The UAE is on the verge of being second only to the US in its number of foreign investors owning EPL clubs.
Abu Dhabi's premier league ties grow
The romance between Abu Dhabi and the English Premier League (EPL), which began last summer with the purchase of Manchester City Football Club, has grown into a burgeoning relationship, offering unprecedented branding opportunities to the emirate. Already the UAE is on the verge of being second only to the US in its number of foreign investors owning EPL clubs should Sulaiman al Fahim's bid for Portsmouth FC go through. Just as important, Abu Dhabi TV recently became the first free-to-air broadcaster in the region to win the highly sought-after broadcast rights for the league.
"It's unprecedented in my experience," said Tim Crow, the chief executive of Synergy Sponsorship in London. "I don't know to what extent the various people involved work together, but one can imagine that they do, and if they do, then value can be created, because there are definite synergies to be extracted from that." One of the most obvious beneficiaries from Abu Dhabi's overlapping involvements in the EPL is Etihad Airways, which became Manchester City's shirt sponsor in May, in addition to continuing its sponsorship of Chelsea.
Last month, Manchester City, which is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, announced that it would make Abu Dhabi its second home, playing a friendly in the capital and training at a facility at Emirates Palace in the winter. "The Etihad sponsorship of Manchester City will create efficiencies for the club in terms of bringing the team to the UAE on a more regular basis, both for promotional and training purposes," said Mark Warne, the strategy director for MEC Access, a sport, entertainment and charity sponsorship agency in Dubai.
"Etihad is also the official airline for Chelsea, so EPL teams is familiar territory for them. It's conceivable that they may take the same opportunity for Portsmouth FC, but that depends on the business and marketing value of the team for Etihad." He noted that Etihad already had a substantial sport sponsorship portfolio, including investment in Formula One at both the Grand Prix and Ferrari team levels, but if it did choose to become a future Portsmouth shirt sponsor it would be making history,
"They'd be only the second brand to feature on two premiership team shirts in the same season, the first being 188BET, who will be on both Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic's shirts in the coming 2009-10 season, so that in itself would see a shift in sponsor approach," he said. Regardless of whether Etihad will choose to capitalise on this kind of overlap, it is already looking forward to the possibilities presented by another one: the potentially greater audiences of Middle-Eastern football fans who will see the matches under the three-year rights deal that Abu Dhabi TV recently won.
Because EPL regional rights rules prohibit broadcasters from putting games on free-to-air satellite, Abu Dhabi TV will have to either show the matches on pay-TV providers, such as Showtime Arabia or the Arab Radio and Television Network (ART), or sub-licence them to terrestrial television. Karim Sarkis, the executive director of broadcast for Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), which owns Abu Dhabi TV and The National, said some sub-licensing to terrestrial television was likely.
"In the Gulf, it's important for us to have our own branded channel, but in Egypt it's debatable whether we'd make more money by sub-licensing the content to the terrestrial channel," he said. "In North Africa, we would definitely make more money by just sub-licensing, because ART and Showtime are not particularly big in North Africa." The idea of more people being able to see the EPL is music to the ears of Etihad's chief commercial officer, Peter Baumgartner.
"With the increasing importance of the EPL in the region and specifically UAE and Abu Dhabi - which was one of the contributing factors to our decision to sponsor MCFC - it's encouraging to see that the media engagement is coming through as well," he said. "The more the 'ball gets rolling' - consumer interest leads to local sponsorships which leads to higher media interests which results in even higher consumer interest - the higher the return on a sponsorship investment."
At the same time, Abu Dhabi's ownership ties to EPL teams could bring other benefits to the broadcaster, although they will be relatively modest in the beginning, Mr Warne said. "In terms of the broadcast deal, although there will be an obvious opportunity to create content features tailored to both Manchester City and Portsmouth, and place an emphasis on these games, in reality the fact that ADMC has the rights to the big four teams' (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) matches is the real draw at present until the affinity with the two Abu Dhabi-funded teams is developed," he said.
But the real pay-off from Abu Dhabi's various EPL investments may come from the boost to the emirate's brand. "Abu Dhabi positioned itself as a culture and sports hub," Mr Sarkis said. "This fits the story." firstname.lastname@example.org