Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

UAE: Cashing In on Football Frenzy

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Jun 14 2006 (IPS) - A record-breaking sponsorship deal, corporate ‘season tickets’ at hotels with purpose-built arenas equipped with plasma screens and projectors and smart cards that give access to matches are just a few of the businesses that are riding the craze in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to watch world cup football, without going to Germany.

FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) officials expect a cumulative audience of around 32 billion people to tune into football’s greatest event, and regional and international businesses are putting their best foot forward to tap into the money-spinning potential. In business-minded UAE, hotels, television showrooms, sports shops and even roadside cafeterias see opportunity in the world cup.

Several hotels have set up purpose-built arenas, plasma screens and projectors, and paying up to 37,000 dirhams (about 10,140 US dollars) to official broadcaster ART for access rights. Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Hotel has set up 12 television screens, capacity for more than 500 fans, buffet stations and a Sony Playstation zone.

Peter Jones, a British football enthusiast, who is determined to grab the best offer at the hotel told IPS that such elaborate arrangements ‘’dull the heartburn of not being in Germany right now. This is great fun”.

The vicarious fun can be costly – the hotel’s corporate ‘season ticket’ costs 95,000 dirhams (around 26,000 dollars), and gives 10 people the full 25-day viewing package with unlimited food and selected beverages. Individual viewers will be charged 10,000 dirhams (around 2750 dollars) for a 64-match season ticket.

‘‘I don’t mind paying,” Jones said, echoing the sentiments of many a football-crazy UAE fan. ‘‘I have to watch England play and all the other important matches. This means I can do it in comfort and yet have a mad cheering crowd around me to create the right atmosphere – money is not the criteria here!”

Even coffee shops and cafeterias are setting up their own ‘indoor football stadiums’ – seating areas have been rearranged to face new plasma screens.

‘‘We too have our package deals – I charge 10 dirhams (around three dollars) for a match and a coffee,” said Azeez Saleem, a coffee shop manager in Sharjah.” A coffee on normal days costs just three dirhams (less than one dollar).

The competition is a 3.7 million dirham (around one million dollars) FIFA World Cup Fan Park at Dubai which boasts a stadium-style grandstand, seating for 3000 fans and a massive 140 sq metre screen. Fans are charged according to the match that they want to watch.

Television set retailers and ART are expecting huge returns too.

‘‘In the past month, we have sold double the number of LCD TVs than we normally do – most of the customers, are those who want to watch the World Cup matches and not compromise on quality,” said Rajiv Pillai, a showroom salesman in Dubai.

As for ART, customer figures have leapfrogged and so have profits. For instance, hotels rated up to three stars face a price list from ART of 37 dirhams (about 10 dollars) per room, 18,350 dirhams (around 5,000 dollars) for a bar, about 4,600 dirhams (1,260 dollars) for cafes and restaurants which seat below 20 people and around 9200 dirhams (2,520 dollars) for 20 people or more. The charges are double at hotels rated four stars and above.

The talk of the town, however, is a humungous public relations exercise that the flag carrier Emirates Airlines has launched, after signing on a record 195 million dollar sponsorship deal with FIFA.

‘‘As an official partner of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Emirates will strengthen our association with international football, the most widely supported sport in the world,” said airlines chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, in a statement.

‘‘We believe sport is an ideal vehicle to communicate with our passengers, and football is a perfect platform for us to share and enjoy their passion and commitment,” Sheikh Ahmed added. ‘‘This partnership will enable us to achieve global awareness of our brand at football events all around the world as well as in our home territory of Dubai.”

FIFA has awarded the carrier with nearly 20,000 tickets that the company is giving away as part of its package deals on flights to Germany. The Emirates logo will be also be prominently seen by viewers clocking in an estimated 49 billion hours of TV time throughout the games.

The airline has secured a commitment to ensure that at least 22 matches – including the opening match, two quarter-finals, the semi-finals, the third place play-off and the final – of both the 2010 and the 2014 FIFA world cups may be shown on free-to-air television within UAE.

Additionally, Emirates passengers will be able to watch either live or delayed coverage of tournament matches as part of the airline’s in-flight entertainment services. Mini-cinemas have been set up in waiting areas of 16 airports in 10 countries to broadcast the games. In Germany, important guests will be lavished with VIP stadium seats.

Emirates has also erected what it says is the world’s tallest billboard, in Dubai – a l85-metre tall building wrap which shows a football player diving through the glass of the building to head a ball with his arms spread out to portray the familiar Emirates “wings” campaign. Their slogan for the month is ‘The world speaks one language – football’.

Travel agents are cashing in as well. Many UAE fans have bought package tours, which include airfare, hotel accommodation and match tickets, paying from 8,500 dirhams (about 2,300 dollars) to 40,000 dirhams (around 11,000 dollars).

‘‘One fan purchased packages worth 180,000 dirhams (around 50,000 dollars) to take two companions to see every possible England game,” said a salesman at a travel agency in Dubai.

Sports goods shops are witnessing a boom too. Adidas has reported strong sales of footballs, football shirts and boots at its UAE stores with fans said to be favouring France, Germany and Argentina jerseys.

The local telecommunications corporation, Etisalat, has also announced a service targeting football fans. Customers will be able to watch the most exciting moments of each match, follow the outcome, and get exclusive information directly on their mobiles in Arabic, English and French.

The flip side of it all is that productivity levels are bound to suffer. According to a survey conducted by GulfTalent.com, a jobs portal, firms in the Middle East are bracing for a major drop in productivity as large numbers of employees take time off to watch key matches.

A GulfTalent.com analyst, who led the study, said in a statement: ‘‘The findings confirm what most employers expected – that there is going to be a productivity slump during the World Cup this month. Pre-planned absences from work are only part of the story. The actual level of absenteeism is likely to be even higher, due to post-match celebrations or lack of sleep, as fans stay up till the early hours of the morning to watch the games.”

 
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