x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Phil Anderton: Supporters must come first

Al Jazira's chief executive lets Paul Radley in on his plans to raise the profile of the Abu Dhabi club next season.

Phil Anderton says Al Jazira's goals are simple: to win the league and as many cup competitions as possible.
Phil Anderton says Al Jazira's goals are simple: to win the league and as many cup competitions as possible.

When Fabio Cannavaro, the lavishly decorated, 2006 World Cup-winning Italy captain, first spoke about his decision to leave behind European football and move to the UAE, he was honest about his motives. "I have always wanted to live in Dubai," he was quoted as saying when news of his move to the emirate broke.

There was not much false grandstanding about achieving new goals with a new club as the 36-year-old's career nears its end. However, Al Ahli, the Dubai club which he has joined, have got themselves one of the most recognisable players of the recent past. In marketing speak, he is an ideal person to use as "leverage" to create a wider fan base. It is a method that has been tried before, most notably in Qatar, where the likes of Romario, Gabriel Batistuta and Stefan Effenberg were all recruited with the intention of raising the league's profile. Results were mixed.

If they really want to put extra numbers on their attendances, Al Ahli's officials might be best served posting a few maps with their ground marked on them. And an up to date fixture list, would be another good starting point, perhaps even in English. For all the good intentions of the Pro League, the top football division in the Emirates, the main point of last year's major marketing drive proved there is a long way to go when it comes to making the league more appealing.

"The main goal for us this season is to be very open to the expatriate community," Romy Gai, the then chief executive of the Pro League, said last August. "So from our side we will have - I hope from the very start of the season - at least one match a week televised in English. We will also have radio coverage in English. "The quality of the new players joining us this season is amazing, and that will also help attract new fans."

Sadly, the majority of those plans came to nought. The onus is now on the clubs to find their own ways of broadening their perspectives. "The strategy of bringing in a star player is one way you can go," says Phil Anderton, the chief executive of Al Jazira who has been tasked with raising the profile of the capital club since he started in the role in January. "For example, David Beckham going to the LA Galaxy. That clearly galvinised the support for soccer in the United States.

"For every example where it hasn't worked - and most of the time it hasn't seemed to, for myriad reasons - there might be an example where it has worked." Anderton is the marketing equivalent of Cannavaro and Beckham, having held some of his field's premier titles. Before moving into sports marketing, he was based in the United States as the global brand ambassador for Coca-Cola. His ascent after moving over into sport was swift, having variously held positions piloting the commercial campaigns of the Scottish Rugby Union and the ATP World Tour in tennis. The idea that the supporter comes first is one of Anderton's key principals, and one he is eager to put into practise in his new role in Abu Dhabi.

"It is about making sure that when people come to the stadium they have a good experience, especially when you compare it to the alternatives," he said. "Things like staying at home and watching it on television, going to the shopping malls, going to the cinema - we have got to be better than those alternatives." It is not difficult to understand why he was headhunted to drive Jazira's grand plans.

But why would he leave one of the top positions in sport to join a club who has yet to win their own domestic league in a nation that hardly ranks among football's market leaders? The fact Jazira shares the same leadership as Manchester City was a major draw. "I knew that Abu Dhabi was very serious about sport and had big plans," he says, adding that he was "blown away" by the ambition of the club.

"If you have a product and a brand that you are trying to attract people to, you need to understand which people you are after and what you could do to entice them. "Our goals are pretty straight forward. We want to win the league and we want to win as many cups as we can." pradley@thenational.ae