When the world No1 walks up to you and asks for support, the chances of you saying ‘no’ are fairly remote. That’s what happened earlier this year during the Dubai Desert Classic.
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Apart from trying to win the tournament – which he eventually did – Rory McIlroy was also busy meeting people in an effort to secure sponsorship for the Irish Open, one of the oldest tournaments on the European Tour.
McIlroy’s charity – the Rory Foundation – got involved with the tournament this year, making the popular Northern Irishman the host of the event.
So, when McIlroy and his caddie JP Fitzgerald approached Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice-Chairman, Dubai Duty Free, it would have been easy for the charismatic Irishman to say yes to his fellow countryman then and there.
After all, Dubai Duty Free, which logged sales of $2 billion last year – the largest single airport duty free operation in the world – are known for their love of sport. Last year, their total spend on sponsorship and marketing was Dh175 million.
But McLoughlin did his due diligence, and as attractive the proposal sounded, he has cautiously signed on the dotted line for just one year, with the option to extend it for another couple of years “if everything goes as per our expectations”.
There were many reasons for Dubai Duty Free to extend its portfolio of title sponsorships beyond the mega successful WTA and ATP Dubai Tennis Championship, the Dubai Duty Free Darts Championship, the Irish Derby, the Shergar Cup at Ascot, the International Raceday at Newbury, aside from playing a big part in the annual Dubai World Cup, Omega Dubai Desert Classic and DP World Tour Championship. And yet, the biggest reason was McIlroy himself.
“Rory McIlroy is a remarkable young man. Even though he is just 25 years old, for me, he is already one of the finest sportsmen in my lifetime,” said McLoughlin, a passionate golfer himself who has been Captain of both Dubai Creek and Emirates Golf Club.
“We all know about him as a golfer. What he has achieved at such a young age – winning four majors already and I am sure there are many more to come – is amazing.
“But I am more impressed with the person that he is. For someone who has got so much fame and money at such a young age, he is still a very grounded person. It hasn’t gone to his head. I think that is the most endearing quality about Rory.
“He spoke to me about the Rory Foundation and what they want to do, and it resonated a lot with the objectives we have at our Dubai Duty Free Foundation.
“You can see he wants to do a lot for the underprivileged. He is quite passionate about it, and is very mindful of his responsibilities as one of the leading sports stars in the world.”
When asked if it was a good investment to get McIlroy without paying any appearance fee – the Ulsterman is supposed to be charging in the vicinity of $1 million to $1.5 million for playing events that do not fit his schedule – McLoughlin could not suppress a chuckle.
— DP World Tour Chm'ip (@DPWTC) May 13, 2015
“Smart, aren’t we?! We are not paying him anything, and he is even helping us sell the tournament,” quipped McLoughlin.
“No, Rory has been great for us, but he has been even better for the tournament. He has invested his own time and effort in ensuring that the Irish Open is a success.
“Obviously, everyone wants to see Rory and it also helps that he is playing so well. But he has also made sure that several of his friends on the Tour turn up and support the event.
“There is Rickie Fowler, who just won the Players Championship. And there are guys like such greats as Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia who are in the field.
“It’s already a field that is world class and once you have good players, you are sure of getting good media exposure. That is very important for us to justify our sponsorship of the tournament.
“This will be the first time in the history of the tournament that The Golf Channel is sending its own team for live coverage. All this is very encouraging news, especially from our point of view.”
— GreenKeeping Ireland (@greenkeepingire) May 18, 2015
The Irish Open has been without a title sponsor since Three Mobile pulled out in 2010 and, while the economic situation remains bleak and not many local companies were coming forward to embrace the event, it wasn’t the case with fans. The tournament has consistently seen some of the best crowd attendance on the European Tour, with the 2012 edition at Royal Portrush exceeding 131,000 people walking through the gates over six days.
It became the first tournament in European Tour history to be sold out for all four days and McLoughlin is expecting more of the same this year because of the involvement of McIlroy.
“I think there is an amazing buzz around the tournament, and most of it has to do with Rory’s involvement. Having said that, I have been receiving mails from many people in Ireland thanking us for our support to the tournament,” added McLoughlin.
