To get an idea of Zayed Sports City’s place in the UAE community, all you have to do is look at the local currency.
The back of the Dh200 bank note depicts an image of the UAE Central Bank, which issued the note in 1989, well after the first dirham went into circulation in 1973. On the front is an illustration of the Sharia Court building and the instantly-recognisable outer shell of Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father and first president, Zayed Sports City is the nation’s premier sporting facility for hosting both international and regional activities and events.
The Abu Dhabi landmark has stood since 1980 and been an integral part of the UAE sporting scene since its opening, but it has reached new heights in the last half decade thanks to Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company, which took over operations in 2010.
Barry Bremner, general manager of Zayed Sports City and Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company’s first employee, has been part of getting the most out of the venue.
“Zayed Sports City, in terms of the first main building, was built 35 years ago. That was part of Sheikh Zayed’s vision to have the youth of the UAE participate in sport. When we took over as the current company, which is Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company, we had around 400,000 people using the facilities in 2010 and they did roughly six events.
“We’ve worked very hard over the last five years and this year we did 1.6 million, in terms of people participating in the 188 events and sports within the facility,” Bremner told Sport360.
“We haven’t actually built any new facilities. We’ve tweaked and added some pitches and added paintball, but we’ve not actually built a large new facility. All we’ve taken is what was there and helped activate it. Simple as that.”
Originally constructed as an Oly-mpic complex, Zayed Sports City has a number of facilities to cater to different sports.
The ice rink (originally called Abu Dhabi Ice Rink) opened in 1987, the Khalifa International Bowling Centre opened in 1998, the International Tennis Centre opened in 2005, while paintball was introduced earlier this year.
With so much to offer in terms of facilities and range of activities, it’s no wonder what Bremner considers Zayed Sports City’s biggest strength to be for attracting residents.
“I think it’s the diversity of the customer base that we’ve got,” he said.
“Within the ice rink, for example, we have a lot of Emiratis. Within bowling, we have lots of Filipinos. You get on the pitches, we’ve got a mix of international people playing football. We’ve got kids, we’ve got adults, we’ve got high numbers of Emiratis. In rugby, we have a lot of expats.
“So it’s actually the diversity of what we do. When you look at the diversity of the city itself, it sort of matches. The sports we have are actually quite complimentary to the community within Abu Dhabi.
“Obviously the UAE and specifically Abu Dhabi has grown in terms of its population. At the same time, our competition has grown. So it’s not just other facilities we’re competing against, it’s for people’s time. Do people choose to go to the mall, do they go to another sports facility? I would say we’ve been quite successful in that we’ve actually probably activated more than other facilities within the UAE.”
“Some of it is around price point. We don’t see ourselves as an exclusive club. The cheapest thing you can do on site is bowling, which is Dh15 per game, all the way up to having private tennis lessons. There’s a whole diversity and range of programmes.
“You can come and walk for free at night. People run, rollerblade and cycle around the stadium, which is all for free. So we’re very inclusive in the way we encourage people to the site.”
Attracting individuals in the UAE community is one thing, but drawing the interest of events – whether they carry worldwide or local appeal – is another challenge in itself.
On the international end, Zayed Sports City has hosted renowned events such as the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010 and WWE Live just recently in February.
In 2015, more international football has been brought over to the nation’s capital, with friendlies of Ivory Coast v Nigeria, Ivory Coast v Sweden and Sweden v Finland taking place earlier this year, while a match-up between Colombia and Kuwait will be played tonight.
“Behind the scenes, we’ve actually spent a lot of time attracting those big events to Zayed Sports City,” Bremner said.
“Part of it is around the facilities we have on offer. If you want an event for 43,000 people, we can host it at the Stadium. The Tennis Centre quite nicely holds up to 6,000 if you use the floor. So we’ve got a diverse range of hosting capability.
“But actually the strength is in the team that we employ. When clients sit with our events managers, customer service managers, the operations team, they realise they’re dealing with a very professional team at Zayed Sports City. We always like to think customer service is at the forefront of everything that we do. As a client, when you come here, we make sure we have all the answers here waiting for you.”
But while Zayed Sports City benefits from drawing eyes from across the world, the venue’s bread and butter is its ability to host regional events.
