This article was produced by SportBusiness International working in association with Falcon
YOU HEAR THEM before you see them. There’s a crackling of air rushing through the lines as the first of a raft of Day-Glo canopies speeds overhead, before decelerating into the gentlest of landings on the 2,000-square-metre grass drop zone reclaimed from the ocean.
For the staff at Skydive Dubai it’s the successful completion of another 120 or so tandem jumps they handle daily. For each novice skydiver it’s an unforgettable, adrenalin-pumping experience to leap from an aircraft over the world-famous Palm Dubai before being steered safely to earth against the backdrop of Dubai’s soaring, sci-fi cityscape.
This is inner-city skydiving and, according to Alan Gayton, director of special projects at Skydive Dubai, it’s the best experience and the best facility the world has to offer.
“Skydive Dubai is like Real Madrid – the top team,” he says. “It’s more than a skydiving centre; it’s a brand that helps to promote Dubai. We like to push the boundaries of what can be achieved and that reflects the mentality of Dubai.”
Skydive Dubai does not only attract tourists from all over the world. It has also established the emirate as a world-class destination and venue for skydiving and air sports competitions, including the FAI World Parachuting Championships Mondial 2012 in Dubai and last year’s multidiscipline FAI World Air Games.
The success is based, Gayton says, on the quality of the facility, the spectacular environment and highly-qualified staff from around the world.
And the combination of innovation and pursuit of quality is not confined to Skydive Dubai. In many respects it runs through the veins of the emirate as its sporting economy expands and diversifies.
So it should come as no surprise that in December next year Dubai will host the first World Future Sports Games, featuring innovation and futuristic technology-based sports competitions.
The World Future Sports Games was unveiled as Dubai announced Future Sports as a new innovation-driven economic sector supported by a new global body, the World Federation of Future Sports, which is based in Dubai. The Games will be held over three days once every two years with the participation of teams from around the world in nine futuristic competitions that employ modern technology and artificial intelligence: driverless car racing, robotic soccer, robotic running competitions, drone racing, manned drone racing, robotics swimming, robotic table tennis, robotic wrestling and a cybathlon competition.
Innovation in sports is considered an important part of building the UAE innovation system and achieving its vision to enhance the advanced status of the UAE in the area at international level.
In keeping with its commitment to innovation and unswerving focus on current trends and future developments, Dubai has already hosted a range of high profile esports competitions and, as the genre grows worldwide, attracting the best competitions and competitors is a priority. Dubai’s location at the crossroads of the world should make it particularly appealing to the massive number of esports players and fans in Asia.
Of course Dubai has become known worldwide as the host of a spectacularly successful Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament, The Dubai World Cup – the world’s richest horserace, its Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships for the ATP and WTA Tours and, of course, the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, which brings golf’s Race to Dubai to its climax.
But as the world of sport changes to embrace new sports and new types of competition, new spectators and media expectations, Dubai’s offering is evolving not simply to keep step but, in many cases, to lead the way.
As Gayton puts it: “People are looking to us to see what’s next.” In under four years the world will be welcomed to Expo 2020 Dubai, a massive six-month global gathering expected to attract 25 million visitors, 70 per cent of whom will be international travellers. As an event it is far bigger than even the Olympic Games and not only will sport play a role, but Expo 2020 will leave a legacy of infrastructure and facilities that is sure to enhance Dubai’s offering and capabilities to the world sports community for many years to come.
As ever in Dubai, the focus is on innovation and bold, fresh thinking. More than ever, that includes using the natural assets of the city and surrounding landscape as venues for sport.
However, as explained by His Excellency Saeed Hareb, Secretary General of Dubai SportsCouncil, which overseas and co-ordinates sports development in the emirate, the willingness to look for new venues does not detract from a commitment to expanding and improving Dubai’s more traditional sports infrastructure and facilities.
“Dubai has a lot of venues, both for specific sports and multi-purpose use,” he says.
“As years have gone by we have been more innovative with the use of them and created hybrids by taking outdoor events indoors and indoor events outdoors. It’s about mixing it up while staying relevant within the market internationally.
