The Dubai Rugby Sevens has long been one of the UAE’s flagship sporting events but in recent years a shorter format of the game has been gaining popularity at the grassroots level. Touch – a non-contact variant of rugby league – is proving increasingly attractive for amateurs from both sporting and non-sporting backgrounds.
On March 15, at Al Habtoor Polo Club in Dubai, the Zurich Corporate Touch 6s event returns for its eighth incarnation. It was set up by corporate events managers Jane Sabugueiro and Victoria Hepworth, originally as a rugby sevens tournament. But for the past five years it has been in the Touch 6s format, a change that has resulted in more entrants from across the UAE business landscape.
“I’d worked on similar events in Singapore and Hong Kong so was confident we could make a success of it in Dubai too,” Sabugueiro tells Sport Industry Insider. “While we saw a good uptake in the first few years, the downside of the Rugby Sevens was that there were a lot of local clubs just dressed up in corporate colours, which was not the ethos of the tournament.
“The whole idea was to get people who don’t maybe play sport on a regular basis to represent their companies in order to promote teamwork. Changing to Touch 6s was an incredible step for the tournament. We went from having eight sevens corporate teams to 22 in the next year. There is more of an ‘anyone can play’ mentality and the worst thing that happens is you lose rather than risking injury as is the case in rugby.
“A huge number of people are absolute beginners when they step on to the field at the Zurich Corporate Touch 6s but it is bringing people out of the office who might not normally do sports. We see people come together and it really ticks a lot of boxes in terms of corporate health and wellness.”
The corporate social responsibility angle is one that Sabugueiro always emphasises when seeking out new participants or renewing old agreements. And she sees that, more and more, companies are recognising the value of providing their employees the opportunity to compete in sport.
“We focus a lot on the employee engagement and corporate health and wellness side of things,” Sabugueiro says. “It is more common now for companies to put aside budgets for these sorts of events which is great. Awareness is growing.
“Still, the first response is often ‘we don’t have budget for sponsorship’. We quickly explain it is not about that, it is about participation. Companies can always find a reason not to do something but fortunately we can give them so many reasons why they should do it. Once we get in to a company, it’s an easy sell. It’s just getting through the front door.”
Sabugueiro worked on similar events in expat hubs Singapore and Hong Kong and was confident the idea of a corporate rugby event would take off. The continued support of regular competitors and headline sponsor Zurich International Life is testament to the event’s success. At a time when sponsorship can be hard to come by, Zurich’s involvement has been a major boost to the event.
“We were hugely lucky to get Zurich on board,” Sabugueiro explains. “They were involved with a similar event in Hong Kong and the guy who was head of marketing at the time understood exactly what I was trying to achieve. It was a huge risk sponsoring an event like that in the first year but here we are and they are still involved. For them it’s not actually much of a branding exercise – the annual participation is more important.
“I think with Zurich and other participants, you have different management come in and each year we are kind of worried. They look at the Corporate Touch 6s and say ‘right, what’s this spend for?’ But as soon as they come to the event they get it. They see the value in getting their staff out there.”
Those participating have also seen the value of touch rugby and answering to their demand, Sabugueiro helped launch a UAE community league, the Touch Super 6s, in September 2017. Sanctioned by local organisers Middle East Touch, the Federation of International Touch, and the UAE Rugby Federation, the Touch Super 6s is still in its infancy but Sabugueiro is delighted with the progress so far.
“It has grown incredibly,” she says. “We have all these people playing every week and we do three leagues a year. Of course there are some super-uber competitive people playing in the top of division one, and they’re actually going off to the Touch World Cup next month. But we are able to cater to a lot of different levels.
“There’s huge room for growth still. There are a lot of people in the UAE who are really keen to see the sport grow but of course there are challenges. We need to support training referees, getting teams together and getting young and older people playing.”
While Zurich provides headline sponsorship for the Corporate Touch 6s, the amateur league has found sponsors harder to come by. But Sabugueiro is hopeful that new partnerships will be forthcoming and that when that happens, the sport can flourish.
“We’re constantly knocking on doors and looking for a big local sponsor because I think if we were to get that the game would fly.”
“For the Super 6s we are massively in need of sponsorship because of the cost of venues. We try to run the leagues in as professional and slick a way as we can but, for example, we are paying the referees peanuts – they are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts really.
“It would be great to have some financial backing to push the organisation side of this and the development. At the moment we have Oman Insurance as our referee sponsor but more sponsorship is needed.
“In the UK you have ‘O2 Touch’ and they have more than 20,000 people playing the sport every week. It’s because they’ve got the financial backing. We’re constantly knocking on doors and looking for a big local sponsor because I think if we were to get that the game would fly.”