27 Dec

Life & Sports in the UAE

by Oleksandra Rovinska, VP of External Affairs at Stern Political Economy Exchange, New York University Abu Dhabi ‘19

Studying at an American institution, but not in the US. Living in the Middle East, but sharing an apartment with a Greek, Egyptian, and South African. Going skiing during summer, but playing beach volleyball during winter. Sounds intriguing? Well, this is my reality in the United Arab Emirates.

I moved from Kyiv to Abu Dhabi two years ago, in pursuit of my Economics degree. I always wanted to study abroad, to gain an international experience, and when I learned about New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, it seemed to be a perfect fit. Today, I know I made the right decision, and let me share with you just 5 of the things that stand out to me about the UAE:

1. Diversity

At my university alone, we have students from over 110 different nationalities. Certainly, NYU Abu Dhabi is one of a kind, but there is a reason why officials chose to build such a diverse campus specifically here. The UAE ranks #1 worldwide based on the number of immigrants as a proportion of the population, according to United Nations figures. Just imagine what blend of cultures this creates. When migrants make up over 85% of the population, interacting with foreigners becomes the norm, rather than an exception. Every day I converse and hang out with people from Paraguay and Fiji, Montenegro and Singapore, Ghana and New Zealand. It is an incredible opportunity to learn something new, while sharing my own knowledge and culture on a daily basis.

2. Acceptance

Because the UAE is so diverse, you never feel singled out here. I remember several years ago in New York, I was entering one of the downtown malls when the doorman addressed me in broken Russian. “Welcome to New York,” he said. “How do you like it here?” When I responded in English, he was surprised and noted how well I spoke the language. In Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, I never experienced anything like this. Undoubtedly, I stand out, especially given my light hair. I cannot be mistaken for an Arab and definitely not for an Emirati. Yet, I blend in. Despite the booming travel industry, people do not assume I am a tourist. Maybe I was born in the UAE and lived here my whole life. Maybe I moved here 6 months ago because of a job offer. Maybe I am here for the weekend, visiting my family. The possibilities are countless.

Moreover, you can find here people from your own country and really feel at home away from home. Ukrainians, for example, have a Facebook group titled “Ukrainians in the Emirates” which has over 7,000 members. Every week we gather for an active Friday where we play sports. This gives us a chance to bond over things we enjoy, especially soccer which is a big part of our culture. Sometimes we also participate in tournaments where we compete against other teams, such as the Sorbonne Beach Volleyball Tournament. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people while bringing our sports skills to a new level.

3. Government commitment

The UAE government furthermore pursues intercultural exchange in sports by welcoming international participants and new sports establishments in the country. The UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation, for instance, was founded in November 2012 with the support of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The competition has been rapidly expanding over the years, with more than 5,000 fighters competed in the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Cup this year. The tournament is billed as the largest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu event in the world, offering more than 650,000 USD in prizes. At the same time, the government readily promotes traditional sports as well, such as falconry and camel racing. One of the UAE festivals dedicated to camels is the Final Annual Camel Races Festival. This 10-day event involves over 25,000 participants – more than 10,000 people and 15,000 camels. I personally have not attended it yet, but it is definitely on my to-do list!

4. Entrepreneurialism and “developmental spirit”

The UAE also creates a welcoming environment for outside organizations desiring to work with the country. A recent example is the 2016 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. This October the Arabian Gulf hosted 22 of the world’s best cliff divers who arrived to Dubai for the grand finale. The show attracted over 12,000 people eager to watch the divers’ unbelievable leaps from 27 meters. A number of people, including my friends and I, actually reached out to other attendees beforehand, in order to arrange common transportation from different cities to the event. It was a fun night with a warm atmosphere, encouraging people to not merely enjoy the event but also make new connections.

5. Infrastructure

While having a friendly attitude is important, infrastructure plays a fundamental role in enabling sports activities to take place, on both recreational and professional levels. Dubai is a well-recognized holiday destination due to its wonderful beaches and 365 days of summer, but it is in fact a wonderful place for winter sports lovers as well. The Mall of the Emirates features Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. Expanding across 22,500 square meters, it is a perfect location for skiers and snowboarders or simply people who want to spend time with penguins and enjoy snow all year long.