“We have been able to use the different desert areas, which we have plenty of. Tough Mudder in December will be held in the grounds of the Hamdan Sports Complex, an Olympic Standard Aquatics Centre, so that, although the event is outdoors, the facilities of the complex will be available to competitors and spectators and will be a sub-part of the event.
“We are also seeing non-sports venues being used alongside sport events. For example, the Desert Warrior Challenge has moved to an area that is rarely used but is right next to The Dubai Mall, which has a range of facilities. The strategy to extend events right across the city is very important for us as is the smart use of existing facilities.”
Dubai is undergoing something of a sports and fitness boom and participation in running and cycling events is growing alongside obstacle course events like Mudder and Warrior.
“We have new venues coming up to accommodate the events we already have as well as new ones,” His Excellency Saeed Hareb adds.
These include the remarkable Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Stadium, which was approved and revealed earlier this year. The 60,000-seat stadium will be fully air conditioned, will have parking spaces for 5,000 cars and is to be built on a cradle-like support above the ground to allow the space below to be used. The new stadium will be surrounded by training and practice facilities.
Another venue nearing completion is a 5,000- seat arena at the Nad Al Sheba Sports Complex which, in addition to providing for basketball, volleyball and other indoor sports, will have conference and exhibition areas and is designed to provide another focal point for local and international sports.
Tourism remains an important element of Dubai’s economy now and in the future and a target of 20 million visitors has been set to be achieved before Dubai hosts the World Expo. Sport has a critical role to play in achieving that target and the city’s wider sporting strategy has been developed with this firmly in mind.
“Dubai is already known for its tourism in general and sports tourism is definitely a focal point,” His Excellency Saeed Hareb adds.
“The events that we anticipate hosting here will play an important part in driving tourism, whether they are new or more traditional sports. Right now extreme sports are huge and we are focused on ensuring that we need to take into consideration how sport is developing and not just cater for the same things. There are many sports, such as basketball in its 3+3 format, which are developing in new ways and we have to be ready for these traditional sports to be hosted in a different manner.
“We have a particular heritage in beach sports as hosts of the Beach Soccer World Cup qualifying rounds from 2007 and the World Cup itself in 2009. We’ve also hosted the Samsung Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup Dubai annually since 2011 and its legacy has been the establishment of our own beach soccer teams and league.
“Beach football is an established annual event and we are looking at ways of bringing more sports events to the beach. Among these is Ironman 70.3, which in January will start with the swimming discipline from Jumeirah Public beach. It’s a prestige event with 35 qualifying places for the World Championships at stake. Dubai is always open to welcoming and helping develop new format sports.”
The focus on finding new ways to make sport accessible, relevant and exciting through the use of Dubai’s natural or non-sports assets is clearly illustrated by plans for 2016 Professional Squash Association World Finals, which will be held in Dubai’s state-of-the-art Dubai Opera house, adjacent to the spectacular Dubai Fountains in the heart of Downtown.
The 2,000-seat Dubai Opera house opened with a performance by Placido Domingo earlier this year and is already being described as one of the finest in the world. Designed to reflect a traditional Arab Dhow and lavishly decorated and finished, the opera boasts not only advanced acoustic and stage management technology, but a retractable and adaptable seating system that makes the building a flexible venue for a range of events beyond music.
“The 2015 event was hosted with a court constructed at the foot of the world’s tallest building and in 2016 we will take it to another iconic venue and to another level,” says Alastair Ruxton, chief operating officer of Falcon and Associates, which works on behalf of the Dubai government to position the emirate to strategic international audiences. “The Opera house will provide a spectacular setting and an amazing experience for the spectators and, importantly, for the players.”
For Mehdi Garidi, coach of the UAE national rowing squad, a different part of Dubai’s upscale urban environment has been identified as providing an ideal location for international sports events which would, he says, not only help promote Dubai internationally, but also bring a new audience and new participant to his sport.
He is working on plans for a City Sprint Regatta, rowed over distances of up to 1,000 metres along the waters of Dubai Marina with its residential block, businesses and Dubai Marina Mall. The City Sprint takes sport to the heart of the city and makes the city itself the stage. High levels of football in the area will ensure a crowd and help introduce spectators – and possibly even new rowers – to the sport.
