x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pro League clubs need thousands more fans

Pro League football clubs are urgently looking for ways to attract bigger crowds in an attempt to hang on to their four places in the Asian Champions League.

DUBAI // Pro League football clubs are urgently looking for ways to attract bigger crowds in an attempt to hang on to their four places in the Asian Champions League. Average attendance last season, the UAE's first for professional football, was 2,120 - enough to win slots in region's most prestigious club competition for the nation's best four teams. But for this season, the Asian Football Confederation, which runs the AFL Champions League, has raised its gate requirement from 2,000 to 5,000.

Failure to reach that target will see the qualifying number reduced, possibly to just the team that tops the Pro League. Ideas being considered include improvements to stadiums, television commentary in English and an expatriate league to increase interest in the game. Since taking over as chairman of the Dubai-based Al Nasr Club this summer, Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher has made attracting non-Emiratis his top priority,

"We are in a country where 80 per cent of our population is non-local and we want to give them a greater sense of belonging," he said. "We have to satisfy the requirements of every segment of our society, while preserving the rights of the locals, without making the local population overwhelmed. That can be done, it is achievable." Nasr has created an expatriate team, who played their first match last night.

The expatriates played against the visiting Young Academy team from Cameroon. Sheikh Maktoum is also pressing the UAE Football Association to start an expatriate league. Better communication and facilities are the goals for Ahmed Khalifa Hammad, the chief executive of Al Ahli. "The attendance at games last season is certainly a worry," he said, and listed a number of factors, including entry fees, the attitude of fans and the lack of proper facilities for women and families.

"Before the start of the professional league, fans could enter for free," he said. "Last year we introduced a ticketing system and fans have to pay to watch. The challenge will be to change the mentality of the fans" Expatriates were happy to pay, but were hampered by a lack of information. "I sometimes have visitors over from the UK who would definitely be interested," said Anita Calcraft, a football fan from Britain.

"But there's an absence of information in English. I usually find out there's a match after the event when I'm stuck in a traffic jam." This problem has not escaped the attention of Romy Gai, the chief executive of the Pro League. "We face the risk of remaining just a local product," he said. "We need to open our arms to the international community. We are going to start broadcasting in English." Mr Hammad said he also believed the timing of games was often awkward for supporters.

"Games were scheduled in the middle of the week, or during school and college exams." Although the Pro League has taken the concerns on board, Mr Gai said: "You cannot solve this problem with a flick of your fingers." @Email:arizvi@thenational.ae