While skiing is not an option at NYU Abu Dhabi (at least for now), the university is another great example of a location catering to the needs of a diverse population. We have indoor and outdoor tracks, squash and racquetball courts, a 10-meter climbing wall, and even an Olympic-sized swimming pool amongst other facilities. As a result, students can practice whichever sports they desire and not only compete amongst themselves, but also witness and participate in wider competitions. Just this past week, NYU Abu Dhabi hosted the 8th GCC Wheelchair Basketball Championship with participants from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE. Given UAE’s rapid development and sustained commitment, the international community is putting more trust into the country with every year. The UAE is now preparing to host the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, an international men’s football championship of Asia. The matches will take place in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, and Dubai, and in addition to the existing stadiums, the government plans to build a new 25,000-capacity stadium in Dubai for the occasion.

26 Dec


With Tanner Simkins – @tannersimkins
in no particular order

  1. After a 108 year wait –what a game, indeed. The Chicago Cubs-Cleveland Indians Game 7 World Series matchup may go down as the best baseball game in history, and the viewer numbers reflect just that. Despite a 17-minute rain delay and a late finish, the drama kept fans around the country glued to the TV. With the Cubs win, Theo Epstein can now be credited for snapping two of baseball’s largest title droughts – in Chicago and Boston. “Give all the credit where it’s deserved,” said Cubs Chair Tom Ricketts. Over 40 million TV sets; millennials glued to mobile devices; over 200 countries; economic impact in Chicago well over $200 million for the eight games at home and nine away games attracting thousands of baseball pilgrims to Wrigleyville. Net impact: great for baseball, great for the Cubs. It’s happened. Cubs fan such as myself can now go in peace. By far, the biggest sports story in the history of the universe. Economic impact corresponds with social and intergalactic benefits – five million people at a downtown parade. In the future, the time capsule on 2016 baseball will be fun to open, indeed.
  1. Many maintain that sport and politics do not – or at least should not – mix, yet the result of the 2016 presidential election will surely have an impact on the future of American sport for many years to come. Before the vote, there were widespread concerns that a Donald Trump presidency could harm Los Angeles’ ongoing bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games and any potential push from the U.S. Soccer Federation to stage all or part of the 2026 FIFA World Cup – which some had suggested America might co-host with Mexico.  Other sports industry followers speculate that the prospect of uncertain trade relations with other countries could negatively affect major league growth aspirations abroad. Whether any of that is actually the case remains to be seen. On the plus side, Trump’s experience as a sports league, team, and facility owner could mean that he will forge policies beneficial to the sports industry both at home and abroad. The jury is still out on whether the LPGA and PGA Tour will embrace the Trump properties in years ahead.
  1. This was the year of the NFL tricast, digital streaming, shared rights, and more.  While experts claim different reasons why, that mix resulted in a TV ratings downturn for the league. And the problem might not go away anytime soon. Many of the year’s primetime games had the lowest ratings in 10 or so years. Analysts close to the issue argue a change in consumer preferences as the underlying reason. Whether it was the daily fantasy bubble somewhat popping, primetime competition like the presidential debates, content cannibalization with the NFL available more places than ever before, or simply lackluster game storylines – the NFL downturn was a major deal in 2016. The biggest story is really the convergence of all types of new media – with implications for rights holders, “de-couching,” stadiums and arenas, and the entire sports industry.
  1. Live events take center stage, for social interaction and gifting in a “experience economy.”  StubHub has just released its annual “Year in Live Events” report. Peyton’s last game. Kobe’s last game. The Cubs’ World Series win. Hamilton. Those are just a few of the major highlights from a year in live events. According to StubHub, the top 10 bestselling events of the year were all sporting events. Led by Super Bowl 50 in Silicon Valley, which outsold the previous Super Bowl by 7%, and the World Series, which was the highest-selling World Series ever on StubHub, other best-selling live events included Adele’s tour, which led all music acts with the No. 1 selling tour spot and the runaway Broadway hit, “Hamilton: An American Musical,” drove at least four times the sales of any other theater production in company history. Fans also flocked to see Peyton and Kobe’s final games, championship appearances for Cleveland in both basketball and baseball, UFC taking its first match to New York City and soccer’s globally popular Copa America Centenario. International NFL games and futbol (soccer) matches led as the top five international events with the highest sales from U.S. ticket buyers. This past year, the live events industry thrived, with a perfect storm of firsts, lasts, and multiple milestone events that were captured only as StubHub can, with a global marketplace that spans sports, music, and theater. It will be interesting to see how events in the new year stack up to an historic 2016.
