Shelter Dubai hosted a panel discussion on Sport and Community in the UAE on May 27th. Panelists Frank Gabriel, CEO of Dubai Racing Club, Ravi Bhusari, Co-founder of Duplays and Didier Brun, Publisher of Sport360, discussed the history of sport in the UAE and looked at opportunities for sport entrepreneurs. Bence Hamori, an international sports and business professional, currently the Head of Games at du Telecommunications, moderated the event.
The first Dubai World Cup was held in 1996 on a racetrack surrounded by desert. Frank Gabriel, now CEO of Dubai Racing Club, traveled from America to help manage the event.
“The Maktoum family had a vision, and they had a love for the thoroughbred horse. It was a sport for them and they competed in it,” Mr. Gabriel said. “But they wanted to be on the world stage, and they developed this event on World Cup Night.”
The event was more than a horse race: it was an opportunity to introduce the world to Dubai.
“Those hundred horsemen, those hundred owners, the multitude of media from around the world, wrote about this place,” Mr. Gabriel said. “Sport brings awareness to the region, and has been the stepping stone for development in finance, banking and other businesses.”
In the sixteen years since the first Dubai World Cup, Dubai global profile in sport and business has grown exponentially.
In 2005, tennis legends Roger Federer and Andre Agassi played a match on the Burj Al Arab helipad. In 2009, Abu Dhabi hosted its first F1 race at the Yas Marina Circuit. In 2010, the Nad al Sheba racecourse – where Mr. Gabriel had to stand on the roof to watch the races – was replaced by the luxurious Meydan facilities. The Dubai World Cup is now the world’s richest race.
While governments in the UAE have invested heavily in international sporting events, entrepreneurs are developing sporting initiatives from the grassroots level.
Ravi Bhusari founded Duplays in response to a need that he saw for recreational sports leagues in Dubai. Duplays has grown exponentially, with over 35,000 active members playing over 15 sports. But there is a limit to what small businesses can do to develop sports leagues in the community.
"Despite continuous developments, you still see a lack of harmonized efforts between federations and grassroot sport initiatives organized on an ad hoc basis," Bence Hamori said. "A more comprehensive approach would lead to a more effective way of combating health issues such as high obesity and diabetes in the UAE. And on the elite level, it would further assist local athletes’ preparations for prestigious international competitions, such as the Olympics.”
“Businesses do not have the stomach to look 5, 10, 15 years in the future,” Mr. Bhusari said. “An organization with budgets coming from the government would have the stomach to not make money right away and to build and develop a long-term program.”
The impact of such programs can be seen in the popularity of youth sports in other countries.
“A high school football game on a Friday night [in Chicago] is fantastic,” Mr. Gabriel remembered. “There could be 5,000 people watching a game like that. But it takes a long time to develop. The quickest thing to get is the big event. But that middle section is very hard to initiate.”
“There is a momentum in sports,” said Didier Brun, publisher of Sport360, the daily sports-only newspaper. “We see more people doing sports than 4 or 5 years ago. Every year, sporting events are attracting more and more people. There is real potential for sport entrepreneurs.”
“Cycling barely existed five years ago. Now, cycling is big. The government is building 50K of cycling lanes between Arabian Ranches and Bab al Shams and have made a commitment to develop 900K of cycling lanes between now and 2020,” Mr. Brun said.
“There’s a window of opportunity for the government here to build that middle level,” Mr. Gabriel said. “Where all of a sudden, instead of maybe 20 people competing in the Olympics, there are 100 in the Olympics, because they have built a base and they are going to schools and competing.”
Sixteen years ago, Mr. Gabriel was watching the Dubai World Cup races from the roof of the Nad Al Sheba grandstands.
With the right combination of government support and entrepreneurial vision, in sixteen more years he could be watching a high school football game on a Thursday night in Dubai with 5,000 people.
- Mary Ames
Mary Ames is the Educational Programs Manager at Shelter Dubai. You may reach her at email@example.com