Saudi Pro League a force to be reckoned with


The future of the Saudi Pro League Image: King Abdullah Sports City (Jeddah), على المزارقه, CC BY-SA 3.0

There is a clear path for Saudi Arabia to become one of the world’s most popular leagues.

‘Yet Another Sports Newsletter’ stated that there is some cynicism, particularly in Western Europe, around the Saudi Pro League’s growth prospects.

The Saudi Pro League, known as the Roshn Saudi League for sponsorship reasons, is the highest division of association football in the Saudi league system. The first season of competition was the 1976-1977 seasons.

‘Yet Another Sports Newsletter’ further stated that but it’s quite feasible the league becomes one of the most popular in the world in the next few years.

Because the battle for the future generation of fans is not happening in nations like England or France, but across Asia and Africa, where fans outnumber those across the rest of the planet.

Let’s dig into how the Pro League can tap into these huge demographic shifts, and how it plans to win over the new generation of football fans.

Pointed out Peter Hutton, Director, Roshn Saudi League, “I’ve worked in sport for 40 years and I’ve never seen a project as big, ambitious and as determined to be a success.”

Strong Existing Fan Base

Saudi Arabia (unlike, say, China or Qatar) has a strong and longstanding fan culture.

Football is by far the country’s most followed sport, with a reported 80 percent of its 35 million inhabitants either playing or watching the sport.

The national team, the Green Falcons, are the second most successful in the history of the Asian Cup. They’ve qualified for six of the last eight FIFA World Cups™, beating Argentina in the most recent edition. Their U23 side recently won the AFC U23 Asian Cup without conceding a single goal.

The Saudi Arabia national football team represents Saudi Arabia in men’s international football. They are known as Al-Suqour Al-Khodhur (The Green Falcons) in reference to their traditional colors of green and white and represent both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

The AFC Asian Cup is the primary association football competition contested by the senior men’s national teams of the members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), determining the continental champion of Asia. It is the second oldest continental football championship in the world after Copa América (the top men’s football tournament contested among national teams from South America).

Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)-based the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is the governing body of association football, beach soccer and futsal in most countries/territories in Asia. It has 47 members.

Meanwhile, the country’s top four clubs (Al-Nassr FC, Al-Ahli Saudi FC, Al Ittihad Club, and Al Hilal SFC) garnered large and passionate fan bases long before Neymar (Brazilian footballer) or Cristiano Ronaldo (Portuguese footballer) joined the league.

Matches between these teams are generally played in front of full and noisy stadiums, and the clubs’ Arabic social media channels have long since rivaled top European clubs in terms of followers.

Huge Social Media Reach

Even before the influx of international players, clubs like Al Hilal and Al-Nassr have boasted more social media followers than many top European teams. This is largely driven by their population in Arabic-speaking countries.

The League’s Management Team has Extensive Experience with Asian Audience

The people charged with growing the league’s reach and revenues from its existing base all have significant experience working in Asian markets – their Chief Operating Officer (COO), Carlo Nohra, the Commercial Director Maximilian Haschke and the Director Peter Hutton have worked as the Vice-President (VP) for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Asia Pacific, Head of Southeast Asia for FC Bayern Munich (Germany Bundesliga giant) and as the Managing Director of IMG South Asia, respectively.

This is a strong indicator at where the league sees future potential opportunities and growth prospects.

The Battle for the Asian Audience

Countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Nigeria now have far higher numbers of football fans than more mature markets such as the United Kingdom and Italy.

Their populations are also younger, growing more quickly, and more likely to follow football.

Asian Fan Bases Potentially Dwarf those in More Mature European Markets…

In the Asian region, India tops the list with an estimated fan base of 780M, China comes second at 565M, Indonesia 192M, Vietnam 75M, Germany in Europe stands at 43M, Thailand (Asia) 40M, Philippines (Asia) 39M, United Kingdom (Europe) 35M, Saudi Arabia (Asia) 21M, and the United Arab Emirates (Asia) 6M. The European countries Italy, France and Spain have a fan base of 34M, 29M and 28M, respectively.