  1. From an international sports perspective, Brexit was big news in 2016. With restrictions regarding player’s age and nationality, a shift in the European Union paradigm mixed all this up for EPL clubs. Moving forward, European soccer’s competitive balance should level out if Brexit-caused restrictions prove as tough as many expect. Maybe Britain’s exit means two steps back for UK football or one step forward for the global game such as that in the South America, for example. Maybe policy makers find a way to keep European football strong. Regardless, the issue continues to be something to watch…heads up rugby and cricket fans, too. Uncertainty rules the day, as the European economy evolves to adjust to the unpredicted result.  Look for sports to respond accordingly.
  1. This year the world lost golf’s patriarch, Arnold Palmer. His stellar playing career aside, Palmer’s biggest achievements stretched well beyond the game. Known today as the originator of sports marketing, Palmer was one of the first athletes to turn his name into a brand. Using his image and business acumen, Palmer’s empire was valued at approximately $700 million upon his death. Over the years, he was endorsed by dozens of companies, had his hand in founding IMG and the Golf Channel, even in commercializing his famous ice tea/lemonade blended drink – effectively founding sports marketing along the way. Through strategic messaging and brand management, Arnold Palmer became the prototype for all of today’s sports stars. “The King” as he was known, will be missed. Arnold Palmer was more than a golfer – he defined an evolving, broad sports business in a way no one else could.
  1. The Rams stole NFL headlines this season with their return move to Los Angeles.  Since then the balance of power has shifted among NFL owners and the Rams have cemented themselves as LA’s pride once again, despite poor performance throughout the season.  The Ram’s “honeymoon period” in the Coliseum and the construction of their new Inglewood stadium was one of the year’s most closely followed sports business sagas. Now the fun really begins: “franchise musical chairs” should be resolved in the next three months with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers and the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders.  An early chapter in a very long book.
  1. 2016 inched a little bit closer to gender equality.  There is much more work to be done, but here are some highlights: we celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the WNBA; “leaning in” is at all-time high; we saw social movements like Girls For STEM, and a push for workplace equality.  The discerning issue of the wage gap was raised in the tennis community, and then pushed further when TEAM USA soccer spoke out.  Another positive development was the summer announcement of the Indy in Tech Championship coordinated, presented, and sponsored by Guggenheim Life. The LPGA event debuts next Labor Day weekend in Indianapolis, and provides unparalleled benefit for workforce training, robotics, STEM, and other positives. More to come on that story over time. Gender equity is far away, but there were many moments in 2016 where it was supported rather than tossed aside, and that’s a good thing.
  1. 2016 was a blockbuster year for mergers, resulting in over $1.8 trillion in deals made. Some mega-mergers with sports implications include Microsoft and LinkedIn, Verizon and Yahoo, AT&T and Time Warner and Charter.  The phenomenon was fueled by the year’s oddly low interest rates and other reasons making 2016 ripe with blue chip M&As.  When we drill down into the sports industry, examples include WME-IMG acquiring the UFC for $4 billion; the DraftKings and FanDuel merger; and Disney buying a $1 billion stake in MLBamtech. The sports and business worlds are clearly loved by vertically integrated, global, mega corporations that include media, management, events, and properties.  The stage is set for more power moves in 2017.  
  1. The year just concluded saw the growth of eSports, virtual reality, 3D printing, big data, drones, IoT, and other tech marvels. Esports was a $892 million market in 2016, making it a major focus for brands and publishers, according to a report from SuperData. In the overall scope, esports is just a small part of what’s now a $91 billion market for digital games and playable media, with consumers spending $41 billion on mobile gaming in 2016. But we also had a handful of tech mishaps in 2016, whether it was Samsung’s exploding phone’s, the FBI being unable to retrieve data off of a locked iPhone, or NFL team staffs’ on-again, off-again love affair with using Microsoft tablets on the sidelines. The most memorable tech failure of 2016 was the downfall of GoPro – the camera company marketed to thrillseekers had a market value of $12 billion a few short months after its 2014 IPO. Now after one disastrous earnings report after another, GoPro is valued closer to $1 billion.  These days, event properties must be coupled with significant technological advances to have a chance of success in an evolving marketplace.
