US- and Aussie-style sports marketing attracting fans to UAE's champion

In football is said that West Asia has great facilities but small crowds and East Asia has the opposite. In Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Phil Anderton is finding out how to resolve the West Asian dilemma of "filling an empty [30,000-red-seat] stadium in the desert".

CEO of Al Jazira FC, winner, for the first time, of the UAE's league and cup double, Anderton talked recently to Ashley Hammond of The Gulf News, of the challenges of managing a football club whose fans demand the same football culture they see in Europe:

Will it take 100 years to achieve full capacity matches like in Europe?

No you can fast-track time frames. I'm not sure football developed very much in 80 years in the UK. It's only within the last 20 years that we've seen significant change. It won't be easy because the population is smaller and I'm not expecting it in the next couple of years but if you set off with the attitude that we weren't successful in the past and so we never will be, you'll get nowhere ... If you look at our home attendances for the past few matches we are getting there. Twenty thousand in the last game, 28,000 before that and 10,000 to an AFC Champions League match, which historically would have only seen a couple of hundred attend. The other important thing is that we're getting a good cross section of Abu Dhabi, all nationalities, women and families.

How are you achieving this?

We looked at who was coming and who wasn't and why. There was a lack of awareness and a range of misconceptions - they thought it was amateur or for Emiratis only. From this we developed a brand position to encourage people interested in football to come to the club. With the transitory nature few felt a connection so we are trying to unite the city through the club with the tag line ‘Pride of Abu Dhabi'. We developed a full marketing plan with advertising and PR as well as going into local schools and communities to try and change perceptions and raise awareness.

We showcased our star players and organised tournaments for the community in our facilities. Once we encouraged people to come to the games and feel part of the club we had to deliver a product. We needed to make sure that we treated people well when they came, with food in a clean well sign-posted stadium and then we needed to put on a good show where football is at the core of other entertainment options - it's more an American model.

Horse racing has more of a spectator subculture here than football, why?

One of the many reasons they get solid crowds, aside from the race, is due to the pick-a-winner lottery. We are looking at similar methods. We already have best-dressed fan contests and kick-for-cash where fans kick into an empty net to win up to Dh50,000. At the last game of the season it will be for a Dh1 million Ferrari, prizes are thanks to our tie-ups with sponsors. Fans are selected to come on to the pitch from numbers on their tickets. We're also creating vouchers for local caf├ęs and restaurants to hand out, if customers take that to an Al Jazira match they can get it stamped for money back off their next purchase and we refund the retailer.

Is it sustainable to drive attendances with giveaways?

It's about trial and getting people, who would not normally get the chance, to sample and experience your product. Having worked in marketing with Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Scottish Rugby, Heart of Midlothian and the ATP I've discovered various methods of product drive. I'm not saying everyone who comes once because of some competition will come again, but a certain percentage will ...

So you are using the American sports marketing/entertainment model?

Frankly the English model of just putting a game on hasn't worked. The reason people drive 500km from Carlisle to Plymouth in the pouring rain on a Tuesday night in the UK is because going to the game is a tradition passed down through families, from father to son. They don't have that over here. We've adopted an American or Australian model because people at LA Galaxy or Perth Glory didn't have a football culture either but they still get a crowd ...

Full interview here.