Abu Dhabi’s comprehensive sporting portfolio is in winning form

In addition to helping the emirate build an international reputation as a global sport and major events destination, Abu Dhabi’s numerous sporting mega-events, such as the Formula 1 (F1) Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the Abu Dhabi Tour UCI Cycling, bring significant economic benefits.

Although sponsorship revenues are tougher to achieve in a challenging macroeconomic environment, a number of government and private sector bodies are actively working to further expand Abu Dhabi’s sporting portfolio, through the introduction of new cycling and diving events, as well as the upcoming 2019 Asian Cup. This should ensure that the knock-on benefits will continue to extend well beyond sporting arenas, supporting robust tourism, hospitality and transportation growth, as well as promoting Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030’s diversification mandate.

The relationship between major sporting events and increased tourism is well documented. High-profile events benefit the tourism profile by positioning the emirate as capable of hosting large-scale events, which in turn builds its conference industry credentials; they promote Abu Dhabi’s winter climate and sporting facilities to increase the emirate’s appeal as a winter training hub; they deliver global media exposure for the emirate and attract increasing numbers of visitors both as participants and spectators.

These events directly produce increased income for the emirate through additional inbound passenger traffic, boost hotel and hospitality spends, and lead to a further economic impact through ancillary spending on tours, shopping, food and beverages, and so forth. “Large-scale events also generate increased income through additional passenger intake and hotel bookings,” Aref Al Awani, General Secretary of Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC), told OBG. “There is a positive correlation between tourism and major sporting events. These help position the destination as capable of hosting prestigious events, which in turn builds its meetings, incentives, conferences and events industry credentials,” he added.

Sport Focus

Although Abu Dhabi was almost unknown in the international sporting world just a decade ago, the emirate has, in this time, built an extremely strong international presence through hosting high-profile sporting events that draw global attention. At the same time, the government continues to support the expansion of domestic sports – the growth of the domestic football league and the achievements of the UAE football team are prime examples – transforming the emirate into a regional sporting centre while promoting healthy lifestyles among residents.

Many of these efforts have been undertaken by the ADSC, established in 2006 and tasked with supporting economic diversification and cultural development by transforming Abu Dhabi into an international sporting destination.

ADSC Mandate

With the introduction of new regulations transforming the council into an independent corporation in 2011, the body’s mandate was clarified. Its key strategic priorities from 2012 to 2016 include encouraging all segments of society to lead healthy lifestyles, implementing internationally adopted best practices at sports clubs across the emirate, and using technology to enhance internal operations at the council and sports clubs. The council also promotes investment in the sector, with an emphasis on self-financing, in a bid to develop financially independent sports clubs. In addition to developing local sports programmes, the ADSC also actively supports a number of high-profile international sporting events, which have drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors to the emirate. “Our aim is to attract a greater volume of sporting events that have international appeal, while at the same time striking a balance between professional and amateur tournaments,” ADSC’s Al Awani added. Notable among these high-profile events are the annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the annual ITU World Triathlon Series, first launched as the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon in 2009. Other important events include the Abu Dhabi Invitational, the Red Bull Air Race, the Volvo Ocean Race round-the-world sailing epic, the Abu Dhabi Cycling Tour and the 2015 Nomura Cup.

The ADSC mandate includes the perspective that sporting events deliver a host of benefits for the emirate and its residents, including improved health and wellness, the nurturing of community spirit, the discovery of local talent and the delivery of international exposure of the emirate as a world-class athletics hub. Sporting events and facilities greatly enrich the lives of the residents of Abu Dhabi. They generate an increased interest in various sporting disciplines, encouraging their uptake at all levels and thereby building a community-wide commitment to healthy lifestyles and wellness. The events also serve to unearth local talent that can then go on to represent the emirate on the world’s sporting stage.

Moreover, ADSC has numerous cooperation agreements with prominent international bodies and entities, which provide the opportunity to gain experience and knowledge, to convey the latest and best international practices, and to enhance the operations and activities of locally based sports clubs. Major cooperation agreements are currently in place with FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), International Olympic Committee, International Triathlon Union (ITU) and Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) among others.

Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

First played in 2006, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship is another major event in the emirate’s athletic portfolio, bringing with it thousands of visitors and some of the most famous names in golf. One of the largest events on the European Tour, it is hosted at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club annually in January and broadcast to an audience of over 450m. The tournament has expanded rapidly since its inception, with event organiser Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) announcing in 2011 that as part of a five-year partnership with HSBC, the event’s prize fund had risen by $500,000 to $2.7m. It is the most lucrative event on the Gulf segment of this international golfing contest. The tournament is now under the management of ADSC, and the five-year partnership with HSBC has been renewed.

