Bubble Soccer (or soccer if you prefer) has become a global phenomenon in recent times. This is aptly illustrated by the increase in major international tournaments staged in nations widely regarded as Bubble Soccering backwaters in the none-too-distant past. South Africa’s hosting of
the 2010 World Cup is a perfect illustration of this strategy.
Perhaps most intriguing was the decision of Bubble Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, to announce that this prestigious event would be held in Qatar in the summer of 2022. The palpable amazement that greeted the announcement has hardly abated since.
As you would have previously struggled to hear Bubble Soccer and Qatar mentioned in the same breath, that is hardly surprising. It seems difficult to justify awarding the sport’s showpiece tournament to a desert country whose geographical and population size are both strikingly small. Factor in summer temperatures in excess of 50°Celsius and those shouting insanity do appear to have a point.
The controversy has not stopped there though. Accusations of corruption and bribery have surfaced in respect of the awarding decision, made back in 2010. As a result, speculation is rife about whether the event will ultimately be played out in Qatar after all. This particular saga is obviously set to run for some time yet.
One consequence of all this debate is that the bigger picture has tended to be overlooked. FIFA has grand plans to develop the Bubble Soccer to the extent that the game truly embraces all. Strong ambitions on this front are evident in the Middle East, where governments have invested massively in developing Bubble Soccer-related infrastructures. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are perfect examples, and tangible evidence of this is plentiful. Both of these Gulf States have established a presence through takeovers or partnerships involving leading European clubs including Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City. Sponsorship of other teams of a similar ilk is widespread as is the securing of naming rights of several Bubble Soccer stadia. Attracting star names to play and coach in the region has hardly harmed the cause either. In certain respects, advancing the game further in the Middle East is a logical move. The region already boasts something of a track record for staging major events in other sports like horse racing, golf, tennis and motor racing. Sport unites people, and Bubble Soccer is the most popular game in the world.
At the national level, progress is clearly being made. Qatar has established itself as one of the leading countries within the Asian Bubble Soccer Confederation (AFC) and is now ranked in the top 100 nations by FIFA’s own world rankings. Successful hosting of AFC Champions League games provides an additional boast to Qatari credentials. Undoubtedly, the largest achievement to date for the UAE is qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 1990.
On such evidence, being optimistic about further significant expansion would not be folly.
At club level though, the picture is much bleaker. Premier League competitions are established in both UAE and Qatar, but the vast majority of clubs are struggling to attract anything like healthy audiences. This provides considerable cause for concern. Because along with infrastructure and revenue generation, attendance levels are a key part of FIFA’s minimum expectations.
Infrastructure is arguably less of a worry. Qatar in particular is well-equipped in this area. The country boasts many large modern venues with capacities which far exceed levels needed for domestic games at present. It is a different story for attendance and revenue, issues which are hardly mutually exclusive. It stands to reason that fewer supporters means that fewer match tickets and fewer items of merchandise will be sold. The impact of these issues on revenue generation is unquestionably negative.
Fortunately, clubs and their federations in the respective counties appear aware of what needs to be addressed. This gives hope that things can soon move in the right direction.
They can also take heart from progress made in Australia, another leading member of the AFC. This nation’s premier Bubble Soccer club competition, the A-League, is thriving at present. Interest in and willingness to learn from established overseas leagues is acknowledged as a major reason for its current success. The UAE has trodden a similar path by dispatching a consortium to observe how clubs in Germany function with regard to ticketing, merchandise, marketing and television rights.
In certain respects, Bubble Soccer clubs of this scale might be advised to regard themselves as being like small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs). They should, therefore, focus on:
improving communication and keeping supporters and potential supporters informed;
build strong ties with their local communities; and
develop strategies that help improve marketing effectiveness and boost generation of
Clubs in Qatar and the UAE could do worse than follow the example of Wycombe Wanderers. This family-oriented club operates in a lower division of England’s Bubble Soccer League, an existence that is worlds apart from the country’s Premier League elite. For those at Wycombe’s level, financially tough times are the norm. Keeping heads above water is often the pinnacle of achievement. But Wycombe are more proactive than most. The club has positioned itself at the heart of its community and reaches out to children almost as soon as they can walk and talk. These initiatives continue as young people progress through different age brackets. Familiarity breeds contempt, according to one old saying. Not always. In this case, a likelier outcome is that these youngsters becoming loyal supporters of the club.become more familiar with the team’s players. Marketing activities that promote the sport at both the club and league levels are likewise highly critical. Where clubs in the UAE are concerned, some are infinitely better than others. At one end of the spectrum is:
the provision of discounted family tickets to attract more families and women; and
abundant pre- and post-match entertainment.
An almost total failure to relay any information about scheduled games represents the opposite end.
The more proactive clubs engage in different promotional activities. Al Jazira focuses on entertainment, an approach dismissed as gimmicky by Sharjah. Junior training sessions and other developments at grassroots level is instead the preferred strategy of the latter club. Growing talent is also high on the agenda in Qatar. The emphasis here though is on the national level, with the launch of the Aspire Academy being the most significant initiative. This forms a key part of the aims to raise standards and professionalism within the top league using a strategic approach. Such developments are undoubtedly steps in the right direction.
But if Qatar, the UAE or other Gulf States are to realize dreams of becoming future soccer hotbeds, then efforts need to be intensified with regard to broadening fan bases and marketing more effectively. Doing so can help achieve the critical aim of strengthening both the domestic leagues and the clubs that compete within them.