x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Time for Pro League to go bigger and better

The impression among fans is that “someone else” runs the show when it comes to football in the UAE

Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi resigned as the president of the UAE Football Association.
Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi resigned as the president of the UAE Football Association.

How can Pro League football be made more attractive? They should start by expanding the league to 14 or 16 teams.

There have been rumours that the Pro League Committee is considering adding two teams for the next season and talks have already taken place - but on the record, the committee would not confirm anything.

Upgrading to 14 teams is a great idea and a step forward commercially. It would also produce better competition, more attendance, and more television and sponsorship deals.

Many observers and fans believe internal politics has been a major reason why the Pro League seems to respond to important issues with indecisive actions. When there were allegations of bribery in a 2009 President's Cup match between Sharjah and Al Wahda, the league ruled that neither club was to blame and closed the case without any punishment.

The impression among fans is that "someone else" runs the show when it comes to football in the UAE - not the Football Association president nor the head of Pro League Committee.

Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, who resigned in December last year after an embarrassing World Cup qualifying campaign, said: "My resignation stems from my personal conviction, without influence or pressure. To tell you a secret, I have already submitted my resignation more than once."

Now the FA is still without a president. Despite urging by the clubs to solve the situation so the strategies can be put into place, the situation remains.

There would be both advantages and disadvantages to expanding the league next season. Some of the bottom table and second division teams are in very poor condition in terms of finance, facilities, quality of play and management.

On the other hand, the possibility of 14 teams would increase the intensity of the Pro League, and more young, talented Emirati players would get a chance to show their worth in the top level. But who will make that decision?

Most of the fans you talk to think decisions are made and executed by someone above the FA or the Pro League, but most refuse to take names or accuse anyone in particular.

"Decisions here are taken by a powerful individual rather than organisations," said Mohammed Al Bastaki, a fan from Dubai. "That is how football is here but I believe an upgrade to 14 teams would be great.

"There are teams like Ras Al Khaimah [who merged with Emirates last May] due to financial instability and other internal political reasons and Fujairah which represent their respective Emirates who have fan bases deserve to get a chance in the Pro League." He said.

I believe upgrading to 14 or maybe 16 teams would benefit the Pro League. The UAE seems to be taking football seriously with purchases of European teams such as Manchester City, Getafe and Portsmouth (initially by UAE interests, but now in Saudi Arabian hands); pouring millions of pounds into the clubs; and building a Real Madrid theme holiday resort in Ras Al Khaimah.

But the same level of investment and attention is nowhere to be seen in the Pro League.

It cannot be more obvious that expatriates dominate the UAE in terms of population and to tap into the expat fans the Pro League should consider to broadcast games with English commentary. Even if it is only the highlights, every little helps.

However, to alter attitudes of the fan base, huge marketing strategies would require a massive integrated marketing communications campaign which has been lacking by the Pro League Committee and the FA.

Would the Pro League be willing to do such aggressive investments and marketing campaigns to tap into the expat fans and expand to 14 or 16 teams? That remains a big question that needs to be addressed.

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