Despite big names and lavish advertising, why are the Saudi and Gulf leagues underperforming?

Language and communication are essential when trying to gain popularity worldwide, not just the availability of talent and big names. (AFP)

I am probably not alone when questioning the international success of the Saudi Pro League, and the UAE Arabian Gulf League. Although they are the most recognized leagues in the region, they still lag in comparison to overseas leagues. This is due to several factors, from the level of competition and intensity of the game, to factors that are outside of football, but in this case do.

If one were to do a quick Twitter search, in English, for the Jameel League, not many results are available. On the other hand, a search for the AGL does come up with some results, mostly focused on score updates and the announcement of fixtures. This language barrier is one of the reasons why news and updates of these leagues aren’t spread out worldwide.

Around 6 percent of the earth’s population speak Arabic (420 million people), which leaves the other 94 percent with very little information surrounding these leagues.

Teams from both leagues participate in the AFC Champions League, with Emirati Al Ain reaching the finals last year, and losing by a slight difference against Korean team Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. This competition includes teams from all over Asia and Australia, and success here will add to the continental popularity of the Gulf teams.

Saudi's Al-Ahli club players celebrate after scoring a goal during their AFC Champions League group D football match against Qatar's El-Jaish club at the King Abdullah Spots City in Jeddah on May 3, 2016. Al-Ahli won the match 2-0. (AFP)

Saudi's Al-Ahli club players celebrate after scoring a goal during their AFC Champions League group D football match against Qatar's El-Jaish club at the King Abdullah Spots City in Jeddah on May 3, 2016. Al-Ahli won the match 2-0. (AFP)

Participating in this tournament may be simple enough to do, but the organizers of each league must also aim to further extend their influence to the West as well.

Another reason for this doubt is the level of competition that governs the Saudi and Gulf game. It seems that they are increasingly interested in signing talented strikers, wingers, and forwards, and this leads to a discrepancy in the team’s overall rating.

The defenders aren’t concentrated on as much, and are not as involved as they should be. The modern day defender, whether a center or full back, does more than just defending. They are the base of the attack, pushing the play from the defense to the midfield strategically, and occasionally the finishers, that bring in the goals.

Saudi's Al-Ittihad club fans cheer on their team during their Asian Champions League group A football match against Iran's Sepahan club at the Sultan Qabous stadium in Muscat on May 4, 2016.  MOHAMMED MAHJOUB / AFP

Saudi's Al-Ittihad club fans cheer on their team during their Asian Champions League group A football match against Iran's Sepahan club at the Sultan Qabous stadium in Muscat on May 4, 2016. MOHAMMED MAHJOUB / AFP

This is something that is unfortunately missing from the Gulf game, something that would add to the excitement and appeal of the sport.

Compared to the English Premier league, which recorded an average attendance of 35,000 fans per game, the Jameel league is negligible, with an average of only 6,000 people per game. This is a good audience, and should be very capable of creating the proper atmosphere, but it is not enough to attract people from all over to watch.

England has almost double the population Saudi Arabia has, but EPL’s average attendance is almost 6 times that of Jameel. If these leagues haven’t fully captured the local market, how can they go on to expand to the international level?

Football leagues have to be properly communicated and advertised. League organizers should look to make more profitable relationships, especially with international companies and movements that would want to sponsor a Saudi or Gulf club.

Supporters of Saudi club Al-Hilal cheer during an Asian Champions League group C football match against Emirati club Al-Jazira at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium on March 15, 2016 in Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

Supporters of Saudi club Al-Hilal cheer during an Asian Champions League group C football match against Emirati club Al-Jazira at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium on March 15, 2016 in Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

In return, these companies get further exposure in the region, and it is a win-win situation for all. For example, the EPL used to be called the Barclays Premier League, which is similar to what Jameel Abdul Latif has done with the Saudi Pro League.

The difference is that Barclays has a much wider range of influence, as I’m sure most people in the world would have heard about it before hearing about Jameel. Regardless, it is a good first step in the right direction, but they should make sure they progress to the international stage, instead of stopping at the regional level as they currently do.

Although these ideas aren’t at the top of one’s mind when considering football and the leagues, they do play an important role in expanding the league. Language and communication are essential when trying to gain popularity worldwide, not just the availability of talent and big names, which is also somewhat worthy of criticism at the moment.

Whether it is their aim to expand internationally beats me, but I do believe that this shift to one of the world’s top leagues will not only make everyone a lot more money, but it will also boost the level of competition in the Saudi and Gulf football leagues.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:53 - GMT 06:53
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