Two Canadians revolutionised the social sports scene in the UAE but will Duplays be able to replicate that success in Saudi Arabia? Co-founder Derv Rao outlines their plan.

For more than a decade, Duplays has been a firm fixture on the UAE sporting landscape. Connecting residents through sporting competition, thousands of people have competed in their leagues – staying fit and forging friendships.

The company has evolved from a simple social sports network into a complex, multi-platform operation. While the beating heart of Duplays remains its sports leagues, the money-making head is now its B2B arm – fostering corporate connections, creating bespoke events and managing venues. With 150,000 people on the Duplays database, it’s easy to see why brands regularly reach out, looking to mine a list that is full of sporty, sociable individuals with disposable income.

The outlook appears positive for the company but co-founders Derv Rao and Ravi Bhusari do not want to stand still. After more than a decade working in the UAE, the two Canadians are readying themselves for international expansion. In conjunction with a Saudi Arabian investor, Duplays will open its first facility in Jeddah later this year.

Surprisingly for an entity so inextricably linked with UAE sport, Duplays does not actually have a venue of its own in the emirates. The company has been incredibly successful at running other people’s facilities but the giant multipurpose sports complex in Saudi will be the first foray into ownership. It’s an exciting step and Rao believes that the time is now right to enter a new market.

“Our hand was forced a little by our inability to buy any land in the UAE,” Rao explains to Sport Industry Insider. “The UAE was a more obvious place to build our first facility as we know the market, we know the regulations – we are at home here.

“But it proved really difficult and so we looked at alternatives in Saudi Arabia. We were pleasantly surprised by what we saw and crucially we found a local partner who supported our vision.

“It has been around three years in the making but they have basically committed to building three Duplays domes in Saudi Arabia, and scaling to other Tier 1 and 2 cities after we successfully deliver these first three. The first of those, in Jeddah, is due to open in March 2019.”

It’s a bold move considering Duplays have no existing presence in The Kingdom. It will very much be starting from scratch with no database, no brand recognition. However, Rao feels lessons have been learned from previous expansion attempts – insisting that a carefully developed ‘plug and play’ structure will be much easier to manage.

“We’ve tried to launch Duplays in different markets before but that was around the social sports club model. We had a couple of franchise groups in Vancouver, Doha, and Amman, but it didn’t work. That was partly the model and partly us – it was difficult to monitor what was going on but equally we should have offered more support.

“It was at that stage that we said the only way we would enter a new market again was with our own venue. That is our key strength – operating venues and monetizing that operation. Saudi Arabia is the first but we hope to see others follow. The plan is: Go to a new city, build a new facility. Then replicate.”

Duplays founders Derv Rao (l) and Ravi Bhusari (r).

The Kingdom’s increasing focus on hosting world-class sporting events has thrust it into the global limelight over the past 12 months, though beyond those headline spectacles there is also a major desire from the General Sport Authority (GSA) to improve what is a tired sporting infrastructure.

The Saudi Pro League is the country’s most lucrative sporting property, yet a number of clubs go to the UAE for their pre-season – such is the gap in quality of facilities. It is unsurprising, then, that grassroots sport is in even more dire need of investment.

“When we looked around Jeddah we were quite frankly shocked by the standard of sports facilities,” Rao says. “There are a lot of football pitches but they are generally poor quality and there are certainly no other sports. Also, there is a major lack of indoor facilities which means for three months of the year, most people can’t play sport.

“It’s such a shame because it is such a youthful population in Saudi Arabia and these young people need sport. There is an economic impact to consider, too. I guarantee that health care is number two or three on the list of Saudi government expenditure. Sport would help decrease this spend for sure.

“The GSA have definitely recognised this and though the Duplays dome is a private project, we are hoping that the GSA notice what we bring to the market; government support and government access could really help us build a presence in Saudi Arabia.”

Diversifying away from football is also something firmly on the radar of the GSA. The sport is unquestionably king in Saudi Arabia at present but Rao insists that an essential part of the Duplays dome is that multiple sports will be on offer.

“Saudi Arabia desperately needs a second sport, a third sport. Something that isn’t football.”

“Honestly, Saudi Arabia desperately needs a second sport, a third sport. Something that isn’t just football. It would be foolish to ignore football given its popularity but the fact is that many of these kids growing up, if they can’t play football, they stop playing sports altogether.

“There needs to be a cultural change with kids and the only way you can initiate that is if you have facilities. Some Saudi public schools don’t have any sort of indoor multipurpose hall. That’s why we hope our facility in Jeddah can become a real sports hub; it has four pitches, two multipurpose courts for basketball and volleyball. Hopefully this will be a showcase to build more facilities and encourage Saudis to try other sports.”

Despite moving into the Saudi market, the UAE is never far from Rao and Bhusari’s mind. Increasing their footprint in the emirates is still a major goal and the hope is that the Saudi project could be a springboard to finally opening a first Duplays-owned facility in the UAE.

“We’re actively looking for a partner here in the UAE but it has to be the right fit for us and the venue has to be in the right place; an accessible location is key. The UAE is our home, our base. We know this country well, we know locations; we know the people. We want to find the right partner who can help bring the Duplays dome concept to the UAE.

“Beyond that we’ve also had some interesting conversations with master community developers. So many of them build parks in their developments but how much use do they really get out of that space? It is pretty much zero over the summer. And there is certainly no monetary value to parkland.

“Indoor sports facilities offer something year-round. We live in the desert here after all. I think so many developments here are yearning for a sports hub – it makes the community healthier and acts as a focal point for families and friends. We have had some encouraging discussions and I think more developers are coming to this conclusion that a central sports hub can add tremendous value to a community.”

Whether it is the new facility in Jeddah or potential future developments in Dubai, Rao feels that sport’s ability to bring people together holds the key to success. But if Duplays build it, will they come?

I do think in many ways we have that Field Of Dreams approach with Duplays,” Rao says. “For me it’s a perfect analogy. There is obviously a degree of risk in the Saudi project as nothing like that really exists yet, nothing that will be run as slickly as we will run the Duplays dome.

“Of course we hope that when one person comes, they speak to their friends, their classmates, fellow parents, colleagues. This goes back to the core of how Duplays started; it has worked for us before and we like to think it will work for us again.”

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