Dubai tackles rugby challenge

LONDON // At a glittering event in Paris on Tuesday night, Dubai was confirmed as one of the cities that will host the next HSBC World Rugby Sevens series – the culmination of a fierce bidding competition that began last year.

The decision, just a month after the US won the final leg in London of the 2014/15 season, will provide a further boost to the emirate and wider country, where sport has become a major part of the push to showcase the UAE and enhance its brand.

The commercial manager at the organisers, World Rugby, Donal Kilalea says there are big benefits on being included.

“Being part of the World Sevens Series does mean that Dubai is featured internationally,” he says. “The event has grown substantially over the years.”

Another benefit for city hosts is more tangible. The Hong Kong leg of the series last year, for example, generated US$40 million dollars in revenue from international visitors alone, according to The Wall Street Journal.

As the series has expanded, so has the television coverage. Last year, 260 hours of match play from the Emirates-sponsored Dubai leg was broadcast live to 104 countries with the local rights held by OSN, according to World Rugby. Had Dubai’s bid failed, the standalone Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens competition would have gone ahead in December anyway.

Since HSBC became the title sponsor of the world series in 2009, the competition has seen attendance grow to a total of 542,929 last year. It now amasses 5,884 broadcast hours with a global reach of 400 million households, according to the bank.

From this year World Rugby is looking to change the broadcast arrangements.

“Each tournament sells their own broadcast rights and then World Rugby sells rights to the rest of the world,” says Avan Lee, the general manager of the rugby sevens circuit at World Rugby, formerly the International Rugby Board.

“In theory someone could buy rights to the whole tournament but that’s unlikely as we want more control and that wouldn’t give us that.

“We are looking to sell more rights centrally, but will work closely with the hosts. Currently there is a lot of pay TV but we’d like to have more free-to-air,” Mr Lee says.

Details on the TV deals are expected in August as World Rugby looks to grow both the size of the circuit and the number of viewers.

A sign of the prestige that hosting the event brings, some 25 countries were vying for places on this year’s circuit and bids were submitted in June last year. The series that started in October 2014 had featured nine tournament venues. World Rugby wants to upgrade the size and profile of the tour and the forthcoming season will feature 10 events with the opener in Dubai on December 4 and 5, repeating its slot in the 2014 series.

“Rugby sevens is experiencing record attendance, broadcast and commercial growth and is rapidly becoming a major driver of revenue for World Rugby to reinvest in the game,” says the World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper.

“This schedule represents an exciting combination for World Rugby and one which we think will enable the sport to reach developing rugby markets.”

Mr Lee says Dubai will provide a perfect springboard for World Rugby’s growing ambitions.

“Dubai has been outstanding in every sense,” he says.

“We want to lift the standard. There are some tournaments that have been outstanding commercially and it’s difficult to imagine those events not going forward.”

One of the criteria that World Rugby were looking for in hosts for the 2015/16 circuit included having a 25,000-seat stadium. It is a mark of the progress UAE sport has made when one considers that at the first Dubai rugby sevens in 1970, there were no seats at all. The tournament was put on by British expatriates from the Dubai Exiles rugby club, watched only by a handful of fans on the touchline who witnessed the British army’s Staffordshire Regiment become the inaugural Dubai Rugby Sevens Champions.

The event began to take off in 1988, when Emirates joined as sponsors and by 1996 Dubai was hosting a qualifying round of the World Cup Sevens. When the World Sevens circuit began three years later, Dubai was included from the outset and has stayed involved. For the 2008 leg, thousands of fans flocked to the new purpose-built 50,000-seat Sevens Stadium venue on Al Ain Road.

Among new cities hosting a leg for the next series is Cape Town, the only African event, which takes place the week after the Dubai opener.

Jurie Roux, the chief executive of the South African Rugby Union (Saru), says there had been huge interest from supporters and corporate South Africa since the announcement in March that Cape Town was in the running to host a leg of the series.

“The excitement started to build immediately,” he says. “There has been huge interest from supporters in the Mother City [Cape Town] as well as from fans from elsewhere and we are expecting a major influx of rugby supporters from outside the Western Cape and also from overseas.

Garreth Bloor, Cape Town city’s mayoral committee member for tourism, events and economic development, says the date of the event is significant.

“Cape Town is ready to roll out the red carpet and welcome the players and fans from across the world,” he says. “Cape Town literally has something for everyone on every budget at that time of the year. The Cape Town Sevens will complement a vibrant time in the city with so much going on, such as open-air entertainment, food and wine festivals and our fabulous natural attractions.”

Saru says tickets for the event will go on sale next month, through Computicket outlets. Details of prices will be released at a ticket launch in due course, it says.

Among countries to lose out this year is Japan, with Singapore winning a place on the circuit as one of two Asian hosts along with Hong Kong. A proposal from the series winners Fiji was snubbed, but the biggest surprise has been the exclusion of Scotland.

Rugby sevens was a major success at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Glasgow Sevens was, like the Dubai event, also sponsored by Emirates.

When the sevens series began, the code was not even fully professional but now the 15 core nations mostly have full-time dedicated sevens’ players with the cost of running a squad across all the events on the circuit about £1 million (Dh5.7m) a year, the organisers say.

Each of the venues on the circuit must cover the costs of travel, accommodation and food for the visiting teams but the national associations have to pay for the players’ contracts, the coach and pre-tournament training camps.

Events feature 16 teams with 15 core teams and a different guest country invited to each tournament. This has seen Belgium take part in Europe, while this year Australia and New Zealand will invite a local Pacific island side that could not otherwise afford to take part.

Also at the Paris event on Tuesday, World Rugby announced it had extended its naming-rights deal with HSBC for four more years and had awarded it the rights for the Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series.

“We are particularly delighted that our flagship women’s series will be supported by HSBC over the next few years,” says the World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset, declining to specify the cost of the new deals.

“Women’s rugby is one of the world’s fastest-growing team sports, with more than 1.5 million regularly playing and new participants being welcomed every day.”

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