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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Time to prove Arabian Gulf League is not ‘for Emiratis only’

The question has been asked again and again – why is this demographic apparently being ignored? It is time to take a look at how the league can engage this market. Let us ignore the elephant in the room no more.
UAE football fans at Thursday night’s match in Sharjah. Our columnist says the AGL should reach out to more expat fans. Hasan Alraesi / Al Ittihad
UAE football fans at Thursday night’s match in Sharjah. Our columnist says the AGL should reach out to more expat fans. Hasan Alraesi / Al Ittihad

Last week, I specified three areas in which the Arabian Gulf League struggles – match-day attendance, TV viewership and penetrating the expatriate and tourist market.

The UAE is home to more than 9 million residents, according to 2014 statistics from the World Bank, and Emiratis comprise about 1 million of the total. The male half of the Emirati population is the Arabian Gulf League’s primary audience.

That leaves 8 million expatriates as a potential audience, as well as millions of tourists who pass through the country every year. The two Emirates with the most AGL clubs, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, attracted 13.2 million and 3.49 million visitors, respectively, in 2014.

Among tourists and non-Emirati residents, there is a large and largely untapped market of potential fans.

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The question has been asked again and again – why is this demographic apparently being ignored?

It is time to take a look at how the league can engage this market. Let us ignore the elephant in the room no more.

The AGL and UAE Football Association can start by partnering with the tourism boards, combining their marketing budgets to create awareness by producing advertisements and promotional campaigns to educate expats and tourists about UAE football culture.

The tourists know about the tallest buildings, the man-made islands, the beautiful beaches. Why not present them with information about our football culture, including the passionate rivalries, with some emotionally gripping and creative global campaigns?

It is a tried and tested tactic that used by the English Premier League with the UK tourism board, as well as the Spanish league and Spanish tourism board, who get Real Madrid and Barcelona players involved.

People love romanticising the past, and expats and visitors can be taken back in time with stories about how Pele’s Santos team came to town, or when Liverpool were here in the 1970s and 1980s.

Local tourism boards could promote and let visitors know when and where AGL teams are playing, allowing them an opportunity to attend a particularly Emirati event.

Abu Dhabi Sports has made it a priority to produce creative and interactive content for fans; the encryption of the AGL games is a part of that. Why not take it a step further and set up a highlights TV show in English on the AGL, something similar to BBC’s Match of The Day?

The fans appreciate personalities, but it is hard for the league to sell that because non-Emiratis do not know much about the players.

Could that be changed by a weekly reality TV show focusing on AGL players? (Perhaps recorded in Arabic, dubbed into English.)

Cameras would follow one player every week into his private life. What is the player like at home? Which is Ali Mabkhout’s favourite restaurant? Does he like sushi? What is Omar Abdulrahman’s favourite song in the dressing room? Fans love the personal side of their best players. Radio could be tapped, as well.

This will not bear fruit overnight, but I am convinced an ongoing, creative and interactive campaign into the expat and tourist communities would elevate the league to the next level.

Meantime, it is more of the status quo, with too many expats apparently convinced the AGL is “for Emiratis only”, and it is hard to argue with that. Look at who makes up the crowd at any AGL match.

sports@thenational.ae

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