Donal Kilalea has been the CEO of Promoseven Sports Marketing since 2003 and has worked in the Middle East for more than three decades. In our latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’, Kilalea discusses his life and career – from his early childhood in Africa to 16 years of working on the Dubai Rugby Sevens. 

I grew up admiring international rugby from afar.

As a child of what is now Zimbabwe, cricket and rugby were my first sporting passions. Cricket in the summer, rugby in the winter – it was a cycle we repeated throughout school. We’d only read about the big iconic international teams like the All Blacks or the Lions through newspapers. My family was Irish so I always loved reading about their players too – players like Willie John McBride. Rugby wasn’t commercialised then so these people were absolute heroes – they would go and play international rugby and then go back to their day jobs.

I was at Croke Park in 2007 for Ireland’s historic win over England.

Ireland is in my blood and if Ireland are playing anywhere – whether it be cricket, rugby, football – I naturally will support them and follow them and see what’s happening. In 2007, they were developing the Aviva Stadium in Dublin at the time so Croke Park, which only ever hosts Gaelic sports, gave special permission for them to play rugby. I was in an area of Croke Park called Hill 16, standing room only, surrounded by Irish fans. The atmosphere was just electric. Both teams had some great players – Johnny Wilkinson for England, Brian O’Driscoll for Ireland, so you had some iconic players. The match was incredible and Ireland won convincingly. A memorable day all round.  

Promoseven pitched for the Dubai Sevens in 2003 and we’ve had it since.

I first came to work in Dubai 33 years ago and was a partner in an advertising agency in Dubai and we won the Dubai Duty Free account, which also led to us working on the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Then I set up my own sports marketing company, Promoseven, when the Sevens went out for tender in 2003; we pitched and won. I think in our naivety we probably didn’t realise exactly what we were letting ourselves in for. We won the rights to do all the logistics, operations, ticketing  and marketing – every aspect of it.

To say the first year was challenging is an understatement, but that’s true of any event you do. After the first year we realised that the atmosphere was the most important part of the Sevens and that was something that we couldn’t mess with. We came up with, and continue to come up with, new ideas but maintaining that atmosphere is central to the event’s success.

Emirates changed the tournament for the better.

They have invested so much in the Dubai Sevens in terms of resources – the event would not be where it is without them. Back in 2003, it was being played at the old Exiles Rugby Club and there were only two grass pitches, the rest were sand. I could never have imagined the tournament would grow from 27,000 people back then to the 100,000 people in 2019.  Emirates is a fantastic organization to work with because they challenge you in everything you do and they epitomise the environment in Dubai, and in the UAE, which is very dynamic. Take the building of the Sevens Stadium – it is Emirates’ land and it’s their ground. It was very much Gary Chapman, the President of dnata, who drove it forwards.  

The spirit of the Dubai Sevens remains the same.

When events modernise it can sometimes be difficult for them to retain their character but we’ve tried everything in our power to do that with the Dubai Sevens. The camaraderie that was there in the old days when they were playing on sand, that’s what we want to keep going. We built upon that and expanded it. Each year I stand next to Pitch 1 when the semi-finals and finals take place and even after all these years, it’s amazing. You’re looking around, seeing fantastic rugby on the pitch along with the crowds, the atmosphere, the sound – it’s spine tingling.  People are smiling, people are happy, people are enjoying themselves. At the end of every tournament, self-analysis has to take place when we say, “yes, it was great but what can we do better?” The way we approach it is to always assume, rightly or wrongly, that nobody has been to this tournament before.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the tournament.

There was a group of expatriates out here in 1970, the year before the formation of the UAE, and they wanted to play rugby so they got together and played sevens on sand. The results were recorded and it was the Staffordshire Regiment that won because the British Army were out here at the time. A couple of years later, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum created the Exiles Rugby Club and that’s where things really got going. It was just a local club event for many years, run by Exiles volunteers.

We have helped build a strong rugby legacy.

The Dubai Sevens has become a meeting point for friends. I’ve seen young and old, from Australia, from Ireland, meet up in Dubai. And the fundamental rule is always that children under 12 get in free. We want it to be a family event and we want children to see what rugby is all about, see the camaraderie, the spirit, the competitive nature, and then enjoy themselves. We’ve seen many young kids who came to the Dubai Sevens as little ones and they went on to play rugby. You see there is a thriving amateur rugby scene here now and we have the UAE Rugby Federation too, who have rolled out the sport in national schools.

Sport is still a great tool for tourism in Dubai.

The Dubai Sevens is an iconic event for Dubai. It’s an ambassador event for Dubai. It is broadcast all over the world. People come out here and we have to make sure that it is the best that we can offer, because if you enjoy yourself at the Rugby Sevens in Dubai, then by osmosis you’ll enjoy Dubai. Sporting events have been crucial over the years for promoting Dubai – long before the formation of the Dubai Commerce and Tourism Department. I’ve always seen these sporting events as unofficial promotional tools for Dubai.

I think the quality of the sports industry in the Gulf has improved.

Demand and competitiveness have seen to that. I think 30 years ago we could’ve done a running event and people would’ve just done it because there weren’t any others. Now consumers are much more discerning and there is a lot more choice. It means everyone has to up their game and ensure the quality is high. Events like the Rugby Sevens are broadcast to the world – so they have to be outstanding. 

Our newest event addition is the City Half Marathon.

There are many races in the UAE now and even a lot of half marathons. But we did the City Half Marathon becauseit was around Dubai International Financial Centre, the heart of Dubai. We pushed that as a marketing tool because it was a unique selling proposition. People said, ‘okay, I can run around the DIFC – I can look at the Burj Khalifa and the Museum of the Future.Of course it comes down to great marketing and understanding the audience. It was a success with 2,300 participants, and this was because of the Promoseven team. The hours they worked were totally unsociable but at the end of the day, they all had smiles on their faces.

It’s frustrating to read bad news about Middle East sport.

There are a lot of events that are very, very well attended but I think it’s always the ones that don’t quite get the numbers that get the bad reviews, and the bad press. This is unfair for they put so much effort into them. I love cricket but you watch it here and there’s an empty stadium, no atmosphere. A lot of time the focus is on these failing which is a shame as there are some and extremely good events here, and an amazing variety of events too – from cycling and mountain biking, to running and even offshore stuff like kayaking. It’s a huge diversity of sports that happens in the UAE.