x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Pro League focuses on total entertainment

Troubled by low attendances at stadiums in the UAE, Pro League launches a drive to give spectators a complete experience.

Much is being done to boost the number of spectators for the 'Game of the Week' between Al Wasl, in yellow, and Al Ain tomorrow. Mike Young / The National
Much is being done to boost the number of spectators for the 'Game of the Week' between Al Wasl, in yellow, and Al Ain tomorrow. Mike Young / The National

With attendance short of continental targets and interest among expatriates still tepid, the Pro League has instituted a top-down programme to market its football more aggressively for the remainder of this season.

The league is designating a Match of the Week and co-ordinating a range of promotional efforts before and during those games, with a goal of demonstrating for the clubs how a "complete match-day experience" can be achieved.

Dr Khalid Mohammed Abdullah, acting chief executive of the Pro League Committee, said the league felt it "couldn't wait for the clubs to start" the sort of comprehensive fan experience the league is offering.

"But someday this promotion and marketing will be the obligation of the clubs," he said. "There will be no excuse that it cannot happen because the league, which is not a club, did it and people enjoyed it."

The Al Wasl home match tomorrow with leaders Al Ain has been designated by the league as its second Match of the Week.

Among the pre-game activities the league is coordinating are demonstrations of football skills, autographs from players, face-painting and music. Prizes such as club merchandise will be distributed by drawing at half time. A fan from each side adjudged to have the best "fancy dress" also will win a prize. Food and drink also will be available to buy from vendors.

The league hopes to lure families and expats to what it believes will be a comprehensive entertainment package built around the football game.

"For me, as a fan, I have two main feelings," Dr Abdullah said. "I need you as a club to entertain me, not free of charge, but I have to feel that my kids will not be bored; and I want services, with food available, and some entertainment, if I come one hour before the match."

League officials agree on the long-term need to expand their fan base, which traditionally has been young, male and Emirati. A more immediate concern is meeting the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) target of 5,000 spectators, on average, for league matches.

Attendance is on a record pace through 17 weeks of the season, at 3,253 per game, but that is still well short of the AFC target. The Pro League passed on 10 of 11 criteria identified by the AFC in a push to professionalise the continent's football leagues. The one Pro League shortcoming: attendance. A loss of AFC Champions League berths could be the result.

Carlo Nohra, the chief executive of the Al Ain club, and the former top official with the league, applauds the league initiative.

"The league is very conscious of the poor attendance, if we can be harsh, and the need to do something about it," he said. "I definitely believe that all clubs should be heavily marketing themselves to the football-loving community in the UAE.

"People don't show up just because you're there."

Al Jazira aggressively promoted their matches last season, smashing attendance records, and almost alone accounted for the 23.9 per cent league-wide rise in attendance. The club have lost nearly half their crowds this season, however, during a term of more muted and less-costly promotions; no fans will be winning a Ferrari this year.

Dr Abdullah stressed that the league believes the entertainment package must be "cost-effective", adding: "If it's costly, you can't keep it up and you give it up."

The drawings at half time will not be for lavish prizes, he said. "I don't want to connect that to a reason the fans are coming. I want them to connect to loving the game and being connected and loyal to the team."

Nidal Abo Roza, the former chief executive at Baniyas, said the league was correct in inaugurating the Match of the Week promotion in mid-season.

"I believe in the urgency of starting this," he said. "It is better to start, even if you're not 100 per cent successful, because if there are mistakes you can mitigate them. The clubs should be doing this already, thinking of the game as a day-long event, not just showing up to watch the game and go home."

Said Dr Abdullah: "The objective of the Match of the Week is to produce a crowd, and if we can secure for them a little bit of entertainment, the next time there will be more people.

"One side will be happy because their team won and the other will remember that they had a full day of enjoyment and they want to repeat it and come back."