ITU World Triathlon Series Abu Dhabi

Meanwhile, the ITU World Triathlon Abu Dhabi is hosted annually in March. The event has three participant categories and includes a running course along the Corniche, ranging between 5 km and 20 km, a bike course along the Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island of between 50 km and 200 km; and a swimming section at a private beach on the Corniche East Plaza, ranging from 750 metres to 3 km. Over 2000 athletes competed in the 2015 triathlon, of which 600 were international participants.

Abu Dhabi is the first stop on the ITU’s 2016 World Triathlon Series. This is significant, as the event will see a number of Olympic contenders competing in preparation for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, with the Abu Dhabi event slated to include an Olympic distance course for the first time.

Red Bull Air Race

Abu Dhabi hosted the first race of the 2015 Red Bull Air Race World Championship. Abu Dhabi’s ninth time hosting the race will be in 2016. The event is an international series of air races, in which competitors navigate a challenging obstacle course. The pilots use agile and lightweight racing planes to navigate a low-level aerial racetrack of air-filled pylons, called air gates, with the aim of finishing in the fastest time possible and incurring as few penalties as they can. Hosting the event has both economic and media impacts; 22,400 visitors from outside the emirate came to watch the event, and spent on average three days in Abu Dhabi.

The air racing event generated a total of €27.5m for the city in direct financial benefits. Importantly the event was widely covered in the global media, significantly raising the profile of Abu Dhabi and the UAE more generally. The 2015 event was estimated to have created 136m media contacts worldwide across all platforms, including television, print and online coverage.

Volvo Ocean Race

This global sailing event delivered a varied set of socio-economic objectives, while showcasing and celebrating the emirate, most notably its maritime infrastructure and the sea-faring heritage of Abu Dhabi. The Volvo Ocean Race is a unique sporting event that combines competition, modern technology and performance. More importantly, the event presents Abu Dhabi as a winter water sports destination and provides a significant boost to local sailing development and water sports operators. Abu Dhabi has a long tradition of dhow sailing, pearl diving and fishing, as well as a strong connection to coastal habitats. The event drew in 158,442 spectators, 13.2% of whom were international visitors, and was estimated to have a direct economic impact of Dh152m ($41.4m) in the emirate itself.

For the 2014-15 race, Abu Dhabi competed with its own Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing squad, including Olympic Emirati sailor Adil Khalid, on a yacht known as Azzam, which translates from Arabic as determination. The team, led by British double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker, sailed to victory. Abu Dhabi and Azzam made sailing history by becoming the first Arab contender for the title and Khalid became the first Arab and Emirati sailor to complete the nine-month, round-the-world endurance trial. Abu Dhabi also hosted the race on its third leg, with a special race village established on the UAE capital’s Corniche for two weeks. Activities drew attendance from residents and visitors.

Abu Dhabi Tour

This premier cycling event brings together some of the world’s best cycling talent in a 555-km race in both Abu Dhabi City and the surrounding deserts, as well as through the Yas Mall and Yas Marina Circuit.

The large number of previous Grand Tour winners and other top-flight riders have helped to raise the event’s profile in the emirate, with local media broadcasting the race live. The ADSC, together with the UAE Cycling Federation and Italian RCS Sports and Events, put on the inaugural three-day race in October 2015, showcasing the emirate for a global audience.

The race was another great media event for Abu Dhabi, and was broadcast in 169 countries with an estimated 11m viewers worldwide. There were 127 journalists and 48 photographers present at different stages of the race, and a total of 2883 print articles appeared covering the event. The awards ceremony was a gala occasion that highlighted the emirate’s growing influence in sports.

Mubadala World Tennis Championship 

The Mubadala Tennis Championship – or World Tennis Championship – is a singles-only professional tournament played on outdoor hard courts at the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex in Zayed Sports City and was hosted most recently from December 31, 2015 to January 2, 2016. Originally conceived by co-sponsors Flash Entertainment and Capitala in 2008 as the Capitala World Tennis Championship, the tournament aimed to promote tennis in the Middle East through the creation of a world-class event in Abu Dhabi, which joined existing tournaments in Dubai and Doha. The three-day, six-player exhibition offers a winner-take-all prize of $250,000, and is preceded by several weeks of activities, including an annual Community Cup tournament in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The event has become a major annual tourist draw for the emirate.

