Saudi Pro League: Attendances rising but provincial clubs struggle to attract new fans

Al Hilal boast spectacular growth in support while regional teams are still experiencing small crowds

Al Hilal have experienced the biggest growth in support, with their home gate tripling this season. Reuters
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The Saudi Pro League announced on Tuesday that overall attendance at games has risen by five per cent compared to the same point last season.

The biggest success story is Al Hilal, who top the charts, tripling their average attendance from 2022/23. The club’s first 10 home games have attracted a whopping 268,419 fans, an average of 26,842 per match, up from an average of 8,490 across the first half last season.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr are second with an average attendance of 20,297, roughly the same as last season, followed by Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad and Al Ahli at 19,870 and 17,544, respectively.

Steven Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq have experienced a 45 per cent growth in attendances following a summer transfer window where they recruited the likes of Jordan Henderson, who has now left the club, Gini Wijnaldum and Moussa Dembele, among others. The Dammam-based club also inaugurated their new stadium earlier this season, moving from the municipal Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium.

At the other end of the spectrum, newly-promoted Al Riyadh stand out as the team with the lowest attendances, brining in just 1,394 fans per game on average.

The fourth team in the capital had not played top-division football since 2005, but have still recorded some of the lowest individual match attendances, with their game against Al Okhdood being watched by only 133 fans, while their game against Al Khaleej brought in just 144.

Despite struggles at the lower end, the league continues to attract large crowds for its marquee fixtures, including city derbies in Riyadh and Jeddah as well as clashes between the four Public Investment Fund owned clubs.

A video published by the SPL showcasing the top 10 most watched matches of the 2023/24 season so far reveals that four matches have had an attendance north of 50,000 fans, including the Jeddah derby between Al Ittihad and Al Ahli, which was watched by 55,764 supporters at King Abdullah Sports City, and the Riyadh derby between Al Hilal and Al Nassr, which drew 50,561 fans to King Fahd International Stadium.

With Saudi Arabia looking to develop its domestic competition into one of the top 10 leagues in the world by 2030, attendances and stadium infrastructure have been two of the most pressing issues.

A prevalent culture of supporting the traditional top-four clubs comes at the expense of support for provincial clubs, with fans across the kingdom identifying more with Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli, than their regional representatives.

A geographical breakdown published by the league shows clubs from the south of the kingdom are struggling to attract fans.

The southern regions of Asir and Najran, home to Abha, Damac and Al Okhdood, have averaged 3,255 fans per match, while the corresponding figure in the Eastern region, home to Al Ettifaq, Al Fateh and Al Khaleej, is double that at just over 7,000 fans per game.

In the eastern region, one of the challenges also centres around the popularity of other sports. Al Khaleej for example, have averaged under 4,000 fans per match, placing them 13th in the 18-team league, but the club’s handball team, currently the reigning Asian champions, enjoy widespread support in their hometown of Saihat and across the eastern region, often dwarfing that of their football team.

The kingdom is preparing to host a raft of international events, including the AFC Asian Cup 2027 and potentially the Fifa World Cup 2034, and while that is creating a buzz around the nation's football ecosystem, it also means that a lot of the stadiums planned to be used as host venues or training facilities will need to undergo significant renovation work.

A prime example is Saudi Arabia’s largest stadium, the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, which has already been closed off for a complete overhaul that is expected to take more than two years to have it ready for the Asian Cup, meaning 50,000 crowds in the capital will not be seen again in the next two seasons, with the next biggest stadium in Riyadh seating only 25,000. Once the renovation work is complete, the stadium will have a capacity upwards of 75,000.

With those challenges likely to affect the attendance numbers of the league negatively, it will be in the provinces and smaller clubs where the SPL can make gains as it pursues its objectives of becoming one of the top leagues in the world. The derbies in Asir, Qassim and the Eastern Province have the potential to become important domestic attractions and a shift in the fan culture towards supporting those teams will be crucial to realising the SPL's ambitions.

Updated: February 15, 2024, 9:16 AM