x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Football is still king … but it's not the only thing

Basketball and martial arts are popular among Emiratis, a new survey finds, and there's more interest in domestic football than foreign leagues.

Fans cheer for Al Wahda football club prior to the Presidents Cup Final Match between Al Jazira and AL Wahda. The UAE football league scored well in a survey of what fans enjoy to watch.
Fans cheer for Al Wahda football club prior to the Presidents Cup Final Match between Al Jazira and AL Wahda. The UAE football league scored well in a survey of what fans enjoy to watch.

Beneath the predictable and resounding dominance of football lie some curious nuances.

UAE sports fans apparently have a gathering fondness for basketball. Martial arts have spiked upward in popularity among Emiratis. Spain's Primera Liga decisively thumps England's Premier League among UAE nationals, and the domestic league beats them both.

With the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as a spur, Emiratis follow Formula One more than they follow the Olympics. Swimming ranks fourth on their list of interests (behind football, basketball and martial arts), and only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain follow horse racing more than UAE nationals.

These findings stem from a first-of-its-kind survey by the marketing research tandem, SMG Insight/YouGovSiraj, which in March polled more than 2,500 citizens of 16 Arab nations, excluding expatriates.

In measuring the following of sports and participation in sports, the study reiterated one reality:

Football reigns supreme.

It placed No 1 in all 16 countries, far outdistancing all "non-football" events. Even the Olympics cannot compete.

"Although the London Olympics was more than a year away when panellists were surveyed, the Summer Olympic Games is the most popular non-football event," the researchers reported. Then, the big caveat: "Overall, its following is comparable to only the ninth-most popular football event across all regions, the English Premier League."

Emiratis ranked football No 1 in both following and participation - the same as the other 15 nations - and ranked the Fifa World Cup No 1 among football events. The UAE domestic league was second in terms of interest, followed by the Spanish Primera Liga.

"Our study of major sports events ... illustrates strong interest and following for international and domestic league football across the region," the researchers said. "Interest levels in the UAE for overseas football leagues was broad."

Below football came more surprises. Basketball, for instance, ranked second in interest, and third in participation, in the UAE.

"I think in the last five years we have seen more and more interest," said Mounir Ben Slimane, the technical director of UAE Basketball, noting an increase especially in youth leagues and "streetball"-type competitions with three-man teams.

Citing larger crowds for events, he said: "We have a bigger and larger base."

Mirroring the SMG Insight-YouGov study, which revealed followings for both the NBA and the Fiba world championships, Ben Slimane said that for now the UAE's basketball fan base bypasses local leagues and projects itself outward, but that even a semi-professional league might change even that.

"I would say, for example, that now it is more and more tough for locals to get into football," given academies and special schools, he said. "I think the second option in team sports, obviously, is basketball."

And there is one familiar catalyst: "And now with all the social networks - Facebook, Twitter - they know everything," Ben Slimane said of the market-driving youth. "Now, the interest is everywhere. You can know the teams in streetball, not even just the icons of basketball."

In the meantime, those stars prove ever more unavoidable. Buy gear in China, and you might well buy gear adorned with Kobe Bryant. "If you want to buy sneakers, so you buy Nike, so you're buying LeBron James," he said, "You really can't escape it."

The spike in martial arts seemed unimaginable to Steve Drake when the Nottingham, England native arrived in the UAE in January 2005. Some friends even teased him about the fruitlessness of teaching self-defence in one of the world's safest countries. Yet while heading The Self Defense Company of Dubai, he has seen the various arts thrive participation-wise as fitness-inducers without the tedium.

As Emirati participation (10th among sports) trails Emirati interest (third), Drake can make a good bit at explaining the latter: the televised ubiquity of mixed-martial arts (MMA).

"In every other place in the world, you have these events in pay-per-view," he said. "Here, you can watch for free."

The upshot was that in April 2010, during the UFC 112 show in Abu Dhabi, "The crowds were just huge for the weigh-in," he said, listing that among several fervently attended events.

"It was just amazing. All of a sudden the focus and the interest here had really just drawn the UFC in, like a magnet. So I was blown away."

The calls he receives from people interested in training "are always what I call well-educated people in the field," he said. "They know what they're asking for." And interest ranges beyond MMA. Over the next two months in a Dubai nightclub with an outside venue, Drake said, "We've got five kick-boxing events, four confirmed. These nights are very well-attended. In terms of combat sports, we've got quite a thriving area."

Football-wise, you can count the UAE as another of the world's far-flung students of Spanish. It joined nine of 16 nationalities in placing the Primera Liga second or third among football events. Its following of 24 per cent almost doubled the interest in the English Premier League.

Of course, the Barcelona bug bit big in the UAE during the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in December 2009. Its reach was defined in a recollection from Mariam Al Omaira, a member of the Abu Dhabi women's football league, who finds her passion expressed in scarlet-and-blue and who attended Barcelona's 5-0 thrashing of visiting Real Madrid last autumn.

"I kept the entrance ticket," Al Omaira wrote in an email. "My friends and I were so lucky to have found them. We luckily found three front seats online. We were so close to the field we felt like we were a part of the team. The temptation to jump in killed me.

"Since the first goal, no one stopped singing. It kept going on and on, and the streets were hailing Guardiola," meaning Pep Guardiola, Barcelona's hurriedly accomplished manager.

"Definitely a night to remember," she concluded, and in another testament to globalisation revealed by the survey, a good many of her television -viewing compatriots probably remember it also.


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