This article was produced by SportBusiness International working in association with Falcon and Associates, a strategic advisory company working on behalf of the Dubai leadership.
DUBAI HAS BEEN a destination of choice for sport’s leading stars since the early 1970s, when the likes of Pele’s Brazilian football club Santos visited the emirate to hone world-beating skills.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Dubai’s reputation as a training base is unrivalled in global sport thanks to a state-driven commitment towards sports development and significant investments in state-of-the-art facilities that have expanded the emirate’s appeal worldwide.
Chinese football has taken massive strides in recent years, with its elite Super League (CSL) attracting top playing talent from around the world as well as domestic media companies. On the field the league is more professional and competitive than ever before, with clubs looking to hit the ground running in the new season. For champion Guangzhou Evergrande and six other CSL teams, that meant a pre-season training and team-bonding visit to Dubai to take advantage of sunshine and world-class facilities. Other visitors from the CSL include Beijing Guoan and Hangzhou Greentown, while China’s national football team has also visited.
The influx of teams from China underscored Dubai’s growing global reputation as a go-to destination for training and athlete development across football and a broad spectrum of other sports, from cycling and cricket to rugby and athletics. It is also a reflection of the close and growing sporting and trade links between China and the United Arab Emirates, and of the emirate’s strategic approach to the development of its domestic sports industry as a key part of the continuing diversification of its economy.
Dubai’s reputation as a sports destination has not happened by accident. It is the result of a carefully devised and implemented strategy that recognises not only the commercial and social impact of sport on a nation, but on the way it is perceived on the global stage. In a country where table tennis is phenomenally popular, Dubai’s sponsorship of the Chinese national team may come to be seen as a masterstroke. It has certainly generated massive media coverage and helped cement Dubai in the Chinese consciousness and underscored its reputation for smart thinking around sport.
The appeal of Dubai as a sports training destination has become truly global. For visiting clubs and sports organisations, Dubai’s holistic approach to welcoming touring teams is a huge benefit, with the emirate enjoying a track record of arranging all aspects of trips, from identifying first-class hotels and attractions through to choosing from the numerous flight options.
While it has long been a landing point for European football clubs, golfers and tennis players eager to grasp the benefits of a benign climate and excellent facilities, they are not alone.
A number of notable English Premiership Rugby teams have trained at Dubai Sports City, with famous athletes such as Formula One star Fernando Alonso, footballers Frédéric Kanouté and Michel Salgado all have a base in Dubai and frequently use its facilities.
Dubai’s smart approach to marketing is illustrated by a relationship with golf’s European Tour, whose players embark on a season-long ‘Race to Dubai’, where the campaign finale is hosted. It is a strategy that keeps Dubai and its role as a world-class golf destination front-of-mind through the season and a similar approach has been applied in squash with the PSA Dubai World Series Finals as well as badminton. Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex will host the BWF Superseries Finals until 2017 and its sponsorship of badminton’s ‘Destination Dubai’ rankings are a reminder of the host city’s role.
With the support of the Dubai Sports Council and its secretary general, H.E. Saeed Hareb, sport plays a central role in the life of Dubai’s 2.47 million inhabitants and its economy. A recent Deloitte report entitled ‘The economic impact of sport in Dubai’ concluded that sport was responsible for annual gross expenditure of $1.763bn (€1.56bn) and produced an economic impact of $670m. While much of that is driven by its established schedule of global events, Deloitte’s experts believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between sports and the overall growth of the Dubai economy, which is forecast to expand by an average of three per cent per year from 2019 to 2030. Developing its reputation and capabilities to provide a training base for teams and athletes from all over the world is highlighted as an area for further development.
Donal Kilalea, the chief executive of Promoseven Sports Marketing, is a veteran of the Dubai sports scene and attributed the emirate’s success to “entrepreneurial spirit, facilities and ambition.”
He said: “It was realised early on that you couldn’t build a sports sector just by hosting local events and Dubai has proved very good at marketing itself and the international events which are staged here. People now know Dubai, what it stands for and what it offers.”
