For many years, the options for sports fans to combat the searing summer heat of Dubai were extremely limited. The choice was to either brace the burn, hole up in one of the city’s gyms, or just abandon exercise for several months. Unfortunately, many regularly opted for the latter.

But since 2011, Dubai Sports World has provided a valuable solution for those wanting to maintain an active lifestyle when the mercury rises. The indoor facility at Dubai World Trade Centre has grown exponentially over the past eight years and the 2018 venue is the biggest, and busiest, incarnation yet.

Jad Bechara, Director of Media, Sponsorship, Retail & Exhibitor Services at Dubai Sports World, believes that constant evolution has been key to the facility’s success.

“Eight years ago we saw a gap in the market,” Bechara tells Sport Industry Insider. “We wanted the community of Dubai – whether residents or visitors – to get together in the summer period and participate in sport.

“At Dubai World Trade Centre we pride ourselves at being the masters of transforming spaces so we decided to convert 25,000 square metres into the largest indoor sport facility in the region. Offering people the opportunity to engage with fitness and sport is how it all started and is how it continues today.

“Obviously there have been many changes since first opening. For example, at first we considered football to be the most popular sport in the UAE, as it is in most countries in the world, so we invested a lot in keeping the maximum number of football pitches and engaging with the maximum number of football academies. This was the core.

“However, we have found that football is far from the only popular sport. We introduced badminton, which has been incredibly popular; we’ve increased the number of basketball courts; we introduced padel tennis; we added a lot of racket sports which have been in high demand.”

Tennis courts at the DSW at Dubai World Trade Centre.

Responding to the changing demands of customers has long been a central tenet of Dubai Sports World’s development.

“The main drivers in changing the architecture of this event and developing the content have been those who have participated,” Bechara explains. “Every year we survey our customers and we get to learn better what they want from us the next year and what we want to keep and replace. We base our content development on these customer surveys. This is vitally important to us.

“As an organiser we have to look into improvements we can make based on what the customer wants. Our team is very dedicated to connecting with athletes and sports fans to learn what is happening in the industry.”

From the outside it might appear that Dubai Sports World is a goldmine given its high footfall and impressive visitor numbers – with 400,000 people expected to attend before it closes its doors on September 8. But Bechara insists that it is not a money-making exercise for Dubai World Trade Centre; the facility can perhaps be better characterised as a large-scale CSR initiative.

“This event is not built to make any profit for Dubai World Trade Centre – it has no commercial objective at all and we don’t take any financial revenues. But this event goes on for a 16-week period which is a long time to operate and maintain staffing. The prices that we apply in terms of participation are designed only to help us cover the operating costs.

“Dubai World Trade Centre operates within the Dubai community – we want to pay back to this community and we have to help them enjoy the summer period. We want to engage with parents to encourage their children to spend the summer here in Dubai to play sports in a very safe environment.”

Last year’s Dubai Fitness Challenge introduced many new people in the city to physical activity and Dubai Sports World has dovetailed well with that initiative, ensuring there is a summer outlet to enable that burgeoning relationship with sport to continue.

“Sport in general is a priority for the Dubai government and we are very much aligned with this mission and we are continuing what was achieved on a city level with the Dubai Fitness Challenge by encouraging people and offering a facility that helps them to stay physically active and keeps them happy, fit and healthy.

“The numbers so far in terms of attendance are surprising for us as an organisation and I have no doubt that this is because Dubai as a city has put in so much effort to highlight the importance of being fit and playing sports. We at DWTC and Dubai Sports World certainly feel this is the major reason behind the high traffic we are achieving this year.”

“I have no doubt that high attendance numbers are because Dubai as a city has put in so much effort in to highlight the importance of being fit and playing sport.”

The support of several key partners has also played key role. Bechara believes that Dubai Sports World provides an obvious value proposition for companies and brands looking to reach sports fans in the UAE.

“There is nothing of the size, scale and success of Dubai Sports World anywhere else in the region. We have all types of visitors in terms of demographics – corporate and public, old and young, men and women – and I genuinely feel we are unique in terms of our offering and our customers.

“Our partners recognise that and we are fortunate to have some great companies on board. We have a strategic partnership with the Dubai Sports Council and with other government entities like RTA, DEWA and Dubai Tourism.

“We also have very important partnerships with private sector companies. Emirates NBD is our official bank and have integrated their fitness app with Dubai Sports World. We have GoSport this year as a new partner who have built their own retail section within DSW. We have Al Rawabi promoting healthy beverages to our visitors and doing a lot of activities, distributing refreshments.

“We have Dell promoting sports gaming; Medcare marketing their sports medicine; the Canadian University Dubai are our educational partner and organising tournaments for students; Aquafina provides water.  Without the partners we could not organise Dubai Sports World. The success of this event is because of them.”

The growth of the event has not been without its challenges. More sports have been added and more people are attending, but the space is finite. Creating a year-round Dubai Sports World is one solution that has been discussed, as well as spreading the initiative out to another venue, or multiple venues. But at the moment, these ideas remain just that.

Different sports are being added to the venue.

“Of course, finding available slots for all the events, tournaments and activities that we want to have is very difficult. In the morning, we host summer camps and have sports academies – more than 600 kids every day before noon. Then we have more of a corporate feel from 12-4pm and after that we open the facility more to the public.

“It is very challenging to host everyone. We want all of them to be at Dubai Sports World but it is difficult to keep everyone happy – managing the calendar with this high demand around sports is tough.

“Along with our strategic partners like the Dubai Sports Council, we have explored possible expansion. Whether we have a year-long Dubai Sports World in the complex of Dubai World Trade Centre or at another venue – this is part of our priority discussions. But at this stage, there is no clear direction as to where and when that would happen.”

With the expansion in the pipeline, but not yet in motion, the goal, for now, is a simple one.

“The objective is always to be the No. 1 – that doesn’t mean we have to be the largest or the biggest – but we want to be the best sports facility in the region.”