You probably searched “Why is football flopping in Saudi Arabia?”, then saw this post. Well we’ll anwer your question. Saudi Arabia did some absolutely insane business this year. From Cristiano Ronaldo to Neymar Jr. to Karim Benzema to N’Golo Kante to Sadio Mane and a host of other incredibly experienced stars; too many to mention, in fact.
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After all that money spent on those superstars, one would have expected the league to immediately attract attention from fans both in the country and all over the world. Now, while there has been an increase in viewership in Saudi Arabia after these signings, it’s not exactly at the point one would expect it to be after all that money spent.
These superstars don’t appear to have converted an incredible number of Saudi Arabian to the religion of football. In simple terms, the number of fans coming to the stadiums to watch games has been less than impressive.
Take Al-Ettifaq, for example. Even with Jordan Henderson, Gigi Wijnaldum, Demarai Gray, and Steven Gerrard as a coach, they had just 696 fans in the crowd to watch their game against Al-Riyadh.
Even worse than that, the game between Al-Riyadh and Al Okhdood had just 133 people in the stands. That’s just plain abysmal. A reasonably-publicized Sunday League game in Europe could pull about that number.
The highest numbers they’re able to boast in Saudi Arabia are not even so crazy, to be honest. 16,875 fans were present to watch Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr vs Damac FC while 16,919 were around to watch Al-Ahli vs Al-Wehda.
Honestly, when those millions were being doled out, we’re pretty sure the expectation was for more people to immediately be interested in the sport because of the stars that were coming into the country. But that doesn’t look like it’s currently the case.
So, it begs the question, why is football flopping in Saudi Arabia?
I mean, when you look at what the country is also doing with boxing, UFC, WWE, and the like, it feels different from what’s happening with football. They’re able to fill up the arenas in these different sports, even hosting really distinguished personalities from all over the world, but that’s a far cry from what’s happening with football in the same country.
Why Is Football Flopping In Saudi Arabia?
Well, first of all, football is different from these other sports. UFC, boxing, and WWE don’t happen often. So, it’s much easier to get fans to come out in droves for that one-time event. However, with football, fans have to be dedicated to the sport; they have to really love it and make it a tradition for them to be willing to come out week in, week out to watch games. And well, developing that tradition takes time.
Rome was not built in a day, and football in Saudi Arabia will not be built in one day, either. Or one season, even, no matter how much money is pumped in in two windows.
And building Rome has been made harder for the Saudis due to some natural causes, too. For example, the topology of Saudi Arabia makes it hard for fans to casually travel around for games week after week.
For instance, the biggest rivalry in the country is Al Ittihad vs Al Hilal, and guess what! It’s about 11 hours to go from one of those cities to the other. Now, the truth is that people might actually love the sport in the country, but how many are willing to travel for nearly 24 hours to and fro just to watch these games live?
In contrast, to go from Manchester to London to watch a City vs Arsenal game or a United vs Chelsea game, for example, will take you just 2 hours by train. See how much easier it is to be at the stadiums in England and in other parts of Europe?
It’s not as simplistic as saying the Saudi government should just build better transportation systems. Saudi Arabia is mostly desert, so that’s not exactly the easiest thing to execute.
Another reason football is flopping in Saudi Arabia is because viewership is overdependent on the superstar foreign players. For many, coming to the stadium is not about watching your team and trying to spur them to victory, it’s about watching CR7, Neymar, and Benzema play football live.
So, what then happens if these players are unavailable for whatever reason? Attendance will certainly drop.
For example, attendance at Al Hilal games dropped from 15k to 8,500 following Neymar’s long-term injury. And one would expect that it’d remain like that until next year when the Brazilian returns.
And the dependence on these superstar players means that the clubs who can’t afford these players don’t even get a boost in their viewership numbers.
Also, for the number of people watching the sport in the league to increase, the quality of football has to improve. The truth is that there are people in the Middle East who watch the Champions League, La Liga, and the Premier League. Some of these guys enjoy really good football and if they’re not assured of that, they’d rather not go to the stadiums.
Of course, the expectation is that, with better players, the quality of football will improve. But it’s not always that linear. A lot more work has to be done if Saudi Arabia really wants more eyes on their league and more supporters in the stands.
And you know one thing we’re sure of, Saudi Arabia will not stop putting in the work. Already, they have secured the rights to host the 2034 World Cup. The fact that they were the only nation to submit a bid before FIFA’s deadline tells you all you need to know about their eagerness to improve the quality, tradition, and visibility of football in the country.
2034 might seem like a long time out, but that’s just enough time for Saudi Arabia to prepare to welcome fans from all parts of the world and show the world what they have been cooking in their country for the last decade.
So, yeah, football in Saudi Arabia may appear to be flopping right now, but if the government and the league continue to do the right things and make the right moves, this could just be the start of a very lovely story.
But in your opinion, how long would it take the Saudi Pro League to get to the standard of the Premier League or La Liga? 20 years? 50 years? 100 years? Or an eternity maybe?
Tell us what you think in the comments.