New & Upcoming Events

In January 2016 ADSC announced it is introducing a new three-day diving event, beginning on February 27, 2016. Other major events in 2016 include the Gary Player Invitational, the FINA (International Swimming Federation) 10-km Swimming Marathon, FINA High Diving World Cup, the World Professional JiuJitsu Championship and the ISAF Sailing World Cup Final. Events already scheduled for 2017 onwards include the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup, 2018 FIFA Club World Cup, 2019 Asian Cup and 2020 FINA Short Course World Swimming Championships.

Outside of these ADSC-supported events, Abu Dhabi has also risen to become a major motorsport and golf destination in its own right, hosting the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and HSBC Golf Championship events.


Motorsport in the UAE is governed by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE ( ATCUAE), which is recognised as the sole Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile representative in the country and oversees 140 motorsport events across the UAE. In 2009 the ATCUAE founded the UAE Motorsport Marshals Club (UAEMMC) with the goal of managing, training and accrediting the country’s motorsport officials. As of 2012, the UAEMMC consisted of over 1000 officials and volunteers from more than 27 nations, with volunteers providing an estimated Dh6.64m ($1.8m) in economic benefits, equating to 53,448 man hours for the 2012 F1 event. Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM) was established in 2008 to launch and manage the emirate’s first F1 event.

Motorsport Growth

The emirate hosted the inaugural F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009, and has since witnessed a sharp and steady increase in visitor numbers. Capacity for the event increased from 55,000 in 2013 to 60,000 in 2014 with the addition of Abu Dhabi Hill and an extension to the Paddock Club building. In the years since the first event, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has successfully positioned itself as a key event in the F1 season, representing the modern-day Grand Prix experience.

The event motto “There is more to F1 in Abu Dhabi” captures the multi-year event positioning, where on-track activity is complemented by a wide array of off-track entertainment, including afterrace concerts. With the support of key stakeholders such as Etihad Airways, the title sponsor for the event, and TCA Abu Dhabi, regional and international visitation from outside the UAE has increased from 21% in 2009 to 46% in 2014.

The UK is a key source market for potential arrivals, and Abu Dhabi is working to develop its reputation as a weekend destination for world-class motorsport and entertainment.

Global media exposure during the race week has increased steadily year on year, garnering over 8600 references on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2015 compared to less than 1000 in 2009. The 2014 F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was also one of the most popular and publicised to date, according to officials at Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island, the venue where the races are hosted.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix typically ends the F1 season and draws great media interest, with a record 440 accredited media representatives attending 2014’s championship decider, the highest ever for an F1 event. Abu Dhabi has also positioned itself at the forefront of social media and customer engagement via digital technologies; in 2014 the hashtag “AbuDhabiGP” trended number one globally on race-day on Twitter, which was another ground-breaking first for F1. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix “YasHUB” app continues to set the benchmark for digital customer engagement, providing interactive and augmented maps, syndicated F1-related content and real-time updates on the overall weekend schedule.

Research Driven

The central focus for ADMM, the event promoter and operator, is to continue to deliver an event that appeals equally to local as well as visiting audiences, with new markets such as China and India being specifically targeted. Research plays a key role in this mission.

Each year ADMM conducts two major Grand Prix surveys, an on-the-ground survey during the race weekend of over 1000 respondents as well as a post-event visitation survey carried out amongst over 1500 ticket holders. Satisfaction levels continue to be very high year-on-year with all components across the event weekend reporting positively; in 2014, 98% of visitors surveyed said they would recommend the event to others, and 84% said they planned to return in 2015.

The 2015 satisfaction survey report stated that the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix continues to appeal to a broad demographic and is an important social occasion, with most visitors likely to attend in mixed gender groups, and with friends and families.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix continues to score an extremely positively result versus equivalent global benchmarks with a 99% catalyst event performance index (EPI) in 2014, according to independent research by US-based sport and event intelligence firm Repucom.

