Saudi Professional League progresses into its week 12 for the 2022-23 season, we tried to understand the low fan attendance in the stands. Here is Proleaguefootballsaudi’s take on the low turnout of football enthusiasts.
A decade ago, the East Asian nation tried an unsuccessful experiment when players like Carlos Tevez, Oscar, and Hulk were brought in from elite European teams to turn the Chinese Super League into one of the most exciting domestic competitions in the world. This led some to dismiss the Saudi Professional League ‘s rapid growth project, calling it another China.
One of the things that was frequently brought up to refute this assertion was the fact that Saudi Arabia is a deeply football-oriented country, in contrast to China, and that it has three Asian Cup titles and six World Cup appearances under its belt. Six times, Saudi Arabian clubs have won the Asian Champions League.
In contrast to China, where table tennis, basketball, and badminton all outrank football, Saudi Arabia is the country where football is the most popular sport. Statistics from the government indicate that 80% of Saudis either play, watch, or participate in football.
Saudi Professional League: Top teams followings
There’s no denying that elite teams like Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, and Al Ahli have some of the world’s most ardent supporters; even before superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema arrived, tens of thousands of fans would turn out to watch their matches. Those clubs frequently have some of the largest social media followings in Asia and the Arab world.
However, a deeper look reveals a different picture when comparing the attendance of the top teams in the Saudi Professional League to those of the other clubs.
League statistics for the first eight weeks of the 2023–24 season show that Al Hilal leads the league in attendance with slightly over 103,000 spectators. On the other hand, in the same time frame, fewer than 7,000 spectators witnessed the match between city rivals Al Shabab. As of the conclusion of match week 8, only the top four clubs had drawn more than 50,000 home supporters.
The top four clubs account for 94% of all social media followers among the 18 SPL clubs, mirroring the demographic of stadiumgoers who attend games. The only team with a higher percentage of supporters among Turkish top teams is Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Besiktas, and Trabzonspor, who collectively hold 96% of the league’s total. By contrast, the top four clubs in Germany and Italy hold 89% and 89% of their respective national market shares.
Concerningly, during the first ten match weeks of the SPL, the only weekend when attendance at every game topped 1,000 was the opening weekend. Just 133 people attended match week 5 to see Al Riyadh play fellow promoted club Al Okhdood.
Top Four Clubs: Saudi Pro League
A quick look at the number of top four clubs’ traveling supporters to any region of the kingdom reveals they continue to enjoy sizable support, frequently outnumbering the home teams they play. When a pattern is examined more closely, it becomes clear that supporters in Saudi Arabia’s provincial cities do not identify with their home team; rather, they choose to cheer for the nation’s most successful teams, leaving rivalries like those between Abha and Damac in the south and Al Khaleej and Al Ettifaq in the east to suffer from low attendance and little interest from the local community.
There are some exceptions to this rule, such as Buraidah, where 8,000 spectators attended the local derby between Al Taawoun vs Al Raed. With an average attendance of 5,800 fans, Al Taawoun ranks eighth, while Al Raed has the highest average attendance (8,700) among the top four. These figures are still significantly higher than Abha’s 1,800, but they are nothing compared to Al Hilal’s average home gate of 27,000.
The attendance and social media following of big-name signings like Ronaldo, Benzema, and Neymar have immediately increased for their respective clubs; however, players of that caliber are probably beyond the financial means of Damac and Al Hazem. An alternative is to consider signing well-known players from nations where there is a sizable expat community and a strong football culture.
Football Fanbase in Saudi Arabia
1.5 million Egyptians were living in Saudi Arabia according to the most recent census, which was published in June 2023. Hundreds of thousands of people also resided in Saudi Arabia from other countries, including Syria, Jordan, and Indonesia. These are all football-obsessed countries that can pack the SPL and increase awareness of the league back home.
After joining Al Ahli from Kuwait’s Al Qadsia in 2014, Omar Al Somah helped the team win the league in 2015–16 and went on to become the competition’s all-time top scorer. The ardent fan base he built for Al Ahli and the league as a whole in his native Syria, however, may be his greatest contribution.
Even though there is a ton of empirical and anecdotal evidence that suggests one of the main factors drawing in fans is the hiring of well-known players from other countries, this solution will only last temporarily unless clubs take seriously the task of forging strong bonds with their local communities and developing strong brands both inside and outside of Saudi Arabia.