x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

UAE football faces a tough fixture

The beautiful game is increasing in popularity in the region with the big clubs in Europe among favourites for fans. To attract major bidders for the broadcast rights of its Pro League, the Emirates' challenge is to create a similar buzz here.

Subhi Khalid watches the football match between Ajman vs Dubai at Dubai Cultural and Sports Club in Dubai.  Pawan Singh / The National
Subhi Khalid watches the football match between Ajman vs Dubai at Dubai Cultural and Sports Club in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

It is five minutes to kick off at Dubai FC stadium, where the hosts are taking on Ajman.

When the whistle blows, both grandstands are still completely empty.

The crowd of less than two dozen supporters, club staff and other players is huddled in the more comfortable seats normally reserved for the press.

It is only a Reserve League game, but the empty seats are at the heart of the challenge facing the six-year-old Pro League as it seeks to attract bidders for the media and broadcast rights of UAE professional football for the next three seasons.

"There are some clubs with only 1,000 fans at the match - which is useless for companies marketing," says Subhi Khalid, 38, who is among the small group of spectators.

The lifelong football fan and director of protocol at a UAE university follows Al Ain at home and attends the games of other clubs such as Dubai when he can. In Europe, he supports the Italian Serie A club Inter Milan.

But the spartan stadium on the outskirts of Dubai is a long way from the San Siro, home to the Italian giants where average attendances top 44,000. The only branding to be seen is that of Etisalat, the official title sponsor of the league.

Making such league games a must-watch experience for football fans in the UAE is the stiff task now facing the Pro League, which holds the commercial rights to Emirates club football and its 14 professional teams.

Every week tens of thousands of football fans across the UAE tune in to watch the big games in Europe on subscription TV, or gather in bars and cafes to cheer on their teams.

But many professional football clubs here struggle to attract 3,000 fans.

That will need to rise substantially if the UAE game is to lure private-sector sponsors and meet attendance targets set by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Under AFC rules, the UAE Pro League must achieve average attendances of 5,000, a spokesman confirms.

"If they do not meet it, they will be required to submit a promotion plan to increase the attendance in order to get an exemption," says Steve Kim, the head of research and support services within the competitions division of the AFC.

But increasing attendances by such a margin over one or two seasons appears ambitious.

"There are leagues going for 110 years in Europe and you are comparing them with 30 or 40-year-old leagues [here]," says Mr Khalid, keeping one eye on the action on the pitch.

"We need more time. I don't think the leagues became so famous in Europe until the 80s and 90s - so we are not moving slowly."

Now the media and broadcast rights for the Pro League are up for grabs in what is expected to be a big test for the domestic competition's viewer appeal and its ability to catch the attention of the major sponsors and advertisers who hold sway over the beautiful game globally.

The bidding is open to UAE domestic broadcasters, which is likely to mean a three-way contest between Abu Dhabi Sports, Dubai Sports and Sharjah Sports.

The bid process is split into two separate packages: package A will include the Etisalat Pro League and Etisalat Reserve League; package B will cover the Etisalat Cup and the Etisalat Super Cup.

"The two packages may be awarded to one broadcaster, or may be awarded to two separate broadcasters, depending on what is deemed the best deal for all stakeholders," says Colin Smith, the chief executive of the UAE's Professional League Committee.

The deadline to submit tenders is April 15 but the Pro League has not disclosed when a winner will be selected or announced.

Overshadowed by the big leagues of Europe, the Pro League is on a quest to increase its profile and widen its fan base.

That means the winner of the tender process now under way may be required to offer English as well as Arabic commentary to cater to the country's expat football fans.

The fast-expanding expat population of cities such as Dubai represents a big opportunity for local football teams, says Ken Dearsley, a senior counsel at DLA Piper, an international law firm.

Dubai's economic rebound has attracted a huge influx of expatriates from Europe, Asia and elsewhere. At the same time, the Arab Spring has also triggered an exodus of expats from countries such as Egypt and Syria, many of whom have moved to the Emirates.

"This used to be a transient place," says Henry Birtles who runs HBA, a sports media consultancy based in the United Kingdom specialising in television rights.

"But it is no longer a two or three-year situation for many people. It instead becomes, 'This is home, this is where we are going to live.'

"That will generate loyalty and following, which will impact on attendances at football matches."

That seems a long way off as the half time whistle blows and the Ajman and Dubai footballers head to their dressing rooms in front of the silent scattering of spectators.

But sitting high in the empty stand, Mr Khalid seems to have a good view, literal and figurative, of the game. He remains upbeat about the prospects of the domestic league and believes a little marketing can go a long way.

"We have some derby games, big matches. You have to advertise them in the malls, the schools, the restaurants. You need to market them on social media, not just newspapers.

"Go to the expats and give them free tickets, they might have fun and come again."