CEO of the City

While Dubai Sports City takes shape brick by brick, the world of sport waits with baited breath for the gates to open. Andrew Mernin plays ball with U Balasubramaniam, CEO of the city, as he reveals why he is confident the ambitious project will be a victorious success

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By  Andrew Mernin Published  May 11, 2006

|~||~||~|The expression ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ carries no weight with U Balasubramaniam, or ‘Bala’ to his friends. In just three years he has helped develop a blueprint for a township into a project that has left the giants of world sport jostling for places within the city walls. “The concept started way back when people were talking about building a cricket stadium in Dubai, and then the same people started asking why we can’t bring sports here in a bigger element,” says Balasubramaniam. “So the idea just grew and grew until 2003 when we finalised a deal for 50 million square feet of land with the Dubailand development.” With four stadiums and residential facilities with a 70,000 capacity currently under construction, Balasubramaniam estimates that “by 2010, when the project is completed, it will be worth around US $3 billion (AED11 billion).” Although Balasubramaniam describes Dubai Sports City (DSC) as “a very complex project”, the roll of sporting bodies that have given it their stamp of approval makes for impressive reading. As well as the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) global cricket academy, other major coups for DSC include the David Lloyd tennis academy and the Butch Harmon school of golf, the only facility of its type outside the US. And, in attracting these sporting juggernauts to DSC, Balasubramaniam says he has received an excellent response. “When we approached sporting people about these projects, frankly we thought it would have been a bit of an uphill struggle, but we were quite surprised at how quickly things happened,” he says. The process of selecting a professional team to endorse the soccer academy is perhaps the best example of just how well received DSC has been by the world of sport. “When we went for the soccer academy, we had the choice of four well known teams including Bayern Munich of Germany and Spain’s Real Madrid,” he says. “We chose England’s Manchester United because they have a proven track record with schools like this in Hong Kong and at Euro Disney in Paris, so they have an international approach. “There are now rumours that Arsenal and Chelsea are looking to set up in the country,” he adds. With a 60,000 capacity multi-purpose stadium and a 25,000-seater cricket ground in the pipeline, DSC will certainly bring all the glitz and glamour of international sport to the Middle East. Balasubramaniam, however, insists that the DSC management team will not be blinded by floodlights and lose sight of their responsibility to encourage local sporting talent. “Our aim is to create future champions, so we will be working very closely with schools, the government and local sporting bodies,” he says. “The idea is to create the platform with all these facilities where you can teach people from grass roots level and fine-tune the skills of professional athletes.” In creating this 50 million sq ft platform, Balasubramaniam is backed up by a team of board members who are collectively well equipped to power DSC to sporting triumph. The trio consists of Abdul Rahim Al Zarooni, whose expertise comes in the real estate sector, Abdulrahman Bukhatir, the owner of Hercules International Sports Tangier (HIST) and Abdul Rahman Falaknaz, president of Dubai Cricket Council and vice-president of the UAE Tennis Association. The success of DSC will also be aided by its Dubai location, which Balasubramaniam believes will make it a perfect venue for such a unique project. “The geographical location of Dubai makes it extremely appealing for any sport that involves the Northern and Southern hemispheres because it’s bang in the centre,” he says. “I think it fits in perfectly with the masterplan as it could act as a stop-off point when people tour from the Southern hemisphere to the Northern hemisphere and vice versa. It could also be used as an acclimatisation zone,” he adds. The multi-cultural nature of Dubai could also help it to develop into the ultimate sporting Mecca. “When you take into account the kind of population we have here, which is essentially the expatriate population, there are so many different sporting influences including field hockey, track and field athletics as well as soccer. “Also, the average Arab national is by nature a very good sportsman. They are historically good hunters and riders and their food habits are very good,” he says. “If you look at golf, it started here ten years ago and how many nationals do you see playing under a single-figure handicap now and doing so well?” he adds. If the DSC masterplan does evolve into the success Balasubramaniam believes it can, there will be a multitude of avenues to explore in terms of revenue sources. “Sport is a multi-million dollar business, so we are currently talking to two or three of the largest facility management companies in the world. We are exploring naming rights, stadium commercialisation and even the idea of having our own TV studios within the stadiums.” Naturally, with properties being built that have the capacity to house 70,000 people, revenue from the real estate sector will be the cornerstone of the development. Large-scale property projects include the Victory Heights private golf community – a major part of Wade Adams Contracting’s US $109 million deal to develop DSC’s infrastructure – the Mediterranean-style Gallery Villas project and the innovative ‘Cube’ development. DSC will also incorporate all the facilities of a self-sufficient city such as schools, medical facilities, emergency services, restaurants, cafes, entertainment venues, shops, community centres and mosques. Living in the city could cost up to US $640,000 for a luxury property in the Gallery Villas community, while a plot for construction contractors costs around US $35 to US $67 per sq ft of land. And, as the opening of the city draws closer, Balasubramaniam has witnessed a truly international group of contractors and customers getting involved in the large-scale project. “The interesting thing about this development is that you have a huge cross-section of people that own the development and by our own sales it is attracting all kinds of people. “We have had a lot of interest from the GCC markets like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, ethnic sub-continentals and I also see a lot of Germans, Irish and English people building property here.” The City’s CEO, who has over 35 years experience in the hospitality industry in Asia, Australia, Europe and the US, has developed numerous projects from the greenfield stage into fully operational environments. And, although this is “the most complex project” he ever has worked on, he also believes that it is also totally different to anything else on the planet. “People are looking and waiting for DSC to open, because, in the words of David Lloyd and Ernie Els, who have been around the world, ‘there is nothing like this anywhere.” So, while the Middle East has never hosted the soccer, cricket or rugby World Cups, or even the Olympic Games, by 2010, if the DSC masterplan is to be believed, it will be the only place on earth to boast a city entirely devoted to sporting excellence.||**||

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