Wider Benefits

The Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has sold out every year since its launch, as demand continues to grow locally, regionally and internationally. It is seen as a mass-market event with attendees representing a broad mix of men and women, motorsport enthusiasts and entertainment seekers, corporate VIPs and leisure audiences. The 2015 event was no different, and as early as March 2015, officials were predicting it would sell out before the event Ticket prices remained the same in 2015 as in previous years, in a bid to keep the event accessible to all. With the introduction of Abu Dhabi Hill tickets in 2013, a one-day Friday ticket provides a starting price of Dh395 ($107.52), helping to make the event as widely accessible and affordable as possible. At the higher end of the price range, Dh15,895 ($4327) tickets for three days in a Marina Bay suite were also available for purchase.

Located on the upper, air-conditioned floors of the pit building, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has by far the largest Paddock Club gathering of all the Grand Prix events, with 7500 VIP guests helping to position the occasion as “the biggest business meeting of the year” taking place in the UAE.

The 2015 event once again included a diverse and large-scale build-up of music and entertainment that was centred on the Yasalam festival and produced by Abu Dhabi’s own live-events management company, Flash Entertainment. The seven-week, multi-spectrum festival tied in with the F1 race and included music, entertainment, and community and UAE cultural celebrations in the run-up to the Grand Prix, with a purpose-built F1 Fan Zone opening a week before the race weekend. John Lickrish, CEO at Flash Entertainment, told OBG that the diverse line-up of events surrounding the main attraction supports the overall goal of building destination awareness while showcasing the emirate’s strengths as a location, bringing direct and indirect benefits to the emirate’s wider tourism and hospitality sector.

Local Content

Foreign visitors are not the only guests who are being actively courted. In terms of innovative musical and entertainment offerings, content creation is also being built to meet local interests and demand. As Al Tareq Al Ameri, CEO of ADMM, told OBG, local interest is especially important for the continued growth and health of Abu Dhabi’s Grand Prix, as well as other events. ADMM is looking at new ways to infuse the Grand Prix with further participation by local vendors and additional attractions tailored to UAE nationals.

With Yas Marina Circuit currently active for around 300 days of the year, ADMM is also focusing on making their operation more efficient yearround. Along with creating additional revenue streams for the venue, ADMM is looking at new ways to promote Abu Dhabi’s cultural and brand position locally and abroad. Outside of the Grand Prix, Yas Marina Circuit remains active throughout the year across the motorsport, retail and corporate segments, as well as in health and fitness. In 2015 there were over 200,000 visits to the circuit for health and fitness activities alone, making it – along with its extensive sponsor and partner base – one of the top community platforms in the UAE.

Sponsorship Planning

Sponsorship could prove particularly challenging in 2016, however, as sport stakeholders across the UAE have acknowledged that difficult macroeconomic conditions and challenging global hydrocarbons markets will likely impact sponsorship revenues.

For example, in January 2016 Patrick Pierce, vice-president for sponsorships at Etihad Airways, told local media that the airline will be carefully evaluating its international sponsorship portfolio in light of a potential downturn in the global travel industry. However, Talal Al Hashemi, the technical affairs department director at ADSC, has also indicated that the council expects local sponsorship revenues to remain stable for the coming year.

Nonetheless, the introduction of new events, an enhanced focus on local content and greater global exposure at major events should keep the sector on track in the short term, while the country’s upcoming hosting of the 2019 Asian Cup and FIFA Club World Cup events will further underscore long-term growth.

Football Tournaments

Perhaps the most significant recent development for the broader UAE’s sports industry development came on March 9, 2015, when the AFC announced that the UAE’s bid to host the Asian Cup for the second time ( having already hosted it in 1996) had been successful. On making the announcement, the Football Association said that the award came as a result of the UAE’s strong reputation for staging major regional and international events, including the 1996 Asian Cup, the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship, the 2009 and 2010 FIFA Club World Cups, and the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Officials also announced that participation in the 2019 tournament will be expanded to include a total of 24 teams, instead of 16, which had been the case previously. The economic benefits of hosting the Asian Cup, the largest football tournament in Asia, will be significant, and are slated to bring benefits across the nation. For example, in September 2015 officials from the tournament’s executive committee announced that in addition to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain, games will also be hosted in Sharjah, and the Asian Cup will now involve eight stadiums rather than six. Abu Dhabi will host games at Zayed Sports City and Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium.

Less than two weeks after the awarding of the Asian Cup, FIFA officials also announced that the UAE will also host the FIFA Club World Cups in 2017 and 2018, organising the international club football tournaments between the champion clubs from each of the six continental football confederations, as well as the national league champion team from the host country. Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a sporting events centre continues to grow.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2016

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