The dust may have barely settled on the 27th Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships but Salah Talak is already looking ahead to 2020. He has been involved with the tournament since its inception in 1993 and in 2003 became Tournament Director, overseeing the growth of the event into a firm favourite on the tennis calendar.
The aftermath of the tournament is a vital time for Talak as he looks to transform momentum into commercial opportunities. It is a time to nail down sponsors for another year, test the water for new partners and of course reflect on what could be done better.
Talak is in a somewhat unusual position given Dubai Duty Free is both the organiser and headline sponsor of the championships. It is a challenge but the model has served both the tournament and the company well.
“It is very difficult because really I am wearing different hats,” Talak explains to Sport Industry Insider. “First and foremost I am Tournament Director, making sure everything is okay from the players’ point of view, from the technical side, consulting with officials, the ATP and WTA, looking after the TV broadcast, live feed, the rules and regulations.
“At the same time, of course I want ensure that our Dubai Duty Free image is correct. I’m looking at the PnL from the tickets, from the restaurants, from sponsorship. It’s difficult but it works for us.”
When the tournament was inaugurated in 1993, there was a blueprint in the form of the Dubai Desert Classic golf, which had already shown how sport could be a powerful marketing tool for the emirate. With Dubai Duty Free having a clear financial incentive to bring more footfall through the airports, the company and the Dubai Government put their heads together to create a new sports property. The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships was born.
“The best part for us has always been that we have a mandate from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid that the main priority is to promote Dubai. We looked to tennis because it is a truly global sport and we felt it would help our profile.
“The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has brought fantastic value to Dubai but of course now we want to make things even better. We know there are still challenges; the car parking, the traffic, getting people coming in from different parts of UAE. We need these things to be right.
“We every year to be more creative, to do things differently. The space we are in is a bit congested but all we can do is work within this space to maximise the impact.
“One major change we are exploring for next year is to make the corporate hospitality area much bigger. If we want this change it has to be done quickly as these things take time. From designing to approval this is three months, and then to build it you need another six months.”
THE FEDERER EFFECT
Twenty-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer has been almost as long a servant to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships as Talak. The Swiss superstar was knocked out by Rainer Schüttler in the second round of his Dubai debut but has gone on to claim the trophy a record eight times; this year’s crown was a landmark 100th ATP title. Federer and Dubai are inextricably link and Talak admits that ‘the Federer effect’ is very real – when he plays, people come.
“It is definitely the case that whenever Roger comes, we sell more tickets,” Talak explains to Sport Industry Insider. “There’s more of the hype, more buzz. Like this year, people were saying ‘Federer’s back, the man’s back’. We can see from the ticket sales and we can see from the atmosphere.
“He has a home in Dubai and this feels a lot like a home tournament for him. He is very comfortable here. Roger made Dubai, Dubai made Roger. He is part and parcel of the tournament and we are always very proud of him. I know he’s very proud of us too.”
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships was created with the goal of promoting Dubai as a tourist destination and Federer played a major role in one of the emirate’s most iconic marketing campaigns. It is something Talak remembers fondly.
“When Andre Agassi played against Roger Federer on the Burj al Arab helipad, this was one of my very best memories. I loved watching Andre play and always wanted to bring him to Dubai so when I made it happen I was very happy.
“It took me more than two months to convince both of them to do it but think people still talk about it now. It helped shape many people’s image of Dubai and must be one of the best value campaigns ever run.
“As I recall, I spent around $25,000 renting everything – from the helicopter pad to ensuring the photos were all over Getty Images. The estimated exposure was around $26.5 million. This is what it was all about. The legacy, the publicity – it was a very good investment!”
— Tennis World English (@TennisWorlden) February 22, 2018
LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD
Another excellent PR investment was the decision to award equal prize money to men and women; in 2005, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships became only the third event to offer parity after the US Open and Australian Open.
“Why did we do it? Because it was right and because we wanted to distinguish Dubai from other events,” Talak says. “Female empowerment is very important to the leadership of Dubai. You can see that in the next Federal National Council there will be 50% female and 50% male. This does not happen in many places in the world.”
Every week, multiple ATP and WTA tournaments lock horns in a battle for the best players and the most publicity. The women’s arm of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships did battle against the Hungarian Open in Budapest this year, while the men competed with the Brasil Open in Sao Paulo and the Mexican Open in Acapulco. So how important is player field to a tennis tournament’s success?
“It is crucial, yes. But it is very difficult. As soon as we finish one tournament we are planning for the next year. We put our wish list together and we like to speak to players at Wimbledon and get them to commit. Really by the time the US Open rolls around in September we want to be closing the deals.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of traveling. I go to Indian Wells, Miami, the US Open, Wimbledon. There are so many meetings with players and agents. But we are fortunate that, on both the ladies and men’s side, we have players who are very loyal to Dubai.”
“I wish one day we will have a professional UAE tennis player but it is not our responsibility – ultimately this is up to the tennis federation.”
GROWING TENNIS IN THE UAE
With the tournament closing in on its third decade, there is an obvious elephant in the room. The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships may have raised the profile of Dubai, but questions remain about how successful it has been in raising the profile of tennis in the UAE.
“I do think there has been an impact,” Talak says. “We have always wanted to help grow the sport from the grassroots up. During the tournament we now have between 1500 and 2000 kids coming – we help improve their awareness of the game.
“I wish of course one day that we will have a professional UAE player, whether it’s a lady or a man. But honestly, I think it is not our responsibility. We try to help the community and to help grow tennis in the UAE but ultimately this is up to the federation [Tennis Emirates]. Admittedly they need more help; I think there needs to be greater investment in tennis from the private sector.”
Having built the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships into a sporting event of global renown, Talak admits that he has received plenty of enquiries from brands interested in taking tournament naming rights. But he insists that, for now at least, Dubai Duty Free will continue to be both organiser and headline sponsor.
“For three years we shared the naming rights with Barclays. It was a $10 million deal but we found that it was not easy to make everybody happy,” Talk says. “It’s like when you have twins – I am a twin and I have twins so believe me, making both happy is very difficult.
“To be honest, we are happy with our current arrangement. We have some fantastic sponsors in JP Morgan, Rolex and Lacoste – among many others who have also had a great impact. But in terms of the headline sponsorship, this will remain the same. The tournament belongs to Dubai Duty Free and we are always proud of this.”