Cycling is among the sports that Kilalea is immersed in and he pointed to a renaissance in the sport at all levels. Facilitated by state investment in a masterplan that will deliver 900km of cycle paths across the emirate and inspired by the Dubai Tour, which regularly attracts many of the world’s leading riders as they embark on a new season, Dubai residents are warming to the sport. Nearly 2,000 cyclists took part in the last mass-participation Spinneys 92 Challenge and, according to Kilalea, the interest has led to the development of a new cycle retail and servicing sector. Cycling has rocketed up the Dubai sports agenda and that is reflected in the number of international cyclists now choosing it as a training base.
Ahead of this year’s Dubai Tour, the Cycling Weekly magazine reported: “For riders looking to ease themselves back into racing, the Dubai Tour offers everything they could want: warm weather (the average temperature in the city during February is 25 degrees Celsius), terrain that isn’t too challenging, nice hotels and straightforward infrastructure with each stage starting from the Dubai International Marine Club. These favourable circumstances attracted plenty of big names from the 10 World Tour teams that were invited to the race.”
Among the jewels in Dubai’s sporting crown is the 50m square-foot Sports City, which houses soccer schools, athletics, a rugby park and the Els Club Dubai. Significantly, it has also become a global centre for cricket and is home to the Dubai Cricket Stadium, which continues to host high-profile international matches, as well as the International Cricket Council headquarters and academy. According to Maqbul Dudhia, a former chief executive of the Bangladesh Cricket Board and ICC Committee member who is now general manager for sports and events business at Dubai Sports City, visitor business is growing.
“It has been an incredible winter, particularly for cricket,” he said. “We’ve hosted an international series, the England ‘A’ team has been here to train and play practice games, and the under-19 teams from England, Australia and Pakistan have also been here to practise.” The ICC academy is a particularly powerful magnet for visiting teams. Not only is it equipped with state-of-the-art coaching support equipment and analysis technology, but it offers a range of wickets created using soil from the subcontinent and Australia to replicate bowling and batting conditions around the world. It is not only international teams that take advantage of the facilities. English county teams, including Warwickshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire have also warmed up for the new season in Dubai, with the latter two participating in the Emirates Airline Twenty20 at the start of March.
“Overall, I would say that 30 to 40 per cent of activity around Dubai Sports City is generated by visiting teams and athletes and, at the moment, a lot of that is driven by cricket,” Dudhia added. “We also have rugby teams visiting ahead of the Dubai Sevens Tournament, athletics teams and even Aussie rules.
“It is a side of the business that is developing and a new on-site medical centre is due to open in the next year, along with two buildings offering accommodation with more than 90 rooms. While the professional football clubs tend to prefer to stay in beach-front hotels to allow their players opportunities to unwind, the on-site facilities will provide a different option for student and junior teams.”
Among the top-level football clubs that have taken advantage of the facilities at Dubai Sports City are Everton, Sunderland, Newcastle, West Ham, Bournemouth and Swansea from the English Premier League, as well as teams from other European countries, such as Midtjylland from Denmark, Gothenburg and Malmo from Sweden and Anzhi Makhachkala and Rostov from Russia. “The attractions are clear,” Dudhia said. “Dubai is a destination in itself and its environment lends itself to training. We have developed facilities that allow teams and individuals to get the greatest benefit from their time here. We are working to grow the business.”
Numerous German Bundesliga football clubs, including Borussia Dortmund, use Dubai during their domestic winter breaks. According to Tyler Stellman, head of sport tourism development at the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, visiting teams benefit from their time in Dubai on a number of levels.
“Bayern Munich, AC Milan and many other leading European teams have visited Dubai over the years, and they have all responded enthusiastically to the experience,” Stellman said. “Some book well in advance because they have scheduled mid-season winter breaks, while others make more last-minute arrangements when a gap appears in their hectic fixture schedules.”
While Dubai’s training facilities are the fundamental component of any camp or break, Stellman believes the social and team-building opportunities are also a critical element of the emirate’s sporting appeal. “Although footballers play together, they don’t always get to spend much time together because each has major demands on their time,” he explained. “Coming here gives them that time away from the distractions of the home environment and pressures of fans and media so that they have every opportunity to bond, whether that is relaxing on the beach or playing golf on some of the championship-standard courses. Although it’s one of the few things we can’t promise, we’ve also learned that many teams report an upturn in their results when they return home!”
According to Hareb, Dubai’s appeal goes way beyond 10 months of great sporting weather. “Of course it is sunny all year round and that is ideal for many sports visitors. But Dubai is not only about outdoor sports,” Hareb said. “We have a well-established facility infrastructure and the private and public sectors are investing to build a range of additional new facilities. That means that when it is hot outside, there is no shortage of indoor training options.”
