x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Emirates' game can clear high hurdles ahead

Henry Birtles, known in equestrian circles as "The Racing Poet", runs HBA, a sports media consultancy based in the United Kingdom specialising in television rights. Here, he talks about the growth of the industry in the UAE and the most comedic Grand National in history.

Henry Birtles, Director at Henry Birtles Associates, a sports TV rights company is also known as 'the racing poet'. Christopher Pike / The National
Henry Birtles, Director at Henry Birtles Associates, a sports TV rights company is also known as 'the racing poet'. Christopher Pike / The National

q. You are well known in racing circles for your poetry. Is horse racing in your blood?

a. My Grandfather owned a very good steeplechaser, Popham Down, in the 1960s. It won the 1963 Scottish Grand National and in 1967 lined up for the Grand National itself. What ensued was to mark him down as one of the most infamous horses, if not the most infamous in the history, of the race. As a loose horse [he had fallen early], Popham Down led the field of over 50 runners until he decided to put the brakes on at the 23rd and run across the face of the smallest fence on the course. The result was the most cataclysmic act of destruction by a horse ever witnessed on a racecourse. All the horses, bar one, crashed into the fence. Jockeys were remounting the wrong horses; it was chaos, mayhem. That one horse was the rank outsider, Foinavon, who was so far back at the time of impact, he managed to dexterously pick his way through the wreckage and go on to win the race at odds of 100/1. The rebuilt fence is now named in his honour. The spoils went to Foinavon but it was Popham Down who, living up to his name, created the path into folklore for Foinavon to take. My grandfather died in 1994 but if there are any connections of Foinavon still around, I think they owe my mother a drink and they should raise it to Popham Down.

q. The UAE has stamped its mark on the global horse racing industry. How can it raise its domestic football game?

a. There needs to be more marketing of local football. What has happened in Saudi Arabia is a good thing - the royal family decreed the Saudi Pro League should be on free TV, which I suppose showed some sensitivity to the fact that not everyone has satellite subscription TV. The attendances of football matches need to be ramped up - perhaps that has to do with the marketing of the game, which has been slightly overlooked on a domestic level because everyone is interested in the [English] Premier League rights and the [Uefa] Champions League rights.

q. How can local football compete with the international game?

a.Because there is such saturation and such a focus on international football, it does devalue the local product. But this whole region is moving so fast - 20 years ago there was nothing. Today, Dubai is becoming a sports capital of the world with the Dubai World Cup, the tennis, the golf, the rugby sevens. Qatar is going to have the {Fifa] World Cup, Abu Dhabi has got the Grand Prix, so all of that could be only good for the future of domestic leagues.

q. Expatriates are staying in the Emirates for longer. Will that build support for local teams?

a. A friend of mine who is a Chelsea fan now lives in Melbourne, after moving to Australia 20 years ago. He now follows the local Australian Rules football team, completely. Now his second interest is Chelsea. Somewhere down the line, that will apply here. It is only because everything else happens so quickly here that you might question why on the domestic front there is less support than there should be - whether that is in the form of attendances, marketing or media interest.