Bowling over Dubai

As the popularity of cricket reaches unprecedented levels around the world, Dubai braces itself to become the game’s worldwide hub — both on and off the field. Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council tells Rhys Jones why world cricket’s governing body chose to move to the emirate and outlines his plans for the future.

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By  Rhys Jones Published  September 18, 2005

Bowling over Dubai|~|200-freddy.jpg|~||~|For Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council (ICC), last week’s unveiling of Australian legend Rod Marsh as director of coaching at the upcoming ICC Global Cricket Academy in Dubai was a bit of light relief after a turbulent few months for the world cricketing supremo. “It’s nice to have some good news to announce for a change,” Speed, who spearheaded a move to relocate the ICC’s headquarters to Dubai earlier this year, tells Arabian Business. “It makes a change from talking about boycotting Zimbabwe and all the political stuff,” he adds. Despite cricket having recently witnessed an unprecedented surge in popularity due to the remarkable Ashes series between England and Australia, the game still faces some serious challenges. One contentious issue, which refuses to go away, revolves around Zimbabwe and a spate of calls for the ICC to boycott the country due to human rights abuses by president Robert Mugabe’s regime. But ICC boss Speed believes cricket’s governing body should rise above the day-to-day grime of politics and concentrate on sporting issues. “It’s been a consistent policy for several years now that sport expects politicians to make political decisions. We can’t base our decisions on political factors — we make our decisions on the basis of sporting factors,” says Speed. The ICC last month upheld Zimbabwe’s status among cricket’s elite test playing nations. By doing so, it effectively dismissed a letter from UK foreign secretary Jack Straw and culture secretary Tessa Jowell which called for a boycott of the country due the nature of Mugabe’s regime. It has been widely condemned abroad for its slum clearance programme,which has seen some 700,000 people lose their homes so far. That followed similar pleas from the governments of Australia and New Zealand, which last month passed a motion calling on their national cricket team to abandon a tour of Zimbabwe. Speed, however, is keen to distance his organisation from the issue despite the fact that in recent months cricket has become a powerful political weapon. “If governments don’t wish their countries to play in a particular country or to host players from another country, they have the power to achieve that — we can’t start making political judgements among our members because we’re simply not qualified to do that,” he explains. In spite of what Speed says, the truth of the matter is that politics has been and probably always will be mixed up with sport. And there have been numerous examples of both individuals and nations using sporting events to make political protests. But, as Straw and Jowell know, there are real dangers for politicians who go down this road. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher discovered this in 1980 when she followed US president Jimmy Carter’s call for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in the wake of the USSR invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. But there was, to say the least, a mixed response. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to move the games to another country and the British Olympic Association (BOC) voted to ignore the government call and chairman Sir Denis Follows, clearly irritated by the tone of Thatcher’s demand, declared: “We believe sport should be a bridge, not a destroyer.” The next games, in Los Angeles in 1984, saw the USSR boycotting them claiming their competitors may have been in danger because of the anti-Communist sentiments in the US. Meanwhile, sporting sanctions were continuing against South Africa in protest at the apartheid regime, with the country being banned from Olympic participation from 1964 to 1992. Before these examples there was the famous black power salutes given by two US athletes from the podium in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. And no one doubts that Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels attempted to use the first ever televised Olympics, in Berlin in 1936, to prove his theory of the Aryan master race. Sporting-political issues are clearly something Speed is keen to consign to the past. The future for cricket — as far as the ICC boss is concerned — is in Dubai. And since an agreement to set up the world’s first ICC Global Cricket Academy in Dubai at a cost of US$25 million was signed two years ago by the ICC president Ehsan Mani and Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, president of the Emirates Cricket Board things have moved on considerably. The academy, which is already under construction in Dubai Sports City (DSC) — one of 45 schemes in the US$2 billion Dubailand development — will be a focal point for the training and development of cricket players, coaches, umpires, curators and administrators. The facilities will be available to a broad spectrum of cricketers in ICC member countries from juniors to full international teams, encompassing both men’s and women’s cricket. “The academy will be completed in 2007 and will basically be a learning and teaching institution for cricket,” Speed explains,enthusiastically. “It will operate 12 months a year and will cater to all aspects of cricket — male and female, young, club, country, state and international cricketers — we will also have a lot of focus on our developing countries such as Holland, Scotland, Malaysia and Canada and we will be bringing teams like that in to do extensive coaching programmes,” he says, adding that: “it will deal with all of the people involved with cricket,” he adds. As well as the fact that geographically Dubai is in an ideal position to service the cricket world, the ICC also believes that DSC is the right kind of project to be involved with. As such, it plans to move its global headquarters and offices to the development when it opens for business in 2007. “The first reason we moved to Dubai was to be in a better position in a central hub to service the cricket world — we’re three hours from Dehli, two hours from Karachi and closer to Australia and South Africa as well as not being too far from England so it’s a great position for us,” says Speed. “DSC is a visionary project that seeks to put high-profile sporting organisations that are identified for their excellence as tenants of DSC. We were approached by the