Whether it’s the UAE’s largest amateur tennis tournament in the Abu Dhabi Wilson Tennis Cup, or something catering to families like the OMO Carnival, Zayed Sports City have become the go-to location not only in Abu Dhabi, but in the country.
“In Abu Dhabi, we found Zayed Sports City to be the perfect location for the OMO Carnival, as the team at Zayed Sports City is an expert at running family and community activities throughout the year,” said Waqas Javed, market director for foods, refreshments & home care for Unilever Gulf.
“It sure has been a great privilege working directly with Zayed Sports City team and partnering with them to host the first OMO Carnival in Abu Dhabi.”
Just five years into his stay at Zayed Sports City, Bremner and his team have helped take the venue to new heights. Five years from now, more should only be on the way.
“We’re never done,” Bremner said.
“I actually think that you’ll see a lot of facilities revitalised. You’ll see different types of events coming here. I believe that our team will start to expand.
“I think you’ll see a period of growth for Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company, not necessarily just at Zayed Sports City. We may actually look to expand in other facilities within the UAE.”
Driving down Al Wasl road in Dubai, a flashy block of stores designed as colourful cargo containers can be spotted just past Safa Park.
That stretch of shops and restaurants is called Box Park and towards the end of it, a new cycling store called Liv can be found. Liv is the Middle East’s first ever female-specific cycling store and was founded by Bonnie Tu, a woman often referred to as the ‘Godmother of Cycling’.
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As the chief financial officer (CFO) – and founder investor alongside chairman King Liu – of Giant Bicycles, Tu created Liv in 2007 after realising how underserved women were when it came to cycling.
As a teenager, Tu would commute from her home to school on her bike, riding the 10km distance every day. Over 30 years later, she got reacquainted with the sport when she decided to join King in his attempt to compete in the Tour of Taiwan.
Before taking on that challenge, Tu went on a quest to find an outfit to wear during the race but she found that finding female-specific apparel for cyclists was not an easy task. She didn’t finish the Tour of Taiwan, but at the age of 57, she still managed to complete 900km over 15 days.
Tu has since called herself as a “reborn cyclist”. That experience reignited her passion for the sport and she began learning how to switch gears and climb hills. Her toughest challenge to date was riding up to the highest peak in Taiwan, some 3,625km, three years ago.
While she admits she wouldn’t want to put herself through that again, her dedication to getting more women to take up cycling has got stronger and stronger and it all started with her creating Liv following her Tour of Taiwan adventure eight years ago.
Liv’s mission is to provide female-specific bikes, gear and apparel in a welcoming retail environment with the purpose of making cycling more approachable and appealing so that it can become a mainstream sport and fitness activity among women.
Tu, pictured right, has opened Liv stores in eight different cities and there are more than 2,000 retailers that sell her products. The store at Box Park in Dubai is the first in the Middle East and Tu believes the emirate is a perfect fit for her brand.
Every cyclist will have a range of bicycles available at Dubai’s Liv store including entry-level road, mountain and commuter bikes and high-end offerings. With the brand entirely managed by women, including bicycle engineers, gear designers and retail specialists, the Liv experience is something that has expanded rapidly.
“Dubai is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city, with lots of expatriates and locals. They have all sorts of levels of riding and I think this will be a hot spot for cyclists,” Tu told Sport360 following the launch of her new store.
“I think Dubai is full of very savvy shoppers. So they know what is right and good because Dubai has everything. A brand with good value, they can identify that immediately.”
Liv started off as a brand linked to Giant, but last year Tu took her project from being Liv/Giant to just Liv and she feels it was the right call.
“When we started it was called Liv/Giant. And now after almost eight years, I think the market is mature enough to accept a standalone women’s brand. So I became independent in 2014 and split from Giant and it’s only Liv now,” she explains. “All women are entitled to independence, and so is Liv.”
While Dubai is becoming a hotbed for cycling with the development of track and paths dedicated to riders like the Al Qudra Cycle Path and the Nad Al Sheba Cycle Park, bringing a women-specific brand to the Middle East was definitely a bold move, considering the cultural barriers many ladies face in this part of the world that could discourage them from getting on a bike here. But Tu has her reasons for venturing into this territory.