The Asian audiences are younger and more interested in football compared to the Western European audiences.

A Huge Audience Closer to Home

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region alone has a population of over 600 million people – three times that of Western Europe.

With close cultural, linguistic and geographical ties to many of these countries, there is a huge potential audience for the Saudi Pro League across the region.

In fact, the league could still become one of the most viewed leagues in the world without ever gaining much traction beyond the dozen or so countries that surround it.

Tapping into Changing Models of Fandom

A number of studies have shown that the younger supporters across the world are becoming less monogamous with their choice of clubs, and often follow individual players more than they do clubs.

This particularly applies to fans in Asia or Africa, who don’t have the same geographical or cultural ties to, say, the Premier League club Manchester United F.C. (UK) or the Serie A club AC Milan (Italy).

It’s normal, for example, for a Nigerian fan to support Chelsea F.C. in the Premier League, FC Barcelona in LaLiga (Spain), as well as watching and supporting whomever soccer giant Lionel Messi (Argentine footballer) happens to be playing for.

It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that the Saudi Pro League could become part of that portfolio, especially when you look at its stars -many of whom not just have massive global followings, but are icons in large countries with massive football followings like Algeria (population 46 million) or Brazil (214 million).

Just imagine how the league’s support can grow if it can tempt players like Mohamed Salah (Egyptian footballer), revered across the Muslim world (from Egypt, population 113 million), and Victor Osimhen (Nigerian footballer), a national obsession in Nigeria (population 213 million)!

‘Insta’ Hit

The Saudi Pro League players have over 990 million Instagram followers.

New Content Distribution Models for a New Generation

Young people around the world are watching less and less live sport on traditional linear broadcasts, preferring to watch snippets and highlights on social media.

This is a conundrum for many top sports leagues, because they rely on these linear broadcasts for a large part of their revenue.

The Saudi league, being less commercialized, is less reliant on these revenues and can thus afford to experiment with distribution channels that others might be reluctant to try for fear of cannibalizing their broadcasting cash cow.

Hutton, who headed Media Partnerships at Meta (the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) before joining the Saudi Pro League, spoke at the recent World Football Summit about the league’s plan to use non-traditional distribution models to reach a new generation of fans.

Hutton spoke about using influencers and athletes as distribution channels, alongside more traditional linear TV broadcasters, and about using short-form match content to engage with fans who might not tune in to a full game – he has previously stated that ‘short form can be the main dish as well as the appetizer’.

He referenced the league working with sports tech companies such as Greenfly and WSC, who specialize in live recording and distribution of short-form content.

Santa Monica (US)-based Greenfly is powering the future of fandom by automating the continuous flow of short-form digital media for sports and entertainment organizations. As a mission control for digital media operations, the Greenfly AI-powered software as a service (SaaS) platform provides realtime access to short-form digital media for staff, partners, athletes, and talent. Greenfly automates digital media operations including content capture, collection, automated organization and distribution of digital media for both fan engagement and monetization.

Greenfly is a tool that allows leagues and brands to quickly and automatically collate, tag and share short-form video content Ramat Gan (Israel)-based the WSC Sports Technologies (WSC) is a sports technology company that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to create video highlights for sports broadcasters and media companies. The WSC’s platform analyzes live sports broadcasts, identifies events in the game and creates customized videos.

The WSC helps to automatically tag, personalize and distribute content based on rules.

The Road Ahead

A year ago, the Saudi Pro League was barely visible internationally. Now, it can be viewed in almost every country around the world -including on major platforms like DAZN, Canal+ and FOX Sports.

The league has quickly become one of the most followed across many parts of Africa and Asia, even whilst skepticism remains in many European countries.

Based on comments from the league’s senior management team, it seems that the league sees the broader Asia region as a major growth opportunity, and that they are looking to go beyond the traditional broadcasting model in order to capture the youth market.

Few leagues in the world have the flexibility or funding to pursue these distribution models, or the same potential to reach the growing Asian market. The Saudi Pro League, despite its detractors, is well-positioned to fulfill its goal of becoming a top 10 league – if not higher.

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