  1. 2016 was the rise of adidas.  Adidas is now banking on signing top rookies, luring them in with multimillion-dollar deals. Just this past year, adidas signed six of the top 10 NBA draft picks.  In addition to adidas’ renewed focus on players, there’s no underestimating the influence of its celebrity partnerships with Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Selena Gomez.  Some standout adidas athletes include Lionel Messi, David Beckham, Roger Federer, and James Harden.  However, the sporting goods industry, especially at the retail level, has taken a massive hit.  Once nationwide, brick and mortar chains like Sports Authority, Bob’s Stores, Eastern Mountain Sports, and Sports Chalet have all filed for bankruptcy. Yet, adidas is thriving with new executive leadership, key player signings, powerful brand influencers, and re-commitment to lifestyle marketing.  Adidas shares are up 56% this year. Nike is down 17%, Skechers down 17%, Under Armour down 37%. Retail wars still take center stage – revenues generated will be important for athletes, agents, colleges, teams, and leagues.
  1. Athletes at all levels turned to their sport as a vehicle of peaceful issue-raising. Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Kover, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony pushed for social unity amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, cleats were worn in support of the country by Odell Beckham, Jr. and others. Athletes drove discussion on social media, in our communities, and elsewhere – whether you agree or disagree with whatever cause, the influence of sport is ever present. Hopefully, all sports fans and non-sports fans alike recognize rights granted under the First Amendment, but also understand the responsibilities of role models as well.
  1. LeBron James’ return to Cleveland resulted in the city’s first professional sports championship since 1964. The Cavs did so in stunning fashion, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit and winning in a Game 7 “nothing gets better than this” moment for any sports fan. Now, the Cavaliers a $140 million upgrade of Quicken Loans Arena to be complete by 2020. The upgraded facility will also provide a catalyst for mega-events – like the All-Star Game – which should add additional impact for the city once referred to as “the Mistake by the Lake.” In many ways, the Cavaliers victory was as big a sports story for Cleveland and the basketball world as the Cubs were for baseball – maybe even bigger. Another example of sports as a social and economic catalyst.
  1. Pokemon Go was the most googled thing in 2016, according to Google Trends, beating out iPhone and Donald Trump, which placed second and third, respectively. Pokémon Go made more than $600 million in revenue for its developer, Niantic Labs, another $115 million in revenue for Nintendo, and added nearly $7.5 billion to the company’s market value. The Pokemon Go app passed Twitter and Facebook in daily users in less than two weeks. Sports teams everywhere are constantly chasing engagement, and Pokemon Go offered creative contests, giveaways, and social media interactions to those teams and leagues that embraced the hysteria. The future trend clearly focuses on interactive consumer events, fueled by social media.  Look for much more in 2017 and beyond.
  1. In a year in which we lost Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer, we also saw two “best evers” retire from their sport. 2016 was the year of the Kobe Bryant farewell tour, and the sheriff, Peyton Manning, riding off into the proverbial sunset. For Kobe, the end came in typical Black Mamba fashion – not only did he receive a standing ovation in each city he played in during the season’s final stretch, but his last playing day, April 13th, was dubbed “Mamba Day” by Nike and backed by their full marketing support. Manning’s exit came after winning Super Bowl 50 following a fitting jersey-number matching “18” year career.  From a performance and sports marketing perspective, these two are some of the best to ever just do it.  The passing and retirement of mega superstars should give us cause to reflect on how important sports becomes to an entire society – especially in the social media age.
  1. Yes, there were socioeconomic concerns, the Zika epidemic, minor crimes, and PR issues like the Lochte scandal, but for the most part, Rio 2016 was a homerun.   The USA took home 121 medals, of which 46 were Gold. Michael Phelps took home five Gold medals during his last Olympics, fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky earned four Gold medals, and gymnast Simone Biles took home Gold. Team USA in the Paralympics took home 115 medals, 40 of which were Gold. How Brazil fulfills its post-Olympic promises defines the international side of the story – golf expansion, infrastructure development, home building, transportation improvements, and the like. Now, the world awaits the IOC’s big decision next September – will it be Paris, Budapest, or LA?