“Actually it encouraged me because one of our missions is to try to make cycling a mainstream sport for women. So this will be a very ideal location for Liv,” she says. “I want to really work with locals to develop apparel for Muslim women.
“I need the support from the locals, because I don’t really understand what are the limitations. So I need locals to tell me what direction I should go in.”
Wherever she goes, Tu makes sure she engages with the community. Like most cycling stores here, Liv organise weekly community rides to foster the culture of riding.
Liv are current sponsors of the UAE National Cycling Women’s Team, providing them – through their local agent Dubai Desert Extreme (DDE) – with both bikes, gear and apparel.
They also have been supporting Afghanistan’s first-ever national women’s team, a group of ladies who have claimed their right to cycle despite it being forbidden for years, thanks to the help of Mountain2Mountain – a non-profit organisation which Tu has chosen to give a hand by supplying bikes and outfits.
“It means a lot to me especially for the local women to take up cycling. That would be very rewarding and challenging to Liv,” Tu said of her hopes for the UAE. “Females were under-served in the cycling industry so I think I’m senior enough in this industry to start this project and to serve females with what they are entitled to.
“All women are welcome, I don’t have any specific type of consumer. We are trying to cater for all levels of female cyclists.
“Whether you are a beginner or a top-end rider. I want cycling to be a well-accepted sport in this region.
“This is one of the most challenging regions for us and it is a place where I really want to cultivate the brand.”
A recent study conducted by Dubai Sports Council showed that 73 per cent of people in the northern emirate choose cycling as their preferred activity of choice. While it is unclear how many of those are women, Abdulla Suwaidan, the team manager of the UAE Cycling Federation squads, believes more and more females are taking up the sport in the country.
“It was a smart choice for Liv to open up this store here in Dubai because the UAE is starting to really embrace the idea of females on bikes,” said Suwaidan.
“A huge portion of the population, both expats and locals will be interested in paying a visit to that store.
“Today we have a women’s national team consisting of 10 cyclists – two of which (Fatma Mohamed and Maha Salem) have clinched silver medals at the last Arab Championships, beating out countries like Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq, all who have a much longer tradition in cycling.
“In the Nad Al Sheba race last Ramadan, there were 32 Emirati women taking part in the amateur race.
“This is a clear indication of how widespread the sport is becoming amongst the female population.
“None of this would have happened without the support of the government who have built all these cycle paths and tracks around the city."
What started in a basement has morphed into an $11 billion monster which now has the United Arab Emirates firmly in its gaze.
Nike and adidas may have dominated the sportswear landscape for decades but Under Armour are growing at an incredible rate, making some incredible waves in the process and their backstory is quite something.
Founder and CEO Kevin Plank used to traipse up and down the East coast of America with a car full of stock and hopes. And it wasn’t until a meeting with an Oscar winning director and actor that his dreams started to become a glorious, and lucrative, reality.
Fast forward to today though and his brainchild is now, incredibly, the second most popular brand in the US. Their stable boasts some of the most exciting athletes on the planet.
You only have to listen to Plank, 42, for a matter of moments to discover the kind of drive, belief and attitude which persuaded the likes of Tom Brady, Andy Murray, Jordan Spieth and NBA superstar Stephen Curry to share his vision. The Welsh rugby team and the EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur are also on board.
And it was thanks to the unlikely combination of Oliver Stone and Jamie Foxx that the company stands so tall right now.
With a store in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall already opened and one in Dubai soon to follow, Under Armour are making their move in the “untapped” Middle Eastern sporting market. Yet, as the company continues to gain ground on market leader Nike, it seems only right to trace all the way back to 1996 and the start of this all-American success story.
With the realization a career in the NFL was not on the cards, Plank, a decent player in his University of Maryland days, turned his hand to what his football playing friends needed – shirts which stayed dry under all that heavy padding.
While they boast an impressive selection of trainers and general sportswear, it was Under Armour’s compression vests worn underneath traditional athletic shirts which set them apart. Murray, for one, is a huge fan.
“I never really liked the way my cotton t-shirt felt,” Plank told Sport360º at a glitzy Manhattan launch of Curry’s signature basketball shoe, which was superbly and hilariously compered by friend and associate Foxx.
