Sporting Chance

As the UAE’s first half sporting calendar draws to a close, Arabian Business looks at the sports sponsorship industry through the eyes of local sponsor meBank.

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By  John Irish Published  March 30, 2003

|~||~||~|The recent Dubai Golf Desert Classic and Dubai Open Tennis Championships illustrated the importance that the regional sponsor places on sports events. From advertising hoarding to advertising hoarding, alongside the likes of Pepsi Cola, local firms positioned themselves in the full glare of the world’s media. Be it Emirates Airlines; meBank, the retail brand name of Emirates Bank; or local aluminium giant Dubal, the desire to appeal to the local man was self-evident.

In the case of Emirates Airlines, the deal it signed to become an official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup in January was not only a coup to become the first airline to sponsor such an event, but also the culmination of sponsoring high profile events in the region and developing its image as a global brand.

“Our investment in sport is linked with our ongoing drive to develop into a global brand. Becoming an official partner will be good for Emirates, good for Dubai and good for the UAE,” said Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of Emirates.

But, while Emirates can aim high, for the regional player the benefits remain at a much more localised level. In their eyes, Emirates has paved the way for the smaller sponsors to break into the sponsorship market. They have realised that the possibility of lucrative contracts is also open to them, but more importantly that they too can gain the exposure the larger businesses attain.

“Commercialisation has undoubtedly distended and perverted competition of nearly every sort. On the other hand, imagine where all types of competition might be if we hadn’t seized upon the concept of sports sponsorship,” says Roland Lazenby, lecturer in Communications Studies at Virginia Tech.

From a regional business perspective, international tournaments are the most efficient way of getting their name positively exposed in the market place. Having secured a deal for the event, half the job is completed, but it is from spin offs that businesses ram home their message.

“What it does, is build momentum. It gets Emirates Bank and its retail brand meBank in the public eye. I find that sports sponsorships are a great way of doing this,” says Louis Scotto, general manager, retail banking, Emirates Bank International. “If you cut the right deal you get more than what you pay for. You get a ripple effect of being in newspaper, radio and TV ads. At the end of the day it’s good to have your name associated with things that are in the public eye.”

“Let’s take tennis for example, it has great local, Gulf and international coverage. International is the least important to us as we are a local brand with regional aspirations, but if you were to question anybody walking out of the stadium, if they saw meBank, it would be a definitive yes,” says Scotto.

Local events are where the sponsor can begin to make inroads into the industry. By sponsoring national championships, competitions and specific teams, the sponsor can target groups through sports that attract the customer segment that will ultimately be interested in the company’s product. The Eastern Gulf, with its millions of expatriate workers and diversity of cultures offers plenty of scope for regional businesses to tap into regional demands.

“What we like to do is to talk to our customers. Why are we so active in golf? Because our diner’s club customers [consider it] their favourite recreational activity. We know the nationals love football, so we do local sponsorship deals with soccer teams and we have a large Indian sub-continent expat community, so we try to satisfy their needs with the cricket,” says Scotto.

The main problem with sponsorships is tracing how successful they have been. An event such as the tennis attracts people from all strands of society, but while a television advertisement’s success can be monitored quickly following its broadcast, sports sponsorship successes are very much hit and miss. For this reason, brand awareness studies before and after the event ensure the sponsor can establish whether its contribution has seen a positive brand recall.

“In events like tennis, we give tickets to clients. Then we check the pulse over the next few months, see if there’s been a blip,” explains Scotto. “I won’t say I’m going to invest X amount of Dirhams into this event and I want to see Y amount of accounts opened. It’s very hard to tie in that direct impact, but if we get people to see four banners, then we’re there.”

The advantage of staging events in Dubai particularly is that it has the infrastructure to attract the high profile events. Whereas Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have their limitations, the little emirate can offer safety, comfort and striking venues, which appeal to the most talented and well-known sportsmen.

As sports sponsorship deals continue to grow throughout Europe and North America, a little corner of the Gulf is gradually increasing its investment into this market, a process that will take time.
As Lazenby says, “Seventeenth century English noblemen were happy to sponsor local fairs. Not only did they like betting on the cockfights, they liked playing the role of benefactor. It was a public relations ploy then. It still is now. Only these days it’s a bit pricier.”

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