Saudi Arabia is clearly trying to “buy” its way into soccer and dominate the global scene. With an ambition of making the Saudi Pro League one of the best competitions in the world, the Saudis are looking to put themselves on the map and disrupt the European game.
In the last year, players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Jordan Henderson, and N’Golo Kante have all made the move over to the kingdom, having all agreed contracts reportedly worth over $100 million annually, demonstrating the reason why such players have made the switch to the Middle East.
Whilst they have attracted some incredible talent, which has undoubtedly spurred some attention towards the Saudi Pro League, there is still the issue of low attendance, which is proving to be a big problem for the league in terms of atmosphere and player motivation.
On average, 8,470 fans have attended a Saudi Pro League match this season, with some games accumulating less than 1,000 fans.
On October 22, Jordan Henderson’s Al-Ettifaq lost 1-0 to Al-Riyadh, a match that hosted just 696 supporters. Several other games on the same weekend failed to break the 1,000 mark, including the 532 fans who turned up for Al-Hazm’s 4-3 victory against Al-Raed.
Overall, Karim Benzema’s Al-Ittihad boast the highest average attendance so far this season with 29,044, but numbers are generally struggling across the board. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr are averaging 20,615, lower than the average attendance of English League One clubs Derby County and Bolton Wanderers, who boast 26,329 and 20,935, respectively.
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The pay gap is drastic from the third tier of English soccer in comparison to the Saudi Pro League, but the disparity in attendance is a testament to the popularity of soccer in England and illustrates the way English clubs are able to connect with their fans and create loyalty.
Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq play at the Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd Stadium, which can hold up to 35,000 fans, yet the team has averaged 7,021 so far this season. For comparison, this would rank as the eighth-highest average attendance in the fourth tier of English soccer, much less than what Henderson, the former Liverpool captain, is accustomed to.
Despite the low attendance numbers, there is still an increase of 24% from last season. With the huge investment to bring some of the most famous stars to Saudi Arabia, there was certainly a bigger expectation for fans in stadiums.
DAZN recently confirmed a deal with the Saudi Pro League to provide coverage in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Canada, while Fox Sports acquired the rights for the US.
This is a big step for the Saudi top-flight, which will give more exposure to domestic soccer going forward. The hope is that more eyes will generate more interest and in turn, lead to more fans attending matches.
An engaging crowd is a huge weapon for any club, with players often highlighting the energy and boost they receive from fans. The lack of support in Saudi Arabia is likely to make players feel less motivated to give maximum effort and will consequently have a knock-on effect on the quality of the game.
If the Saudi Pro League wants to keep its talent happy and content, it will need to find solutions to such poor crowd support, as this will only have European players missing home or feeling unmotivated to give their all on the pitch.
The 696 fans that turned up for Al-Etiffaq’s loss is less than some matches taking place in the eighth tier of English football, an unbelievable drop off from the usual standards players like Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum are used to.
On the other hand, Al-Hilal’s opening match of the season accrued 59,600 fans, whilst Al-Nassr average over 20,000 fans a game, proving that fans are not willing to attend matches that do not feature global stars, as there is not enough local support like there is in many European countries.
Low attendance is an issue that even Ronaldo, Neymar, and Karim Benzema are struggling to fix. The quality of players needs to filter through to the rest of the league and not just the main four of Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, and Al-Alhi, as the lesser teams are struggling to engage with fans and entice them to attend matches.
As the Saudi investment in soccer is relatively new, there is the hope that fan engagement strategies will begin to flourish over time, along with the exciting potential of hosting the 2034 FIFA World Cup, which is expected to spark more excitement amongst locals and entice soccer fans from around the world.
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