“So I had this idea for a shirt – why doesn’t anyone make a better alternative than going from short sleeve cotton in the summer to long sleeve in the winter?
“I went to a fabrics store where I bought some material that I thought would fit the idea – synthetic in nature so it wouldn’t hold moisture. No-one had done anything like that at that time. There was a couple of things – like synthetic moisture management but no-one had ever complied compression to it.
“The company was born. My grandmother had passed away a few years before. There was this old house in Georgetown, Washington DC and I set up shop there. I was living on the third floor, my sales office was in the dining room. My inventory was in the basement.
“Everyday I wouldn’t know what would happen but I certainly never believed that it wouldn’t happen.”
Plank’s belief is infectious but everyone needs a break. His came, quite uniquely, thanks to the 1999 film ‘Any Given Sunday’ starring Al Pacino, Foxx, directed by cinematic legend Stone and involved him hurriedly stitching the Under Armour insignia into a jock-strap.
“Maybe other companies have Oscar winning actors to help promote their brand but Jamie isn’t someone who we just hired. He has a very strong relationship with our brand. Do others have that?” he asked.
“A friend of mine was the starting quarterback for the 49ers and they were playing in Washington. A friend of his said ‘oh I have just been cut but I have managed to land a role in this Oliver Stone movie about football.’
“I put a package together and sent it over the following day. I didn’t hear anything until I got a call from the costume designer the following week.
“Oliver Stone wanted it to be a very futuristic looking movie and thought our logo, the way our shirts looked was perfect. He basically wanted to make the apparel a character in the movie. Normally, you have to pay for product placement .
“I remember them calling me and saying ‘we need some shirts.’ So I responded with ‘well, you are going to have to pay us.’
“I had to get a lot of stock ready pretty fast. They wanted a jock strap too which is shown in the film. I started stitching our logo very quickly! They ended up paying us $43,000. It wasn’t so much about the money – more that people thought that Under Armour was special.”
The financial figures for 2014 and beyond certainly attest to that. Their share price rose 62.5 per cent last year while company revenue topped $3 billion for the first time in 2014. Since going public in late 2005, revenue and earnings growth have averaged more than 30 per cent. Under Armour stock has increased 1,022 per cent, compared to a 408 per cent gain by Nike.
“They (adidas and Nike) are each going to grow 8 per cent, our latest figures have us at 22 per cent. In the last five quarters we have grown over 30 per cent,” Plank proudly added.
While Golden State Warriors star Curry, a contender for MVP this season, and Super Bowl winning quarter-back Brady are Under Armour’s key men in the US, the signing of Murray earlier this year caught many in Europe by surprise.
A long term adidas devotee, the world no3 was impressed when speaking with Plank and instantly bought into his ethos. Murray, never one to align himself with conformity, was intrigued with the company’s slightly left-field approach and a promise to create his own line of bespoke tennis shoes to be released later this year.
Plank isn’t just interested in North America though. And it’s not just about seeing stock fly off the shelves in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. His plan delves far deeper than that. There is a serious push to get people training correctly and efficiently.
The company spent upwards of $600 million buying digital fitness apps MyFitnessPal and Endomondo.
“We see the world as an untapped market and so we are so happy to start making inroads in the Middle East. Revenue from outside the US totals 9 per cent. Our definition of becoming a global brand is to have half our revenues outside our home country,” said the man who is now worth a cool $3 billion.
“Sun and Sand have been terrific partners while we also have a great relationship in Dubai. I’ve got tremendous respect for the people we have dealt with there.
— Under Armour Run (@UARunning) February 20, 2015
“Sheikh Mohammed is one of my favourite entrepreneurs in the world and the partnership we have there is very exciting. The new store which we have opened in Dubai, we expect to be an important brand there and in the Middle East sport is different there compared to the United States
“The structure is not there yet, the high school systems, athletes compete in the Olympics but not much else. We will help bring a healthier, more active lifestyle, introduce our thoughts on nutrition. That’s our gift.
“We don’t want to just go there and sell shirts and shoes, we want to become an active part of the community. When it comes to the Middle East , Under Armour are just getting started.”