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5 things we learned on day two of the Leaders Sport Business Summit, Abu Dhabi

Insight from the European Tour, the IAAF, 100 Thieves, the AFC, Abu Dhabi Sports Council, and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
By James Emmett

ABC, easy as Keith Pell-ey

European Tour CEO Keith Pelley is comfortable positioning himself as an agent of change, not just for his own golf tour, but for the entire sport. His philosophy is a simple one: ABC – always be changing. And that’s exactly what he’s trying to encourage all stakeholders in golf to do. The European Tour has invested heavily in its own production house and an award-winning line of short-form content, and Pelley believes the experiments with short-format golf are already bearing fruit. One big change yet to come, however, is the consolidation of golf’s manifold commercial entities to coalesce around one clear vision for the game. That, Pelley hopes, could be around the corner. “Everybody in golf wants to globalise and be the best at doing that,” he said, “and for that, consolidation is crucial. But that’s an arduous task. We play in 31 countries this year. We are the global tour. Four of the five best players in the world are playing in Saudi this week, and the PGA Tour has an event in Phoenix so theoretically we’re competing against them for players. So it has to work for both sides, but I do hope that before I trundle back to Canada there’ll be consolidation of some sort.”

Sport and politics do mix

It’s long been a convenient get-out for sports administrators looking to swerve contentious issues, but it’s clear that sport has a platform and responsibility to be a force for good in many issues far beyond the boundaries of the field, court or track. IAAF president Sebastian Coe, a former politician himself, as well as the chairman of London 2012, is rarely one to duck an issue, and he acknowledged that a new generation of fans expect more from sports organisations. “We don’t want to be driving the political agenda,” he explained, “but it’s important that we have something to say about the big issues. The average marathon runner shifts more air through their body during a marathon than the average sedate person does in two days. So we’ve just signed an accord with the World Health Organisation about clean air. We have to be in that debate.”

The boldness of gamers

There are 578 million gamers in the MENA region; Fortnite is the sixth most Googled word in the UAE, and the region as a whole is set to triple the size of the US gamer market in the not too distant future. There is reason for boldness when it comes to esports in this part of the world, and 100 Thieves COO John Robinson did not disappoint. “Over the next ten or 20 years,” he said, “I think the three most popular sports globally will be football, basketball and esports. American football? That’s dead. It’s a question of when, not if.”

Speculate to accumulate

Consensus on a panel discussing the future of women’s sport was the next stage of development needs to be driven by clubs and leagues, rather than at national team level. Moya Dodd, chair of the AFC’s women’s football committee, was clear that all stakeholders need to be braver in their investment decisions when it comes to women’s football. “Professionalisation is a big topic,” she said. “Everyone can see men’s football is a giant juggernaut. And women’s football is a much smaller ecosystem. The comparisons are stark and pop up all the time – pay gap, prize money gap, who’s flying economy and who’s flying business. Willingness to spend on women’s football by stakeholders is key. Where people have put their faith in the women’s game, they’ve got return quickly. Athletico Madrid’s women’s team last night, for example, had a crowd of 48,000. The U-17 South American final in the women’s Conmebol tournament brought in 40,000 in Venezuela. Are we willing to invest? It’s a question for sponsors, teams, media organisaitons and fans.”

The Gulf between us

Abu Dhabi Sports Council General Secretary HE Aref Al Awani and Ibrahim Alkassim, were both on candid form as they discussed the future of football in the region to close out the conference. For the standard of UAE football to improve, said Al Awani, players need to have more encouragement to try to play abroad. “We have a good life here, but playing here only will not develop you sufficiently.” Alkassim, who has already experimented in this area with an agreement with La Liga that saw Saudi Arabian players given the opportunity to train and play with Spanish teams, was in full agreement. Sport – and football in particular – will play a key role in the Saudi Vision 2030, and strategic investment is being ramped up. Regulations on foreign players in the Saudi football league were relaxed last year – and MLS star Giovinco confirmed a move to Saudi only today – and according to Alkassim the level has already been raised. “We’re also looking for international investors,” he said. “Privatisation is one of the programmes inside Vision 2030. Our plan is to move football 100% into the private sector. You need to have fanbase, fan engagement structure, you need to have a solid economy – and we believe we have all these requirements now in Saudi Arabia. We always welcome ideas and partnerships from outside.”

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