RIYADH: In front of a packed King Fahd Stadium, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr played out a Riyadh derby that radiated significance well beyond Saudi Arabia’s capital city on Friday night.
The top-of-the-table Saudi Pro League clash brought together two clubs whose profile is now growing well beyond the Kingdom’s borders.
While Al-Hilal claimed a 3-0 victory that extended their lead at the summit to seven points, this was an opportunity to showcase Saudi football to a wider audience.
The media center brimmed with international representatives sampling the Kingdom’s football culture for the first time and though injured Al-Hilal star Neymar was absent, the home fans created a carnival atmosphere at the King Fahd.
Among those watching in Riyadh was Carlo Nohra, the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer, who since June has been plotting the next steps in the league’s growth.
What began with Cristiano Ronaldo’s marquee signing by Al-Nassr in January evolved into a summer influx of new talent and a host of global broadcast rights deals.
“We said at the very least we needed to go out and distribute the broadcast rights through the world,” Nohra told Arab News at the King Fahd Stadium.
“We couldn’t predict what the appetite would be so the fact that people have both taken and paid for them is testament to the quality of players we’ve brought into the league.
“Did we expect to be here at this stage? No. But the Ronaldo factor has contributed to the acceleration of our journey.”
More eyes are on the league than ever before and Nohra believes the next steps are vital in creating a sustainable, self-sufficient product that is not perennially reliant on investment.
He said: “Over time we know we have to be revenue-generating and move from where we are today with 100 percent dependence on government money to exactly the opposite end, where we are fully independent financially.
“It’s a historic time and such a rare opportunity and great privilege to be here but we know this is a massive project and undertaking and it will take us a long time to achieve those objectives.
“We’ve taken the first early steps. We’re where the J-League was in 1993 and MLS in 1996. It’s a long journey ahead but we definitely still have major aspirations.”
Among those objectives for Nohra — the former CEO of Emirati clubs Al-Jazira and Al-Ain, as well as the UAE Football League — is a desire to revolutionize the relationship between players and fans.
Nohra’s most recent role before the Saudi Pro League was a seven-year stint as vice president and general manager of WWE Asia Pacific and he feels that football can learn a lot from wrestling.
He said: “Stepping out of football and seeing what happens elsewhere was such a valuable experience. It helps you understand that there is a different, and perhaps better, way of doing things.
“Right now, our athletes are not performers, but they should be. We need to better connect them with the fans because there is that great divide between the player and the fan that adores them. WWE is great at this and I hope we can develop a new environment that fosters this.”
It is just one of Nohra’s lofty ambitions for the Saudi Pro League, but more pressing are a series of fundamental infrastructure challenges. Providing a better fan experience is central to Nohra’s manifesto.
“Almost everywhere you turn, there is something that needs to be improved but it is impossible to do everything at the same time,” he said. “At the moment the customer journey for Saudi football needs to be of a much higher quality.
“We are working on the access to the stadium, getting tickets in a more regulated fashion through new platforms. These are some of the pain points right now because what is the point in having a good product on the pitch if people can’t get to the stadium to watch it?”
Despite the teething problems in the Saudi Pro League’s development, the attention given to Friday’s Riyadh derby is indicative of the potential that the division has to capture the imagination of a wider audience.
“Football will always be the real product and it has existed in this country for a long time,” Nohra says.
“We know we can put on good football matches, that’s not the issue. We just want to put on more of these matches that are meaningful for the rest of the world to watch.
“Sometimes we wonder if we should have focused on infrastructure first before the players but there is no question that the presence of these players has triggered the attention and investment to deal with these other areas.
“Bringing the players was key and it’s wonderful to see the interest that we’ve generated.”