Hareb said that the strategy for developing sport in Dubai and its consequent positioning as a training destination has been based on the magnet of major annual events, including cycling’s Dubai Tour; the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race; the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic; the Dubai Duty Free Championships in tennis; the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens; and many more.
“These are major events with tremendous pulling power and when the players and officials come and experience the sports facilities, the hotels and leisure facilities, they quickly come to appreciate the potential of Dubai. In fact, a number of top tennis players and golfers have set up their bases here,” he said. Roger Federer, arguably the best tennis player of all time, is one star to choose Dubai for such a purpose.
“Sports infrastructure in Dubai continues to grow and we now have over 100 facilities, each of which is always looking not only to fulfil expectations but to improve their offer,” Hareb said. “The strategic development of new sports facilities linked to and by the metro system is continuing, with a new project soon to be announced. That quantity and range of facilities contributes to good availability at the times when visiting teams and athletes want to use them.”
However, he added that there is more to Dubai’s offer than the quality and range of sports facilities.
“Because of our experience in this area there is a reservoir of expertise here to help clubs and athletes make sure that every aspect of their visit works for them, from transportation to accommodation and support services in areas such as sports medicine,” he added.
That combination of facilities, services and lifestyle is a key factor in the decision of top golfers to make Dubai their second professional home.
“Many of the players from the European Tour choose to spend large parts of their season around the events held here to practise and use the world-class facilities at all of the golf clubs in the region,” said Chris May, chief executive of Dubai Golf. “Among the most notable players who have spent significant amounts of time here over recent years are Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson, but it was probably Thomas Bjorn who was the first tour player to live here in Dubai.”
McIlroy has never hidden his fondness for Dubai, where he spends almost two months every year. He once said that the emirate “feels like a home away from home.” The Butch Harmon School of Golf and the European Tour Performance Institute are also based in Dubai.
The period between the DP World Tour Championship and the Desert Swing sees the largest number of tour pros making the most of the great facilities for practice. Most activity takes place at Emirates Golf Club, Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai Creek and the Els Club, where pros are made to feel welcome and are largely able to practise in perfect weather without being bothered. Dubai’s hotels and restaurants are an added attraction, as is the growing network of Emirates Airline, which makes onward travel to the next tournament location fairly easy.
The effectiveness of any training break is determined by the quality of facilities, environment and the lifestyle experience. Former Olympic water polo player Kyriakos Giannopoulos, who is venue director of the Hamdan Sports Complex, believes that Dubai has achieved the right balance. The complex was built as a multi-purpose venue to host the Fina (International Aquatics Federation) World Championships and converts into a 15,000- seat arena that has held international events in badminton, volleyball, basketball, tennis and karate. Dubai has also hosted events like the Fina World Diving Series, while water sports are also hugely popular given the climate. In addition to hosting leading events such as the Louis Vuitton Trophy sailing regatta in 2010, the emirate is a popular training destination for kitesurfing and powerboating athletes.
“Dubai is recognised as a destination for a huge variety of sports and many world championships are being hosted in the city. Now Dubai is offering coaches and athletes from all over the world a destination for training,” Giannopoulos said.
“I see four key reasons why Dubai is such a great destination. First it offers a range of perfect facilities and our winter weather equates with the summer conditions in which so many major world events are held. The range of options available in Dubai also means that teams and athletes can meet their budgets, the transport to and from facilities is easy, and Dubai is very accessible, with flights to and from major cities right around the world.” However, he added that there is another important factor to consider. “Being in Dubai is enjoyable. There is lots of fun to be had,” he said. According to Giannopoulos, the promotion of Dubai as a training destination is part of a virtuous circle.
“While it may start with elite athletes, in time many others will come here as sports tourism develops fully,” he explained. “We believe that in the future this area has a lot to give to the city, not only in terms of income, but also to educate the new generation of the local community in the principles of the sports. We are also optimistic that in the near future athletes from the UAE will perform better and enjoy more success in events worldwide.”
Dubai’s heritage as a training base is well established. However, with brand new projects sprouting up in the emirate to drive sports development, a new generation of ambitious clubs, organisations and stars are set to discover Dubai’s unquestionable qualities.