“We are making progress as a rowing nation, but a City Sprint would be a great first step towards hosting major international events,” Garidi says. “It is about taking the sport to the people and attracting media attention. I hope we will have a regatta at the venue in the next two years.”
While urban locations certainly stir the imagination, Dubai’s established venues continue to play a critical role on the international stage. In October the Hamdan Sports Complex, a multipurpose venue built to host the 2010 FINA World Championships, again staged the Dubai leg of the FINA Airweave World Cup, featuring many of the stars of Rio 2016.
For Ahmed Al-Falasi, president of the UAE Swimming Federation, the event underscored the strength of the relationship that has grown between FINA and the UAE Federation since the bid was won. At the heart of that relationship is the quality of the swimming facilities at the Hamdan Sports Complex.
“When we first bid for a Fina event only perhaps two or three board members of Fina knew of us,” Al-Falasi says.
“But in 2005 we won the bid and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed asked us what we needed. We told him we would like his support and a venue. After that we started to prepare management, coaches and referees, and learnt all the techniques needed to make the event the best in the world. We worked very hard and delivered on our promise, and that made the relationship with the government and Fina very strong.”
The Hamdan Sports Complex, which seats 15,000, can be converted for dry sports and hosted the 2014 and 2015 Badminton World Federation Dubai World Superseries Finals and will also stage the 2016 and 2017 editions. It also hosted the 2015 FIVB Volleyball Men’s U23 World Championship among other events and remains a popular public swimming facility.
There’s a different item of Dubai’s sporting inventory to be seen at the Nad Al Sheba (NAS) Sports Complex, a private club whose state-of-the-art facilities range from indoor sports halls to advanced conditioning and gyms, to indoor and outdoor tennis and padel tennis courts, physio/medical facilities and altitude acclimatisation chambers.
The facility also includes one of the world’s most advanced training complexes for teams and athletes with world-class training pitches accessed directly from a luxurious underground team suite equipped with changing rooms, a manager’s office, meeting rooms, medical and physio facilities.
“We have already had some of the world’s leading football clubs train here and the feedback has been extremely positive,” says NAS Complex director Rob Wadsworth.
“Teams and athletes want privacy and the very best facilities and we offer them just that. We provide the facilities to enable them to train and prepare, be it as a warm weather training camp or in preparation for specific competitions and events. We also have the services to support athlete rehabilitation and injury recovery.
“We are developing a strategy to become established as a truly world-class elite training centre with services and facilities for both athletes and teams. Our USP is that we can provide a training environment and truly world-class facilities in a private secure facility that is based in the beautiful emirate of Dubai.
“We are also here to make a contribution to developing athletes in the UAE and Dubai and work with the National Olympic Committee and other bodies to support the performance of UAE athletes and teams.
“Significantly we are also in the business of hosting events and activities which will inspire people in Dubai. They range from the Nad Al Sheba (NAS) Ramadan Sports Tournament, which features seven sports and attracted more than 3,000 competitors last year, to schools events. We will also be staging a range of events including international sports tournaments and exhibition games in our new indoor arena when that opens.”
The progress made in Dubai’s sporting economy in under two decades is little short of staggering and Donal Kilalea, CEO of sports marketing agency Promoseven, has watched the development of its infrastructure and venues every inch of the way.
“If you look back to 2003-04 the only venues were four football stadiums and that was really it,” he says. “Before that sport had grown organically and in many ways continues to do so.
“Dubai is good at building facilities and making them work. Facilities like the Hamdan Sports Complex stage events that make them viable. Having the facility has helped the growth of other sports.
“Other facilities such as cycling and running tracks have been built and the sports have consequently become more popular. Now there are more than 200km of cycle paths, which mean more events.”
The key, Kilalea reflects, is flexibility and a desire to make things happen.
“Dubai has changed as sport has changed,” he says. “There is such a wonderful infrastructure here that the city itself lends itself to being a venue for many sports. If tomorrow some other sports want to come here, Dubai is flexible enough to accommodate them.”
Kilalea’s words are underscored by Dubai’s deeds and, as attention shifts towards a new era of sport, it is telling that the World Federation of Future Sports has made its home in a city where the future of all sports is at the heart of strategic thinking.