To lure fans, Al Jazira boss seeks sense of theatre

Food and beverages, big screen displays, commentators and giveaways planned along with more community outreach.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emitrates --- August 16, 2010 --- Phil Anderton is the CEO of the Al Jazira club.  ( Delores Johnson / The National )

ABU DHABI // The new chief executive of Al Jazira Club has outlined his plans to boost attendance at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Phil Anderton, who arrived in the capital to take up the role in January, hopes a combination of ticket giveaways, big screen displays and increased interaction with local communities will invigorate ticket sales.

His ideas will get their first outing tomorrow, when Al Jazira make their first appearance this season against Dubai's Al Nasr Club. Attendance figures have slowly been increasing, with an average of 2,616 fans at last season's matches. That is a 15 per cent rise from the previous year but is still far short of the 42,000-seat capacity of the stadium. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) requires clubs to attract an average of 5,000 fans per match in order to qualify for the AFC Champions League.

Another of Mr Anderton's ideas is to introduce food and beverage stalls. "The football's what it's about, but if you add some elements, it makes it much more exciting," said Mr Anderton, who chaired last year's Barclays ATP World Tour tennis finals in London. "Music, lighting, the use of the great giant screens that we've got, having a commentator who can talk about what's coming up and who the players are - it all gives it much more of a sense of theatre."

Mohammed al Aulaqi, the Emirati founder of the club's Facebook fan page, enjoyed the atmosphere of a capacity crowd at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium during the Fifa Club World Cup last December and welcomed efforts to boost the number of supporters at Al Jazira matches. "It would be really exciting to see more people there, but the question is how to convince people to watch games in the stadium?" the 25-year-old bank manager asked.

"When the Fifa Club World Cup was in Abu Dhabi, it was so amazing to see the fans. The tournament really grabbed a lot of people. I'd like to see that again." Mr al Aulaqi, who grew up in the capital beside the original Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium grounds, was curious to see how things might improve under Mr Anderton's management. "I hope he has good ideas, but I think they'll need some time." The Al Jazira supporter was hesitant about the potential of mass ticket giveaways and a loyalty programme that would give away club merchandise to fans. What intrigued him, however, was a proposal to get Al Jazira players and doctors into classrooms to lecture on nutrition and fitness, as well as the creation of an Al Jazira school football league that would give junior talent the chance to play at the stadium before a crowd of their peers.

Encouraging youngsters is an important element in the club's long-term strategy. Surveys showed that most fans were locals and there was a lack of interest and awareness of the club among non-Arabs. "They weren't really sure what the club is, where it is," Mr Anderton said. "If they were aware of a club being here, they thought it was a club for Emiratis and not a club for non-locals." The club was also criticised for failing to effectively provide visitors with basic information, such as parking availability, directions to the stadium and match dates.

"The club wasn't speaking to people. They didn't know what league we played in, didn't know who the players were," Mr Anderton said. Still, Al Jazira are not only competing against other football clubs for people's attention. "People have the choice of going to the cinema, or Yas Island, or a shopping mall where they can have food and beverages in a nice, clean, air-conditioned place." The only way to fill seats was to deliver an experience of similar quality, he said.

Mr Anderton's ambitions have already won him a reputation as a "radical" from the UAE Football League's chief executive Carlo Nohra, who singled out Al Jazira's management yesterday as an example of a team willing to dig deep to win supporters. "We refer to what Phil is doing as radical because it's quite a distance from the mainstream that we exist in," Mr Nohra said. "The freshness of what Phil is hoping to do will help Al Jazira tremendously, and I hope that other clubs can embrace fresh attitudes to what they can achieve."

For Mr Anderton, the bottom line is about creating emotional connections between the club and potential fans. "Whether you're a local or from Australia or Canada or Germany, this club and this place can be a focal point for people to come together, feel they belong, feel like they're being a part of Abu Dhabi, and they'll see some great football in the process."