The enigma of Saudi sports fans

The enigma of Saudi sports fans

May 15, 2024

Insights on Saudi Pro League attendance

Impact of International Transfers in the football industry
Impact of International Transfers in the football industry

The Saudi Pro League (SPL) has been a fascinating case study in the dynamics of sports fandom and stadium attendance. International transfers have been a significant draw for fans in the SPL. Clubs that have invested heavily in acquiring top international talent have seen a dramatic rise in fan interest and stadium attendance. This trend underscores the global nature of football, where star players can attract crowds and media attention, boosting the profile of the leagues they join. In contrast, clubs that have not made such investments have experienced a decline in fan interest. This polarization highlights a growing disparity within the league, where the rich clubs, capable of affording big-name players, draw more fans, leaving the less affluent clubs struggling to compete both on the field and in the stands.

Average attendance - international transfers' effect
Average attendance - international transfers' effect

Increase in overall stadium attendance

Recently, the league reported an increase in overall stadium attendance, up by 64,000 year-on-year. This surge is primarily attributed to two factors: a series of high-profile international transfers and an expansion in the number of teams competing in the league. However, despite these positive changes, the league faces several challenges and anomalies in fan engagement and stadium attendance.

SPL stadium attendance - absolute numbers
SPL stadium attendance - absolute numbers

Declining average match attendance

Interestingly, despite the influx of international stars and the expansion of the league, the stadium utilization has decreased by four percentage points, and the average number of fans per match has dropped by 8% to 8,300. This decline could be indicative of several underlying issues such as match scheduling, quality of match day experiences or perhaps other factors. It also suggests that while star players can attract fans, they alone are not enough to sustain long-term interest in the league.

SPL stadium utilization after 23 legs
SPL stadium utilization after 23 legs
"As the Saudi Pro League evolves, it's crucial to supplement the international signings with cultivating a deep-rooted fan culture that spans across all clubs, ensuring the league's growth is both inclusive and sustainable."
Portrait of Alia Sabala
Dubai Office, Middle East

Comparative analysis with global leagues

When compared to top global leagues like the English Premier League (EPL) and challenger leagues like Eredivisie in the Netherlands., the SPL still has considerable room for growth in terms of stadium attendance. The EPL and Eredivisie enjoy consistently high attendance, thanks to its long-standing football culture and dedicated fanbase.

Challenges for less popular clubs

In the SPL, while some clubs enjoy robust fan support, others struggle to fill their stadiums. This disparity poses a significant challenge for the league as it seeks to enhance its appeal and competitive balance. Promoting stadium attendance across all clubs is crucial, but as the history of other emerging leagues like the MLS shows, the initial excitement following big signings or expansions often wanes, leading to a gradual decline in attendance. The SPL can mitigate this risk.

Strategies for Sustainable Growth

To counteract these challenges and promote a more balanced and sustainable growth, the SPL must look beyond mere player transfers. Developing a comprehensive fan engagement strategy that includes improving match-day experiences, fan zones, and community engagement activities could be key. Additionally, marketing efforts including campaigns should be intensified, especially in digital platforms where young fans spend most of their time.

Furthermore, the league could benefit from partnerships with schools and community organizations to foster a deeper connection with the sport at a grassroots level. Establishing youth academies and promoting local talent could also help in building a more dedicated local fanbase.

In conclusion, while the Saudi Pro League has made significant strides by bringing in international talent and expanding its team roster, it faces the complex challenge of not only attracting but also retaining fan interest. The league's success in balancing these aspects will be pivotal in its journey towards becoming one of the top football leagues around the world. As the SPL navigates these waters, it must innovate and adapt, ensuring that the excitement and glamour of the sport are accessible to all fans, regardless of their favorite team's budget or star power.

To enable innovation, it is critical to gather insights from fans and identify emerging trends. Part 2 of our study will leverage our proprietary market research and survey findings to develop tailored recommendations to boost growth and engagement across Saudi football.

Further readings
Portrait of Santiago Castillo
Senior Partner, Managing Partner Middle East
Abu Dhabi Office, Middle East
+971 4 364-5300
Portrait of Eyad Faraj
Manama Office, Middle East
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