Asian Cup proves a winner for the UAE

The international football event was a triumph and added another layer to the Emirates' standing as a growing global destination

UAE forward Ali Mabkhout (L) scores against Australia at the Asian Cup. The event was a huge success. AFP
UAE forward Ali Mabkhout (L) scores against Australia at the Asian Cup. The event was a huge success. AFP

The UAE hosting the 2019 AFC Asian Cup football tournament added to the country’s growing reputation as a leading global sports and hospitality venue. It also introduced the Emirates to a new visitor audience who flocked in for the event.

Emirates Holidays, the tour operator of Emirates airline, recorded a rise in arrivals for the duration of the Asian Cup from January 5 to February 1, compared with the same period in previous years, according to Robin Parry, vice president at the company.

“We witnessed an increase in passengers to Dubai from nearby markets across the GCC, and further afield in Asia and the Far East. As the official tour operator of the tournament, the event opened us up to new markets, with a particular success story being Vietnam,” says Mr Parry.

The company’s association with the Asian Football Confederation, an agreement signed before this year’s tournament, helped elevate the Emirates Holidays brand name both locally and at a global level, he says.

“We believe that Emirates Holidays’ partnership with the Asian Football Confederation has enabled us to reach new markets and customers with our brand proposition.

"Our brand awareness increased beyond the Middle East and Asia as the event was covered on a global scale,” he says.

The Asian Cup and other such major events help promote the UAE and its visitor offerings to a wider international audience, both among tourists and big-event organisers, says Mohammed Al Romaithi, chairman of UAE General Authority for Sport.

“The UAE now has a wealth of proven sports events expertise, and will continue to bring the world’s greatest sports events to our shores, such as the inaugural UAE Tour [road cycling], the ITU World Triathlon Abu Dhabi and the Special Olympics World Games 2019."

The Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, which takes place from March 14 to March 21, is another example of the UAE’s growing prowess as an international sports destination of choice. At this year’s event, technology will be a major feature for those fans attending the first games hosted in the Middle East and North Africa since it was founded more than 50 years ago.

epa07319329 Players of UAE celebrate after the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarter final match between Australia and UAE in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, 25 January 2019. EPA/MAHMOUD KHALED
epa07319329 Players of UAE celebrate after the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarter final match between Australia and UAE in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, 25 January 2019. EPA/MAHMOUD KHALED

Last week, state news agency Wam reported that for the first time in Special Olympics history, people will be able to experience the excitement of a World Games unfold in 360 virtual reality prior to and during the event that will see the UAE host more than 7,500 athletes from around the world. To cater to the 24 sporting disciplines they will take part in, nine sports facilities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have been prepared to international standards.

The Local Organising Committee of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 has partnered with leading digital creative studio, CreatorUp, to develop 360° VR experiences that offer fans around the world the opportunity to engage with Special Olympics athletes.

Additionally, for the first time, fans and families will be able to tune into live 360° coverage of the Opening Ceremony, with the CreatorUp team reporting on the event and providing an immersive experience of the celebration. Fans can head to the Festival Area at Adnec from March 12 until 20, to try out watching the series on Samsung VR headsets.

Launched on March 3, UAE Now – the first in a three-part Meet The Determined film series being released in the lead-up to the event – looks at the story of the Emirates and how the nation is preparing to host the largest sports and humanitarian event on the planet this year.

Throughout the Games, a live daily one-hour show will be broadcast on YouTube from 6pm to 7pm, showing all the competition action and other cultural events taking place on the sidelines of the Games. The show will be hosted by UAE cultural expert and social media influencer Max of Arabia.

Supported by 20,000 volunteers, the Games will be attended by 3,000 coaches, 4,000 family members and 3,000 honoured guests.

“This is how the UAE will become stronger, by working together to create more opportunities for all sports from across the world to be hosted here,” says Mr Al Romaithi.

As well as raising the national profile on a global level, big sporting events such as the Special Olympics and Asian Cup also provide a domestic economic benefit, short and long term. A Deloitte report on the 2015 Asian Cup held in Australia revealed a TV audience of approximately 2.5 billion viewers globally, with approximately 45,000 spectators arriving to the country from overseas.

The 2015 competition also boosted the country’s economy by A$81 million (Dh210.51m), the analysis found.

Ascertaining the long-term economic benefit for the UAE from the tournament will take time, according to Timothy Bridge, director of the Sports Business Group at Deloitte, but there are specific areas that should be borne in mind when assessing the effects.

