The increasingly uneasy relationship between TV revenues and matchday experience exists across the world of football. In the English Premier League, clubs are richer than they’ve ever been but escalating ticket costs have alienated supporters. In the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League – or AGL – lucrative TV deals have boosted the quality of the league but attendances have remained low.
Waleed Al Hosani, CEO of the Pro League Committee (PLC), is aiming to change that.
In 2017, the PLC launched an ambitious four-year plan, geared towards making clubs more professional, and more accountable to their supporters.
“When the Pro League Committee was founded in 2007 they had a main objective – to improve the league’s reputation, to put it on the map,” Al Hosani tells Sport Industry Insider. “Now we have strong teams that are competing in the biggest competition in Asia, the AFC Champions League.”
IMPROVING AGL FAN EXPERIENCE
Infrastructure and engagement are central to the PLC’s plans for improving football in the UAE. Easier access to tickets, better facilities at stadiums and more interaction with community groups are just a selection of PLC’s key aims for clubs.
“We launched a new online ticketing system and we have started to do more promotion, more activations, around the matches,” Al Hosani explains. “We have carried out CSR initiatives with hospitals, schools, charities. People are now realising what the PLC is doing to open the doors to fans and to the community.”
The PLC is attempting to lead by example. For many years, the professional clubs of the UAE have been run more like amateur outfits, with a lack of expertise manifesting itself in poor experiences for supporters, who have had to endure – among other things – shoddy stadiums, limited WiFi and poor communication.
Now, PLC is providing training and advice with a view to improving the talent pool working in UAE football through workshops, meetings and specialised courses in different areas such as sports administration, marketing, media, events, facilities and infrastructure.
BETTER PEOPLE BREED BETTER CLUBS
“Education is absolutely vital,” Al Hosani says. “Traditionally, most of the people who were working at the clubs were volunteers, which is not good enough for a professional football league. Now we want to see more permanent, skilled people who are well equipped for certain positions.
“We are running specialised workshops to enhance the skills of those who work at the clubs. It’s about setting up systems to make people and clubs more accountable.
“We have raised the criteria for becoming a professional club and if you don’t fulfil the requirements, you will not be licensed to play in the AGL. We will continue to raise these standards year by year until we get to the stage where everyone working understands how to manage their club at a high level.”
But with money being diverted towards infrastructure, youth academies, marketing and personnel, is there not a risk that the quality of the players will decline?
“We have done our benchmark studies and have realised that we are spending two or three times as much as the [Japanese] J-League and the Saudi Pro League on our squads,” Al Hosani explains. “While this may seem concerning, it gives an indication that if we reduce that spending by half, it should not adversely affect the standard.
“We need to get the balance between having good quality teams and players but redirect how we spend our money on what we call a ‘good cost’ – something that will have value in the future. The marketing of the clubs, the community engagement, CSR initiatives.”
One club leading the way with its approach to engagement is Al Ain. Al Hosani believes there is much to admire about the way The Boss operates.
“Al Ain have the biggest fanbase in the UAE for a reason. Yes, they are the only club in the city but they still make sure that everyone in the city wants to support Al Ain.
📽 للمرة الرابعة في عصر الاحتراف .. نادي العــين بطلا ل #دوري_الخليج_العربي
— Arabian Gulf League (@AGLeague) April 22, 2018
“Our clubs are now getting better at supporting many events and working with many entities. The players do autograph sessions at schools, they go to hospitals to visit patients. If you are not approaching the people, the people will not come.”
AGL BALANCING ACT
Despite his desire to focus on the fans on the ground, Al Hosani recognises that TV revenues continue to play a crucial role in the sustainability of the Arabian Gulf League. For him, it is a balancing act between pleasing the existing TV viewers – estimated to be up to 9 million – and encouraging more fans to attend the matches.
“One of the AGL’s main strengths is our high TV exposure. This ensures our sponsors receive great value and maintaining a good relationship with these sponsors is extremely important for the league.
“People will of course ask why we are paying so much attention to TV when we want people at the stadiums. But I have 9 million TV viewers for the AGL and I want to enhance their experience.
“Our broadcast quality is at the top level in the region and we are the first league in Asia and the Middle East to have matches broadcast live through VR.
“We want to serve all of our fans, whether watching on TV or watching live.”
It remains to be seen whether the PLC will achieve their lofty aims. Many have tried and failed to widen the appeal of the Arabian Gulf League in recent years, but Al Hosani is confident that PLC’s new strategy will finally spark a transformation.
“Once we launched the four-year plan, we promised our partners, our fans and the media that there would be transparency with the media and fans to monitor our progress. I can assure you that so far all of our projects are on track and we are confident that things will continue to change for the better.”