab Media Outlook found.
Bhaskar Khaund, the regional TV planning director at the media agency MEC, says advertising around the Champions League in the region holds great potential for brands.
"It is big. People will still go and watch it in shisha bars and cafes and so on," he says.
"Brands target that demographic, young males especially, because football is big among Arab males."
However, a lack of data about viewer numbers could limit the amount of advertising related to the Champions League, Mr Khaund says.
"It's under-potential for sure. We just don't get the data for viewership - pay-TV isn't measured properly.
"This is something that limits the advertising money that goes into it," he says.
"Given how big football is in the region, it certainly could have been bigger than it is."