“The long-term legacy impact should be measured more scientifically in terms of is there an increase in interest in sport within the country, are more people participating, are more people buying football merchandise, are more people subscribing to TV channels as direct result of the Asian Cup, and so on. There won’t be an immediate answer.” says Mr Bridge.

However, if Australia is anything to go by, the 2019 Asian Cup will have had a significant positive impact. The 2015 event attracted 836.6 million fans through the AFC’s digital platforms, Deloitte found. From a TV viewership perspective, a record was set when more than 350 million people tuned into beIN Sports to watch the tournament across the Mena region, while an additional 215 million watched the final match through beIN’s digital and social media platforms.

Another benefit domestically of hosting an event such as the Asian Cup is the physical upgrade of the facilities used as venues.

For instance, four of the 2019 group-stage matches were held at Al Maktoum Stadium, home to Dubai football club Al Nasr. Ahead of the event, the stadium made improvements including increased capacity to 15,000 seats, building TV production studios, a lecture hall, guest rooms and a 200-person media centre, all of which are likely to have a long-term positive effect on local football and the community.

For a city that already has world-class sporting venues such as Hamdan Sports Complex and the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, a modern football stadium will only add to the emirate’s appeal as a sporting tourist destination.

“It’s a new addition, a new destination, a new stadium that we needed,” Saeed Hareb, secretary general of Dubai Sports Council, said ahead of the 2019 competition.

“Of course, the Asian Cup has added value. We already have some world-class football stadiums in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. So we now have a top-class stadium in Dubai.

“I can say that it’s a new symbol for Dubai football. We have a stadium for cricket in Dubai, but we didn’t have a special stadium for football in Dubai. But now we have that,” he said.

With regard to boosting engagement with sports fans, it is all about the long-term strategy, according to Mr Bridge.

“Because you have to come at this for the long-term benefit of football, you have to come from bottom up, you have to make it appealing for people to come to the stadium and make sure that the product on offer [the game] is attractive, entertaining, safe while making for a family environment. The ease at which people can buy food and the merchandise and the overall experience make it an enjoyable one,” says Mr Bridge.

epa07319343 Fan of UAE celebrates after the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarter final match between Australia and UAE in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, 25 January 2019. EPA/MAHMOUD KHALED
A young UAE fan at the quarter final match between Australia and UAE in Al Ain. AFP

In addition, stadiums are not just for match days, but must also be used as leisure, entertainment and possibly residential or retail developments, as well as using football grounds as much as possible for their original purpose, says Simon Chadwick, a sports and geopolitics expert at Britain’s Salford University.

For the revamped Dubai stadium, following the 2019 Asian Cup, “club officials will need to embrace a 24/7 and 365 [days] mentality in utilising the venue”.

He says this may necessitate further infrastructural development, and some careful thinking about commercial development and strategy, but it is imperative that there is more footfall in the stadium.

Overall, the Asian Cup is an added boost to football in the UAE and the wider region, which again should hopefully draw in more fans and, by association, greater economic benefit, says Mr Bridge.

Japanese referee Ryuji Sato (L) whistles for full time as players celebrate during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final football match between UAE and Australia at Hazaa bin Zayed Stadium in Al-Ain on January 25, 2019. UAE defeated Australia 1-0. / AFP / Giuseppe CACACE
Full time as players celebrate after the UAE and Australia match, which the home side won. AFP

“What you hope to see is a general trend, which is more people talking about football in the region, more people wanting to attend, greater

interest in social media [around the game and players], and that combined with a long-term strategy, which focuses on participation and improving the standard of game, should result in more people going to the games,” he says.

Events such as the Asian Cup also have a short-term benefit in attracting overseas visitors, in turn advancing local economies and raising the profile of the country as a global sports and tourism destination.

For the 2019 event, 644,307 fans came through the turnstiles, according to official AFC figures, with many considering the event as a good reason to visit the UAE.

Despite what was a disappointing end result for the national team, on many other levels, the Asian Cup was a triumph adding to the country’s already powerful events brand.

The competition brought people from around the world to experience first-hand the sports and hospitality available in UAE.

And from next week, thousands more international sports fans and athletes will be able to sample the best the country has to offer when the Special Olympics World Games gets under way.

Published: March 6, 2019 07:30 AM


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