“I have been told that the ticket sales have been brisk and in fact, we are expecting the last two days of the tournament to be sold out in the next couple of days.”
McLoughlin ruled out any personal sponsorship of McIlroy, saying that wasn’t the model followed by Dubai Duty Free.
“Many years ago, we used to sponsor Thomas Bjorn for a few years when he moved to Dubai but we haven’t sponsored any athlete personally after that, and I don’t imagine us doing it for Rory either,” said McLoughlin.
“I don’t know. I have no good answer why we don’t do that, but we don’t. You can call it company philosophy. We like to be part of events, and we like the fact that fans can come and be a part of it.
“Obviously, we have (WTA stars) Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki as our global brand ambassadors, but that comes to us with being global sponsors of WTA.”
And since no interview with McLoughlin can be complete without asking a question on Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, we asked ours: Would he like to reveal any future plans for the popular tournament?
“We have our 25th anniversary celebration in a couple of years, and we are already making plans towards it. We want it to be an unforgettable moment for all tennis fans in Dubai,” said McLoughlin.
“But no other plans apart from that. If you want to ask me whether we are thinking of elevating it to a ATP1000 event, then no. We are very happy with our tournaments as they are.”
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Rugby league in the UAE is making huge gains in terms of popularity, exposure and support, but that’s not to say it hasn’t had its share of trying times.
Firstly, it has to compete against its more illustrious and established older brother, rugby union.
Then there are financial implications – after the debut league season was played in 2013 there was then no competition at all in 2014 due to a lack of sponsorship.
There’s even the issue of, halfway through just its second season, the sport being forced to undergo a rapid rebrand due to the threat of legal action from the union governing body, the UAE Rugby Federation.
Despite suddenly changing name to Rugby League Commission, there are finally signs that progress is being made.
Two years ago, the RLC’s Lebanese president Sol Mokdad funded half of the entire rugby league season himself – at a personal cost of Dh15,000.
Now he has a chorus of helpers, including a board and executive committee ensuring he is no longer a one-man band.
Mokdad first laid the foundations for rugby league in the UAE in 2007 when there was no such thing in the country, taking it upon himself to approach the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) to establish the sport in the Middle East, a truly daunting task.
The first Rugby League Cup was played in 2013 and won by Abu Dhabi Harlequins, but all of Mokdad’s work looked like it would be forgotten when the 2014 season failed to go ahead due to financial struggles, chief among them the failure to attract a sponsor.
After pumping his own money into the initial campaign, Mokdad knew he couldn’t afford to do the same again.
Another Dh10,000 in 2013 had come courtesy of PR agency TBWA/RAAD and a further Dh5,000 from merchandise.
The only option was to cancel the season, but in 2015 things appear to be running a lot smoother.
This year’s competition is known as the Nissan Rugby League Cup after the car manufacturer stumped up a five-figure sum.
Reigning champions Harlequins are back to defend their crown and are joined by Xodus Wasps, Al Ain Amblers and Dubai Sharks.
Even though the Nissan financial package is initially only for a season, talks are ongoing to expand that for another three years.
— Apollo Perelini (@Apollo11Rugby) April 21, 2015
On top of that, a host of familiar names have leant their support.
Fitness First provide Man of the Match awards. Bespoke Wellness supply the competition’s medical, physio and massage requirements both pre and post-match.
Zaatar W Zeit provide food for the players, while mineral water firm BLK supply referees kits.
To drive down costs further, the three rounds of the competition are played at a different venue each week, with every host club providing an ambulance each weekend.
At the third and Grand Final rounds in Al Ain, costs won’t be an issue as the club will provide its Al Ain Equestrian Shooting & Golf Club facilities for free.
All these are little boosts for a fledgling organisation, but something Mokdad hopes might develop into full financial backing soon.
“It’s come a long way since 2007 and has come on leaps and bounds this season, thanks to the exposure we’re getting,” said Mokdad.
“We’ve been able to get really good people on board. Before it was a one man show, just me, and there’s only so much I could do.”
Rugby union in the UAE, like league, is an amateur sport.
However, when you consider that the Rugby League Commission supplied its own kits to three of the teams in 2013, while Dubai Exiles have a reportedly lucrative shirt sponsorship deal with AIG, union is still light years ahead.
