INSIDE STORY: Battling empty seats in AGL

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Al Ahli playing to a backdrop of empty seats.

The Arabian Gulf League is rightly proud about its development. Its 14 professional clubs have provided a UAE team which finished third in January’s Asian Cup, a fearsome talent pool of cleverly-recruited foreign stars is the envy of all but the Chinese Super League in Asia and AFC Champions League semi-finalists and finalists have come from within its ranks in the last two years.

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Yet there is a key problem which becomes blindingly clear whenever anyone watches the new subscription broadcasts this term. The issue is, who is witnessing this progress? Empty seats have become sadly synonymous with the top-flight. Average attendances were down to 2,529 last season from the record mark of 3,576-mark attained in 2010/11. 

This is an issue the governing body – the Pro League Committee – is acutely aware of. UEFA head of marketing Noel Mooney was invited to Dubai for a two-day AFC Kick Off seminar with marketing and media staff from all teams last month, the Irishman being tasked with imparting experience at growing crowds in football’s traditional heartland.

“The best stuff which happens in Europe, we like to show it,” he said. “Do the owners here have a five or 10-year vision? It’s not a big step to make that happen. The clubs need a common vision and the owners need to meet more regularly and create that for the whole league.

“I would be looking for the clubs to create a plan, for a minimum of five years, which would detail how they are going to get there and who will be responsible for it. I attended two matches in the UAE and the crowds are the missing element, as the football is very good.”

This conference came at a time when the PLC are encouraging greater self-sufficiency within the league.

This summer, broadcasters Abu Dhabi Sports encrypted coverage of the AGL and AG Cup for the first time. The cost with Etisalat is only Dh19 per month, with international games and coverage of other leagues also provided. A desire to bring more fans into the grounds and boost revenue through TV rights was a main driver.

PLC chief executive officer Suhail Al Areefi implored the professional clubs to immediately begin implementing Mooney’s suggestion of long-term marketing planning and suggested it could be included in the club licences.

He said: “We were lucky that Mr Mooney and the AFC Development came. We needed to do this workshop to grow our attendances and income for our clubs. We have asked the clubs to give us business plans. We should also include this in our club licences in the future. If they don’t supply this, then I think in the future they could fail.

“It is a big challenge. We had more attendances three years ago as some clubs worked a lot, now all the money isn’t going into marketing – it is being used in other ways.”

Several extravagant schemes have been concocted in the UAE to get people into stadiums. Al Ahli have attempted to increase interest by giving away a pair of brand-new Mercedes-Benz cars at each home league game this term.

Rivals Al Jazira attracted a huge 36,241 crowd to Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium at the end of 2010/11 season when they raffled a Ferrari, with a bumper attendance flocking in for the last match of the 2012/13 campaign when another Ferrari and Dh 1m were given away. 

A more organic approach was enacted for a short time in Sharjah four years ago when they linked up with charities and community campaigners to engage Emirati and expat children in football schools.

Another avenue emerged this summer as the potential for La Liga clubs to come to Dubai this winter for friendly matches against AGL sides was revealed at the signing of a partnership between the two competitions. But for Mooney, long-term planning must underpin such ventures.

He said: “The benefit is only because it gets people into the habit of going to a local stadium. I don’t think there is anything incredibly sustainable to that, but it is good to get that habit and not just watch a game on television.”

There is no lack of star power on show in the Emirates, with the talent spread throughout the division. Ahli’s side which fell to a narrow 1-0 aggregate ACL final defeat last weekend to Guangzhou Evergrande contained Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro, who was coveted by European heavyweights such as AC Milan and Monaco. Now-injured Jazira front man Mirko Vucinic came to the capital in the summer of 2014 on the back of three Serie A title wins at Juventus, Bani Yas’ Mark Milligan is a linchpin in the Australia midfield and Fujairah boast ex-Rangers centre-back Madjid Bougherra.

“Spending money on players and people coming to matches is not super linked,” warned Mooney. “The link isn’t great. Can you sign Lionel Messi? Where does that end? That is not your strategy for people coming to stadiums. The strategy is putting the clubs in a unique position in the minds of the people and communicating that and linking it to the community.”

Inclusion has been an issue at games in the UAE, which remain attended almost-exclusively by Emiratis. For example, posters promoting Ahli’s run in the 2015 ACL were exclusively published in Arabic throughout Dubai.

A huge demographic remains untapped. Out of the country’s estimated 9 million population by World Bank figures, only 1m are natives. Mooney was convinced sound examples can be found elsewhere of rival competitions attracting foreign fans through appropriate scheduling and marketing. 

He said: “There is no reason expats shouldn’t be involved. As a football fan, wherever I go I check on my phone to see where is the next match, is there a football museum etc. I absolutely reject the theory people don’t come to Dubai and do that. But if websites do not work, it isn’t marketed right, game times are changing and you don’t know when they are on, that is a real issue.”

Some clubs are not standing still. Bani Yas, Al Dhafra and Al Wasl are just some of the teams who have invested in much-improved websites this season, with extensive content in English and Arabic. All clubs have significant social media presences. The AGL’s combined Twitter following for all 14 teams is approximately 279,400. Clubs such as Al Ain, Wasl and Ahli also possess verified accounts which are regularly updated.

“Help in marketing is very good, as we can take on the experiences from Borussia Dortmund and the other clubs who have good history,” said Bani Yas media officer Hassan Al Marzouki.

“We need these stories to learn from. We do not have any idea about things on that scale. Bani Yas is a new club, not like Al Ain or Al Wahda. We need to do something special. We cannot just ask the fans to come.”

The final word should go to the players who compete in the UAE’s often-desolate arenas. For this season’s top scorer Sebastian Tagliabue of Al Wahda, weather conditions are of far greater importance to him than attendances.

“No,” the Argentine said when asked about the effect of the quiet stands. “Now the atmosphere is better because now it is becoming a bit more like winter. Before we couldn’t play, because it is too hot.”

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