How Sheffield United are becoming one of the most talked about Premier League clubs in the Arab-speaking world

The numbers he describes are simply phenomenal.

Thursday, 14th May 2020, 5:01 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th May 2020, 5:15 pm

Over 60,000 followers amassed in the space of a few months and a video, designed to mark the start of Ramadan, now being viewed more times than a lunchtime news bulletin since being published three weeks ago.

But Abdullah Alghamdi, who helped dream up the concept of Sheffield United’s Arabic Twitter account, believes this is only the start. Because those responsible for running the project, he reveals, are busy exploring how to spread the club’s message in a variety of other languages.

“We’ve clearly already started in the Arab world and Turkey as well. We’re planning to go into two more areas - Spanish and Chinese - but clearly this has been delayed due to the Covid-19 situation.”

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United made their first serious pitch to the Arab speaking world in September, reaching out to its 420m members with a simple graphic. Countless tweets, hashtags and clips later, including the hugely popular one of midfielder Mo Besic speaking about the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, what started out as something relatively simple has grown into a sophisticated operation - introducing Chris Wilder’s side to a range of different audiences with their own cultural sensibilities.

Naturally, given the opportunities Premier League status has provided, United have financial reasons for reaching out. But behind the business, there are human factors too. Owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is a member of Saudi Arabia’s extended royal family and, Alghamdi explains, the story of how a team managed and captained by lifelong supporters has risen through the divisions in double-quick time is one worth telling.

“We believe this period is one of great success for Sheffield United, driven by the very strong results Chris and his players have been achieving for four years and counting,” he says. “This in itself presents a great opportunity for us to capitalise on that, and deliver on our strategy of growing our fan base beyond the UK by introducing more football fans around the world to the exciting heritage of Sheffield United.

“In doing so, we noted that, as in the UK, football fans like to follow and engage with the teams they support on social media and in their local languages. Stemming from our desire to deliver the best fan experience to our supporters around the world, it was clear that a Blades account in a local language would help us achieve that.”

Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, is home to a number of new Sheffield United followers: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

“The Arab world has a combined population of around 422m inhabitants,” Alghamdi continued. “Our reach is very good in Saudi, Egypt and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE) which covers in total around 200m people. The plan is to reach North Africa using different content and platforms.”

The message is clearly resonating with an audience which, drilling deep into the figures to support his argument, Alghamdi describes as having an insatiable appetite for English football.

“Saudi fans, for example, always have one, two or three international teams they follow,” he says. “Those mainly come from the UK, Spain and Italy. Based on Twitter interactions, I can claim that Sheffield United is now becoming one of the top five international clubs to follow and engage with in Saudi.

“During match days, on Twitter we now compete with Liverpool, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs based on interaction volume. Sometimes we achieve 10 times the reach that other teams do.

Sheffield United's Abdullah Alghamdi believes the story behind Chris Wilder's team and the club as a whole is one worth telling

“For example, we issued a Ramadan video at the start of Ramadan which was watched 1.2m times in 72 hours. No other Arabic account for an international club reached close to this number during April.

“We have a very strong social media team in Sheffield which continues to deliver a great volume of quality and creative content that can be translated and localised to every market.”

Based in Switzerland and a trusted confidant of Prince Abdullah, Alghamdi is a veteran of numerous high profile marketing campaigns having previously worked for the Saudi Olympic Committee and also the Olympic Council of Asia, where he dealt with media affairs.

It is that background which convinced him United’s place in football’s history warrants being shouted about, together with the fact their home city is credited with being the cradle of the modern game. Bramall Lane, the oldest stadium on the planet still staging professional football, is where the sport’s first ever tournament and first floodlit match took place. The world’s oldest club and world’s ground are only a short distance away.

Manager Chris Wilder shakes hands with Sheffield United's owner H.R.H. Prince Abdullah: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“It is extremely challenging to start a new social media account in a new region for a newly promoted club,” Alghamdi, a member of United’s board, admits. “Don’t forget, we are not promoting a single star player but the Sheffield United team as a whole and Sheffield United’s history.

“We want our fan base to be loyal to the club and we all enjoy the journey of seeing United getting bigger and better.

“I don’t run the account myself, we have social media specialists in each region to manage them based on Sheffield United brand guidelines and they work closely with our team in Sheffield.”

Many supporters in eastern Europe have adopted United since Wilder’s appointment four years ago, with people from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine reporting how his squad’s journey from the third to the first tier of English football has captured their imagination. Detailing its demographics and its interests, Alghamdi believes the Arab speaking world will prove equally receptive.

“Take Saudi Arabia for example,” he says. “The population is 34m with around 65 per cent of that aged between 15 and 55. Football is considered the number one sport and maybe the number one entertainment for the majority.

“The local league there is very popular in the Arab world and the top four teams’ statistics in terms of followership and engagement is huge. The average attendance for some of the clubs is 40,000 a match and on Twitter, the top four teams have 18m followers.

Sheffield United have climbed from League One to seventh in the Premier League, only five points outside the Champions League places, since Chris Wilder's appointment as manager: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“One the merchandising front, one of the top teams in Saudi sold 300,000 shirts this term and, as Sheffield United, our shirts are already on sale in the three big cities and we are doing well.

“The merchandising project in the GCC is led by another board member, Princess Reem.”

Seventh in the table only a season after being promoted and in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, United had emerged as one of the most talked about sides in the country before coronavirus forced football into lockdown.

“If we want to deliver on our strategy of growing out fan base, especially overseas, then it’s important to have the basics in place to retain those new supporters,” Alghamdi says. “Just like any relationship in life, communication is key to feeding it and growing it.

“Our fans want to be entertained, they want to know what’s happening behind the scenes and they want to hear about new developments. By opening this communication channel with our fans, we make sure this relationship continues to grow stronger. We believe we have started strong in this regard and believe there’s a lot more to come.”

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