“I’ve had this running battle with the governing body where they expect us to compete with rugby union,” said the 30-year-old.
“Union here is huge. They have a lot of money and access to funds whereas we’re trying to develop a sport with a similar concept with no funds from anywhere.
“It’s very difficult without sponsors. I’ve put a lot of my own money into it to get it going. It’s picked up now and more people are on board.”
Much of that is thanks to Nissan, although the sponsorship for this season almost never arrived.
— UAE RUGBY FEDERATION (@uaerugby) April 11, 2015
Arabian Automobiles Company (AAC) are the sole distributor of Nissan in Dubai and the Northern Emirates. An original six-figure deal was reduced to five because
AAC were unsure about backing rugby. They almost backed out, but decided to go ahead for this season.
Mokdad said: “It will be readdressed at the end of the season. We’re already looking at them taking us on for another three years, and the exposure we are getting is helping us. It’s definitely something they’re interested in.
“We’re putting all our eggs into the basket of the Grand Final and hopefully, by then, they’ll have decided how they want to move forward. Associating with big brands will get more companies buying into what you want to do.”
After three weeks of Cup competition, the Grand Final will be played in Al Ain on Friday, May 15.
Venues are another area where the RLC has been able to drive down costs and Mokdad said: “It’s really expensive to run a sport in Dubai. Especially in terms of facilities, because there’s so many people competing for the same amount of space.
“You won’t be able to find anything for less than Dh1,000 per hour for a decent, full-sized pitch, and that’s even if you can find one. At Dubai Sports City, just for the facilities and water, it costs Dh4,600 before anyone did anything.”
In addition to Nissan’s backing and each team paying a registration fee of Dh1,500 each, the league operates on Dh16,000 a season.
Whatever happens in the future, Mokdad insists rugby league is here to stay.
“What happened in 2014 is a thing of the past because we’ve got a functioning board and executive committee whose sole purpose is commercial drive and the commercial side of the RLC,” he said.
“Their job is to get sponsors. We can run the competition at a low cost because there only has to be four teams and a round robin format to meet affiliate criteria.
“We’re not obliged to have a longer season which costs more. We can run the competition for as low as Dh5,000. It won’t be as flash but there’s no worries about it not going ahead again.
“And we’re already planning to expand next season as I’ve already had calls from two teams who want to enter, Dubai Exiles and Beaver Nomads. With more teams, comes more interest and more sponsors.”
As for future plans, becoming an affiliate member of the governing body is at the top of the agenda.
Mokdad said: “We receive no funds from the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) or RLEF as of yet because we’re only observer members.
“That is the first level of membership to the RLEF. What we’re trying to get by our AGM in July is affiliate membership, which means we can apply for funds and grants.”
Part of reaching affiliate status is the implementation of youth programme and national representation, both of which the RLC is keen to address.
They are planning on staging an international fixture against Lebanon in June and will also be hosting a Rugby World Cup qualifier between Lebanon and South Africa in October.
A singular rugby league academy is also in the pipeline, with aims to boost the ranks of the national team, the Falcons.
“Our ultimate plan is do what we’re doing now again next year, but bigger and better,” said Mokdad.
“We want all the money from sponsorship to go towards putting on a real spectacle of an event. It definitely feels like things are starting to come together.”
Meet the teams…
Abu Dhabi Harlequins
Coach: Tony Scott
Previous best: Reigning champions (2013). Quins were undefeated as they lifted the first rugby league trophy, historically becoming the first champions of a domestic rugby league competition held in the Emirates.
Star players: Lots of Quins’ exciting young union prospects are part of their league team, including the explosive Iziq Foa’i, William Umu and Ben Santamarina. New guys Matt Smith, Brian Geraghty and Scott Brodie have also been making headlines in the early weeks of the season.
Coach: James Agus
Previous best: 2013 Plate winners. Wasps beat Al Ain Amblers 60-36 two years ago but under Agus, a former Great Britain youth international and Leeds Rhinos academy player, they are looking to make the Cup final this season.
Star players: They have a host of former league stars and promising young talent from the UK. Centre Jaymes Chapman formally played for Halifax, Conor Armstrong is a product of Warrington Wolves’ academy and Sam Housley used to play for Huddersfield Giants.
