When the Saudi Pro League’s rapid growth project began over the summer, sceptics dismissed it as another China, citing the East Asian nation’s unsuccessful experiment from a decade ago when the likes of Carlos Tevez, Oscar and Hulk were recruited from top European teams to transform the Chinese Super League into one of the world’s most exciting domestic competitions.
One of the factors often mentioned as a counterargument to this claim was that, unlike China, Saudi Arabia is profoundly a football nation, boasting Asia’s second-most successful national team with three Asian Cup titles and six World Cup appearances. Clubs from Saudi Arabia have been crowned Asian Champions League winners six times.
Football is the No 1 sport in Saudi Arabia, unlike China where table tennis, basketball and badminton all trump the beautiful game. According to government statistics, 80 per cent of Saudis either play, attend or follow football.
There is no disputing the fact top clubs like Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Nassr and Al Ahli have some of the most passionate fans anywhere in the world, with their matches attracting tens of thousands of supporters to attend matches even before the arrival of superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Those clubs' social media following often rank among the highest in Asia and the Arab world.
But on closer inspection, attendances between the top end of the SPL and the other clubs paint a contrasting picture.
After eight matchweeks of the 2023/24 season, league statistics reveal Al Hilal top the attendance figures with just over 103,000 fans attending their games. At the other end of the spectrum, city rivals Al Shabab were watched by less than 7,000 fans in the same period. Only the top four clubs attracted over 50,000 home fans as of the end of matchweek 8.
A look at the social media followers mirrors those that attend matches at the stadiums with the top four clubs accounting for 94 per cent of the total followers of the 18 SPL clubs. That tally is bettered only by the Turkish Super Lig dominance of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Trabzonspor, who between them garner 96 per cent of the followers of Turkish top-flight teams. In comparison, the top four clubs in Italy and Germany boast 88 per cent and 89 per cent of their country's market share respectively.
A worrying trend for the SPL is that, in the first 10 match weeks, only the opening weekend saw attendances at all games exceed 1,000 spectators. In matchweek 5, only 133 fans turned up to watch Al Riyadh take on fellow promoted club Al Okhdood.
To begin to diagnose the problem, a glance at the number of travelling fans of the top four clubs to any corner of the kingdom shows they continue to enjoy significant support, in most cases outnumbering the home teams they face. A closer look and a pattern emerges, showing that fans in Saudi Arabia’s provincial cities do not identify with their domestic club, but instead choose to support the most successful teams in the country, leaving rivalries like that in the south between Abha and Damac or in the east between Al Khaleej and Al Ettifaq to suffer the consequences of low attendances and little interest from local communities.
The exceptions to that rule can be found in Buraidah, where the local derby between Al Taawoun and Al Raed attracted 8,000 fans. Al Raed boast the highest average attendance outside the top four (8,700) while their Al Taawoun are eighth with 5,800 fans on average. Those numbers pale in comparison to Al Hilal’s average home gate of 27,000 but are still well ahead of Abha’s 1,800 figure.
Big-name signings like Ronaldo, Benzema and Neymar have produced an instant increase in attendances and social media following of their respective clubs, but the likes of Damac and Al Hazem are likely to find it beyond their means to attract that calibre of players. Instead, looking at signing popular players from countries with a passion for football and a significant expatriate population offers an alternative route.
In the most recent census released in June 2023, Saudi Arabia was home to 1.5 million Egyptians, while countries like Syria, Jordan and Indonesia all have hundreds of thousands of citizens living in Saudi Arabia. All are football-mad nations capable of filling a significant portion of the SPL stands and raising the profile of the league in their home countries.
Omar Al Somah arrived at Al Ahli from Kuwait’s Al Qadsia in 2014, leading them to the 2015/16 league title and going on to become the competition’s all-time top scorer. But perhaps his greatest legacy has been the passionate following he created in his native Syria for Al Ahli and the league in general.
While plenty of empirical and anecdotal evidence point towards the recruitment of popular players in other parts of the world as one of the key drivers of attracting fans, this will remain a temporary short-term fix unless clubs take seriously the task of creating a lasting connection with their local communities and building strong brand identities for themselves within Saudi Arabia and beyond the kingdom’s borders.