France’s third division significantly outperforms Saudi Pro League’s viewership

On Canal+, a midtable clash in the third division of French football had six times the viewers of one of the Saudi Pro League’s most prestigious fixtures according to L’Équipe

On the 1st of March as FC Rouen lined up against Sochaux-Montbéliard in the Championnat National, Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad were playing a top-of-the-table battle in Saudi Arabia. It was a game that should have been a demonstration of the vast quality that was procured over the summer. 

Both teams had made major invests in a summer that appeared as if it would define a new direction in the global game (and perhaps it still will), as Kalidou Koulibaly, Yassine Bounou, and Sergej Milinković-Savić collided against Fabinho, N’Golo Kanté, and Romarinho. And yet, only 5000 viewers tuned into the battle at the top to watch Al-Hilal’s 3-1 victory and their continued march to the title. 

In France, the figures have been concerning for a league that boasts the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez and Neymar. And it is a trend that appears to be reflected across the globe as no broadcaster across 130 territories is willing to share the amount of viewers that it has. 

Increases in North Africa and the Middle East for Saudi Pro League

Canal+ when contacted by L’Équipe was no exception and did not wish to provide an assessment of its deal lasting two seasons. However, behind the scenes, the league is allegedly receiving almost no audience to speak of. 

The SPL claimed to the paper that “Obtaining accurate and comprehensive data on television audiences, particularly on a global scale, is a significant challenge. However, this is a recurring topic in our discussions with our partners and we are trying to improve our ability to collect this data.” 

Although it is thought that the league has had a significant increase in audiences across the Middle East and North Africa, which has not been a simple task for the organisation without the backing of the region’s largest broadcaster. 

BeIN sports have had a lukewarm reception to the league, as the Qatari company have been reluctant to support their diplomatic rival’s project. A softening of relations between the two countries has not been enough for the broadcaster to invest in the Saudi Arabian league. Especially with Saudi Arabia looking to match Qatar when they look to host the 2034 World Cup.

‘More competitive than Ligue 1’

On the pitch and off the pitch, Ronaldo has become an ambassador for the competition, having previously stated that the league is “More competitive than Ligue 1.” However, despite his and the other summer recruits’ appeal, the fans have not been filling out the stadiums. 

Only Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal have managed to maintain high attendances, while across the country stadiums are usually only ever filling a third of their stadium, including the reigning champions Al-Ittihad. 

Part of the problem is that the SPL has done little to differentiate itself from the European Leagues, and it is competing therefore in a market with historically established audiences. 

Speaking to L’Équipe, Cyril Linette, the former sports director for Canal+ argues this point, “This league is like the others… [It] should challenge the norms, play the entertainment card to its fullest… A competition like this, which starts from scratch, if it does not create conditions for differentiation, it has no chance of succeeding.” 

As the competition currently stands, it’s hard to see how it can effectively break into the European markets. The attraction of top talent does not seem to be enough for the SPL, and outside of one of the Saudi Arabian teams entering a European competition there seems to be little hope or interest in the league succeeding in catching viewers’ attention from the established and dominant markets.

GFFN | Nick Hartland

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