Al Ain Amblers
Coach: Keleto Dyer
Previous best: Formed in 2013, the Amblers went down to the Xodus Wasps in the Plate final two seasons ago, but have come into the Nissan Rugby League Cup on the back of an awesome union season in which they won the UAE Conference and won promotion to the UAE Premiership.
Star players: Ranato Tikoisolomone and Joshua Raviti Navabale are two players with rugby league experience, while the club’s powerful Fijian contingent provide energy, as well as new South African signing Tiaan Visser. Beat Dubai Sharks 100-6 in round two of the competition last week.
Coach: Ray Shaw
Previous best: New boys Sharks are in unchartered waters, making their debut in the Nissan Rugby
Star players: Little general Dan Crumplin, who is the side’s skipper and scrum-half, is an explosive player. Stevie Lennard, a union second row who’s physical game suits league, has also been singled out. Union players Alan Robertson and Etienne Masson are also in the team, while Aphaxard Andrew is a handful.
Sport360 recently caught up with Stephane Waser, managing director at Maurice Lacroix, to discover how the luxury watchmaker’s foray into football with FC Barcelona is going.
When did the partnership with FC Barcelona start?
SW: The partnership kicked off last year – we are just about to complete the first full season with the club.
How is the exclusive FC Barcelona timepiece collection going since announcing the partnership?
SW: It is selling quite well for a sports collection. However, some people actually didn’t want the timepiece with the FC Barcelona logo, so we decided to make the same timepieces from the collection without the football club’s logo.
Since the partnership, would you say Maurice Lacroix has experienced a big growth in terms of sales?
SW: Awareness is rising because you have 400,000 people that know more about Maurice Lacroix than before and it is quite good as an image with FC Barcelona being one of the greatest clubs in the world. But it is also what you do out of it and how both sides can leverage from the partnership.
What prompted the partnership with Barcelona?
SW: It was a combination of the team and the sport, because it is quite a popular sport, so it is about mass. If you were to go for tennis, it would be very specific and congested as well.
One of Maurice Lacroix’s ambassadors is Australian Olympic swimmer James Magnussen – what encouraged the brand to sign him?
SW: It was purely the image of James. He came to us and made us aware that he really likes what we are doing. So it was a lot of personal motivation from his end, due to his love for the brand.
Will you keep pushing for sports related partnerships?
SW: We want to focus on football to be honest. We already have four clubs in Germany within the Bundesliga. We also just signed FC Basel and will be looking for other clubs in the future to sign partnerships with.
Football is a great business model. You can get a lot of it in terms of hospitality; image and you also reach the right people.
Does Maurice Lacroix have big plans for the Middle East?
SW: We just re-launched in the Middle East just recently. We were very strong in the region during the late 1990s and at one point would sell 80,000 watches a year in Saudi Arabia.
Then with 2008-09 we changed our strategy and tried to go a little higher but it did not really work out. So now we are back to where we had all our success in the commercial range; timepieces that are between the one to Dhs3,800 – Dhs11,600 range as well as a few nice PR pieces.
Who would you say is your biggest competitor in the Middle East market?
SW: TAG Heuer and Longines would be our two biggest competitors. That is the level at which we position ourselves, so these two brands fit.
Would you ever consider tapping into the Formula One sphere?
SW: You need a lot of money to enter the F1 sponsorship world and everybody is in there; Rolex, Hublot, TAG, etc. We got such an exceptional deal with FC Barcelona that we could get a lot of out it. This is a unique deal.
How long is the partnership with the football club for?
SW: It is a three-year partnership, so two more to go. Once the three years are up, we will meet with the club and discuss the possibility of extending.
What is next for Maurice Lacroix?
SW: Football of course – with the unique player watch collection. With the big 40-year anniversary also happening this year, we are planning a huge promotion starting September.
We also just signed a Korean ambassador for the Asian market, who is very popular in China, another strong market for the brand.
Would Maurice Lacroix enter anything other than timepieces?
SW: I do not think so. We want to stick to our core business, watches. We do have cufflinks and wallets, but only sell them in complete sets. However, for markets like the Middle East, we feel we should focus solely on watches as it has the greatest potential.