partners of DSC to go there, we agree with the vision they have for DSC and we want to be part of that,” he adds. A cornerstone of the 915 million square metre Dubailand project, which was announced by the emirate’s government in September 2003, DSC is being positioned as a development with a difference. Of the 15.2 million square metres available for development, only 60% will be built up, with the remaining 40% left for a golf course and landscaping purposes. The ‘city within a city’ will consist of two main elements, the sports facilities and the residential area. On the sporting side, there are four stadiums planned — one for cricket, an outdoor multi-purpose site for rugby, football and track & field, an indoor multi-purpose stadium and a dedicated hockey facility. Complementing these big match venues will be comprehensive training facilities plus various sports schools and a specialist sports hospital. A Manchester United football academy, David Lloyd tennis school, Ernie Els designed tournament golf course and Butch Harmon golf academy have already been announced as well as the deal to create the ICC’s academy. The DSC-based cricket school will clearly be a huge boost to the sport as a whole but Speed also believes the ICC can offer much to Dubai as a burgeoning sporting centre. “We bring a lot of profile to Dubai as a sporting headquarters — there will be many meetings, announcements and press briefings here — previously we would have run these sort of things in England, India or Australia but we now do it in Dubai,” he explains. “The by-line will say Dubai from now on and other sports will follow us here. I think other sporting organisations will see what’s happened here and over the next 10 years they will come here after us,” he predicts. Earlier this year the ICC moved its headquarters to Dubai, ending its 96-year association with the Lord’s complex in London. All ten test-playing countries voted for the change, while among the three associate members on the ICC board, Kenya voted in favour, Israel abstained, and Malaysia voted to move to Kuala Lumpur, its own capital. The vote reportedly came following the failure of the British Government to grant the tax concessions the ICC sought. The council has an annual income of about US$188 million, which according to UK laws is taxable. In order to avoid UK taxation the ICC have a financial company based in Monte Carlo and make sure that all matters relating to finance are dealt with outside the British isles. As such, the ICC felt it was time to centralise its operations elsewhere and the UAE proved to be the ideal place to do this. “Dubai offers us tax-free status and it is less expensive to run the business here — most of our revenue comes from running major events and we needed to be based in a country where we could be tax-free,” explains Speed. “It will cost us less to run our business here than it did running two separate offices in London and Monaco, both of which were in very expensive cities to run a business in,” he adds. In June last year, the British government agreed to provide tax concessions to the ICC. However, in a pre-budget statement late last year, British chancellor Gordon Brown failed to touch upon any such concessions, which prompted fresh speculation of the ICC’s move. Along with Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia came up with attractive tax concessions but the growing emirate came out on top. “There are many countries around the world that offer sporting organisations tax-free status and we looked at all of those countries such as Switzerland, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore and a couple of other countries that were serious about housing the ICC and the overall positioning of Dubai — the cost of running the business here — pushed it ahead of the other countries,” says Speed. “Dubai offers tax-free zones and offers companies the opportunity to run businesses without paying corporations taxes,” he adds. Despite the organisation’s move to the tax-free UAE, Speed claims the financial state of the game as a whole is in good shape, having come through a tumultuous few years. “In financial terms, generally the game is healthy — from time to time some countries go through difficult periods but the revenue that’s coming into cricket now is increasing significantly,” he says, adding that most of its funding now comes from TV and media rights. But it wasn’t always like that. “It used to be the case that eight or nine years ago the three revenue sources of gate ticket revenue, sponsorship and TV were equal but now TV is by far the biggest contributor by two or three to one in most countries compared to the other arms,” explains Speed. “TV rights continue to grow — we have seen some dips in the TV rights cycle — but they have bounced back nicely and cricket is very popular amongst broadcasters,” he adds. Popular is probably an understatement these days, however. The UK’s Channel 4, which is a terrestrial broadcaster, has attracted up to eight million viewers during its coverage of the thrilling Ashes series. But from next year cricket fans will have to turn to satellite operator Sky TV, which recently won broadcast rights until 2009 with a bid of US$405 million. In order to watch England’s test matches in the future, UK-based cricket fans will have to pay in excess of US$73 a month to access Sky Sports — something many people are clearly reluctant to do. For the ICC however, it’s all about the money and Speed says it was hard to turn down Sky — it outbid the terrestrial broadcasters who many claim did not show the necessary enthusiasm to keep England’s test-matches on the terrestrial channels. “Basically, the offer that was made by Sky was significantly higher than the offer that was made by the terrestrial broadcaster — they weren’t even close and the England and Wales Cricket Board has a responsibility to run the game and to do that they need television revenue,” explains Speed. “It may be that next time round the terrestrial broadcasters are closer to the mark and that cricket can go back onto terrestrial television but the decision has been made for the next tranche of rights that it will be on pay TV. But it would be good to see very healthy competition between pay and terrestrial broadcasters when the rights are next put up for sale,” he adds. Whatever happens with television rights, Zimbabwe and juggling finances, it appears that the game of cricket is due for a period of huge growth, both on and off the pitch — and Dubai is set to be at the forefront of the sport for some time to come. Speed agrees, saying the emirate is “the perfect place cricket for world cricket to be based.”||**||

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