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The players are in place – now Saudi’s Pro League needs fans

If the Pro League is to achieve its commercial ambitions, its clubs need sustained spectator engagement – aka, passionate and loyal fans

A fan watches the Saudi national side take on Mexico in the 2022 World Cup. Thousands of Saudi Arabians visited Qatar for matches Reuters/Ahmed Yosri
A fan watches the Saudi national side take on Mexico in the 2022 World Cup. Thousands of Saudi Arabians visited Qatar for matches

Are you a football fan? If the answer is yes, your love of the game probably began at an early age. A family member may have taken you to a match, bought you a replica shirt, or simply sat you in front of a television for 90 minutes.

From that day on, whether it was Atletico Madrid, Altrincham FC or Al Hilal, that club was “your club”.

For Generation Z (born 1997-2012) and younger children, things are somewhat different. Rather than engaging with a team first, these fans are more likely to engage primarily with a superstar player – think Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. This choice is often determined by the starting 11 they pick when playing FIFA 2023 or Football Manager on their consoles.

All this raises important issues for the people behind Saudi Arabia’s flurry of football investments. Pro League clubs spent $957 million in the summer transfer window, according to Deloitte. This is second only to the English Premier League’s net transfer spend of $1.39 billion. 

There is little doubt that football is Saudi Arabia’s favourite sport. The 59,892 people who watched Al Ittihad vs Al Tai in the league on May 31 – and the hundreds of thousands of Saudi fans who travelled to Qatar for the World Cup last year – are testament to that.

Even so, Saudi Arabians have a complex relationship with football that poses challenges for those charged with building club revenues.

Saudi fans tend to be portfolio consumers. Research has found that they typically support a local club (perhaps Al Nassr) and an international club (such as Juventus), as well as the Saudi national team and another national side (maybe Spain or Italy). This partly explains why the country has played host to Spanish and Italian cup games in recent years

While some Pro League clubs play to large crowds, others struggle to fill more than 20 percent of their stadiums. Shoring up spectator engagement is arguably one of the biggest tasks facing football in Saudi Arabia.

Al Hilal's Ruben Neves challenges Al Ittihad's N'Golo Kante. Both moved to Saudi Arabia from the Premier LeagueReuters/Stringer
Al Hilal’s Ruben Neves challenges Al Ittihad’s N’Golo Kante. Both moved to Saudi Arabia from the Premier League

For many of us, the word “engagement” is inextricably linked to marriage – a commitment to a long-term, loyal relationship. Of course, while some people change their marital partners, very few switch football clubs.

This is why creating points of fan engagement and sustaining this engagement are so important.

The notion of customer lifetime value means that if a fan buys a team shirt every year for 50 years, a flow of financial benefits will accrue to the club. Add that to someone becoming a lifelong season ticket holder, and you can see how important fan engagement is to Saudi football’s commercial ambitions. 

In addition, the adage that it costs five times as much to recruit a customer as it does to keep an existing one is just as applicable to football as it is to any other industrial sector. 

Given that football fans often get engaged at a young age and then don’t switch, Saudi officials need to be thinking about how to attract not only city-dwelling men, but also children, women and people who live in provincial areas.

It remains to be seen whether the kingdom, with its population of just under 40 million, is a market of sufficient volume to warrant the ambitious commercial targets set by Pro League officials and the Saudi government. 

Heroes and icons help in this regard, as does the broadcasting of a league around the world.

The superstar signings are arriving, though once you buy the likes of Ronaldo and Neymar you can find yourself locked into a model of elite talent acquisition for years to come. Perhaps Saudi players may come to the fore, but that still seems some way away.

Al Hilal star signing Neymar is presented to the crowd in the King Fahd International Stadium on August 19Reuters/Ahmed Yosri
Al Hilal star signing Neymar is presented to the crowd in the King Fahd stadium on August 19

As for broadcasting, the commercialisation of Pro League rights in overseas territories has had something of a stuttering start. If the armchair fans of Beijing, Bhubaneswar and Benin City are to be engaged, Saudi rights teams will need to work harder. This includes creating a product that audiences want – and delivering it at times they want it.

For all the money and hype swirling around the Pro League, we are some distance away from its clubs routinely selling out stadiums on match days. 

Like marriage itself, engaging with a team is a serious commitment. The pressure is on clubs and officials to give football fans around the world reasons to fall in love with a Pro League side.

Simon Chadwick is professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in France

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