x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The football World Cup in the UAE? Don't rule it out

Feature By hosting an increasing number of top-flight international sporting events, the Emirates is steadily positioning itself as a desirable and competitive venue.

By hosting an increasing number of top-flight international sporting events, the Emirates is steadily positioning itself as a desirable and competitive venue.
By hosting an increasing number of top-flight international sporting events, the Emirates is steadily positioning itself as a desirable and competitive venue.

The goal is simple. With the UAE preparing to put on the FIFA Club World Cup, after hosting a series of world-class sporting events, experts are beginning to wonder whether the country is not ready to host the biggest extravaganza of them all.

The prospect of bringing the FIFA World Cup, the most-watched sporting event in the world, to the UAE might still be a glimmer on the horizon for this 38-year-old country. But experts say the heightened international recognition earned through recent major events such as the Etihad Airways Formula One Grand Prix and the Dubai World Championship golf tournament may be bringing that distant dream into focus.

"There is no question that in our lifetime, when either an Olympics or a FIFA World Cup comes to the Middle East, the UAE is probably going do be one of the first destinations in this part of the world to actually host it," said Jamie Cunningham, the managing director of the Professional Sports Group, which is organising the first Arabian Sponsorship Forum in Abu Dhabi on December 14 and 15. "I know Dubai is trying to bid for the 2020 Olympics, and I know that Qatar are trying to go for 2022 FIFA World Cup, but the sleeping giant in that mix is obviously Abu Dhabi," he added. "I do think that in my lifetime we will see an Olympics or a FIFA World Cup here, and those are the two biggest sporting events on the planet."

Some hint that the UAE might be ready for this kind of sporting prime time emerged in a poll released last week by The National and YouGov, the research and consulting organisation. The study of international perception of the UAE found that in the UK, more respondents associated the country with world-class sporting events than with building skyscrapers - 18 and 17 per cent, respectively. Mr Cunningham said such results show that the broader marketing strategy behind hosting events such as the F1 Grand Prix or Dubai World Championship had paid off.

"I think there's no question that Abu Dhabi and Dubai have a marketing plan that involves using world-class sporting events and sponsorships to attract both visitors to the UAE and add gloss to their respective brands," he said. "That not only benefits tourism, but also benefits commerce and well-being here as well." Just how large that benefit is - and whether it offsets the cost of staging major sporting events - is not always easy to measure. Benefits come in many forms, from free media exposure to the meals that tourist fans buy after a long day cheering in the stands.

The Abu Dhabi Government is in the middle of conducting a study on the economic impact on the emirate of hosting the Grand Prix, so, for the moment, the best example in the region comes from Bahrain's hosting of its Grand Prix in 2007. Godo Research and Marketing Consultancy, based in Dubai, found that the race brought in US$548 million (Dh2.01 billion), or almost 7.6 per cent of Bahrain's GDP that year. Each international visitor spent an average of $1,358.44 a day outside the circuit on hotels, shopping, entertainment and food.

But such estimates do not include the indirect financial benefits that the country hosting the event earns through television, which introduces as many as 600 million people to the location that is lucky enough to host the season finale. Leisurecorp, the division of Nakheel that pledged $100m to the European Tour for the right to rename the golf organisation's Order of Merit to the Race to Dubai for the next five years, understands the value of television exposure well.

The company estimated the television audience was 50 million for the Dubai World Championship, the Race to Dubai's final contest. The entire season, which draws great interest as the world's richest golf competition, was broadcast for 1,511 hours, of which 1,400 were live, to more than 50 countries. "All that live coverage, whenever you get on-screen graphics such as leader boards, or a profile that's homed in on, it's the Race to Dubai branding that you see," said a spokesman for Leisurecorp. "So throughout the entire golf season, Dubai as a destination is at the forefront."

The season culminated in a contest for $15m between the 60 top players, and the tournament just happened to be played on a golf course surrounded by a housing development owned by Nakheel. "That was amazing exposure not only for Dubai, but for us as a developer," the spokesman said. "Our main project in Dubai is Jumeirah Golf Estates, so with 50 million people either looking at the golf course or the property behind the golf course, you can see the thinking behind the strategy."

Sponsorship can involve many opportunities beyond getting your brand on television. Leena Kewlani, the planning and activation director for MEC Access - a division of the sport, entertainment and charity sponsorship agency Mediaedge:cia - worked with Sony to use sponsorship in some usual ways for last month's FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Dubai. FIFA rules forbid the display of brands on the flags paraded before the matches, but Sony was able to attach its brand to the whole process of picking the students to carry the flags on live international television.

"When the kids started off, they were like, 'OK, I'm going to carry a flag', but as soon as rehearsal started, they were like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to be on global television'," Ms Kewlani said. "It doesn't give the brand exposure on television, but it gives them an on-the-ground element to go down and engage with people." She is working on a similar sponsorship programme for Sony and the FIFA Club World Cup, which brings together seven club champions from around the world, including Barcelona and the UAE Pro League champion Al Ahli, for a tournament beginning today.

While the FIFA Club World Cup may not draw the audience of an F1 race, it is still a chance to see some of the finest players in the world, and it is clearly considered a part of Abu Dhabi's ongoing "coming out party" to the world. "It's a moment where we will see the world focus on the region, the UAE and the capital, Abu Dhabi," Mohamed Khalfan al Romaithi, the president of the UAE Football Association, said last month. "That was the idea behind bringing this big tournament to Abu Dhabi and why we have worked so hard to present a good file to FIFA."

Whether this will be a chapter in a much larger file one day is still a matter of speculation. But Mr Cunningham had little doubt about the Club World Cup's purpose in Abu Dhabi's long-term development. "It's a stepping stone, in terms of building the credibility of the UAE," he said. "You can't just go and win the FIFA World Cup from nothing. You have to create a track record of excellence." This track record began in 2003 when the country hosted the Under 20 World Cup without a hitch. Just how close to its goal the UAE will come, no one knows.

"With all these global bodies bringing their sport events here, I think that this whole region is becoming a sport hub," Ms Kewlani said, adding that she, too, believed it was only a matter of time before a Gulf nation was awarded the privilege of hosting the FIFA World Cup. "Whether it comes to Abu Dhabi or it comes to Qatar, it's high time that it comes to this region," Ms Kewlani said. "They've invested in the infrastructure. They've broken all preconceptions of who we are. They can pull it off, and they can pull it off with style."