x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Arrival of Smith as Pro League CEO is not just to make up numbers

The new chief executive tells Omar Al Raisi how he intends to use his experience to take the game to families and expatriates.

Colin Smith is well-versed with the marketing aspect of the sport. Courtesy Pro League Committee
Colin Smith is well-versed with the marketing aspect of the sport. Courtesy Pro League Committee

As it enters the second half of its fifth season, the Pro League has made dramatic strides, its chief executive says, but much remains to be done, particularly in getting expatriates to embrace the domestic game.

"As a League, we are only in our fifth year of professionalism, and though we have come a long way already, there is still a long way to go," said Colin Smith, referring to the league formally known as the Pro League Committee (PLC).

"We are working hard alongside our stakeholders to continue on our upward trajectory by improving and developing all aspects of the PLC as an organisation - a challenging, but very exciting and rewarding task."

Smith, 40, hails from Northern Ireland and is a former marketing director with Uefa and with Leisurecorp in Dubai. He also worked with golf's European Tour.

His remit is to coordinate efforts to see clubs increase attendance and make the game more appearing to all parties: fans, clubs, media, broadcasters and sponsors. This includes bringing best business practices to the league.

"We want the PLC to operate in accordance with international football standards," Smith said. "It will help to strengthen our position as a highly competitive league on both the regional and world stages.

"The Pro League Committee's former management did a good job to grow the league to where it is today. The role of the new management is to continue striding along this path to success and continue to improve the league year on year. We look forward to raising the league's profile and increasing the fans' awareness of our competitions."

Smith is the fourth chief executive in the history of the "fully professional" league, which kicked off in the 2008/09 season.

The first, Romy Gai, served until early 2010, when he was replaced by Carlo Nohra. Dr Khalid Mohammed Abdullah held the title through the 2011/12 season, and Smith assumed the role at the start of this season.

Every job comes with challenges, but Smith said he does not feel extra pressure to achieve the goals of the Pro League and the PLC's vision to make it one of the best leagues in the region.

"Having had 15-plus years' previous experience in football, coupled with several years of living in the UAE, I already had a good knowledge and understanding of the league before joining," he said.

One of the challenges confronting Smith and the league is the lack of expatriates watching Pro League games where attendances have stagnated at about 3,200 per game, on average.

Some expatriates have suggested that they feel unwelcome at Pro League matches, but Smith argues the reality is otherwise.

"At the moment there appears to be an invisible barrier, where many expats feel that they would not be welcome at a Pro League game, but this is not the case at all," he said.

"We welcome all spectators of all nationalities at our games and we will continue to build initiatives to spread this message so that the barrier disappears.

"For expats who miss the thrill of attending live games in their home countries, the Pro League offers a great way to get their weekly dose of live football action."

He said the league and its clubs recognise the importance of drawing fans from across the spectrum and at an early age.

"Following a football team is something that is often inherited from generation to generation, so we will continue to work on encouraging a family atmosphere at Pro League matches, for both locals and expats, to breed loyalty to the league from a young age.

"As a league, one of our major roles is to build the bond between spectators and clubs, and widening the audience for Pro League games is a very important factor in this.

"We recognise that Pro League attendances currently consist of a majority of Emirati fans - which is very valuable, but we are certainly aware that there is a huge expat population in the UAE, which is still to be fully tapped into as an audience for our matches."

He cited a specific example of the league's outreach to non-Emiratis.

"We are working hard on making the league more accessible to all football fans by involving different communities in our activities," he said.

"For example, last season we participated in the Philippines national team's tour, and linking up with the Azkals opened many Philippines fans' eyes to our league and to the fact that they can attend weekly games here in the UAE."

An initiative Smith is following closely is the online Pro League Fantasy Football Game he has championed.

It was launched earlier this month and based on models used for other fantasy leagues. The first results come this weekend, as league action resumes for the first time since December.

Fantasy games, involving "teams" chosen by fans from throughout the league, have proven extremely popular in much of the world.

Several thousand fans have signed up, and Smith said: "We are delighted for getting this number of participants in the Fantasy during this short period, and we look forward to more services provided by the committee to all football lovers in the UAE."

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE