UAE Team Emirates business manager Mauro Gianetti discusses cycling’s growing popularity in the Gulf, and why the sport is attractive to sponsors. 

When it was announced in 2017 that the UAE would have its own cycling team, the news came as little surprise. At a grassroots level the sport had experienced huge growth, while both Dubai (since 2014) and Abu Dhabi (since 2015) had been hosting acclaimed professional cycling events.

The birth of UAE Team Emirates came two years ago, after Abu Dhabi stepped in with financial support to rescue ailing Italian team Lampre–Merida. Initially called UAE Abu Dhabi, Emirates airline bought up naming rights shortly after and has been the team’s title sponsor since.

The move signalled a deepening of the relationship between the UAE and the sport of cycling, with UAE Team Emirates representing the Gulf state with aplomb on the international stage since its formation. In 2018 there have been stage wins in the Tour de France and Abu Dhabi Tour, among others, while Emirati rider Yousif Mirza won the Asian Cycling Championships in February.

For Mauro Gianetti, business manager of UAE Team Emirates, these successes have been extremely encouraging.

“Since the launch, we have progressed a lot,” Gianetti tells Sport Industry Insider.  “This team has existed, in one form or another, for 20 years so the experience behind the scenes is there. This year we had two fantastic victories – at the Tour de France especially because it was a very important stage and also in Denmark. I’m pretty happy with how things have gone but we must keep working to improve in the future.”

Along with Astana (Kazakhstan) and Bahrain-Merida, UAE Team Emirates is one of a growing number of professional cycling teams to represent a country, rather than simply a brand or title sponsor. It is a responsibility that Gianetti and his team take very seriously.

“It is not usual but it is something great. This is not a normal team, this is a team that is representing a country. We are like the national team of the UAE so our duty is not just to win races but set an example. To inspire people to use bicycles more and to live healthier lives. This is something that makes me very proud – and the team understands this message very well.”

That close link to the UAE has seen the popularity of cycling in the country continue on an upward curve in the past two years. While expats are taking up the sport in droves, sole Emirati team member Mirza has played a critical role in persuading his compatriots to swap four wheels for two.

“Having Yousif on the team is very important,” Gianetti explains. “First of all, he is a great rider. He’s an Asian champion. We believe in him and think he can improve his performance even more in the coming years.

“He has shown that if you have talent and are professional, you can become one of the best sportsmen in the world. He represents the UAE worldwide with good result, with good ethics and with a professionalism and character that makes him a very good example – not only for the young people who dream of being a good cyclist in the future, but all the young people in the UAE.”

At present, Mirza is an anomaly. Of the 450+ competitors in the men’s 2018 UCI World Tour, the 30-year-old was the only Arab cyclist. Gianetti is not worried by the number, though, insisting that a lack of cycling heritage in the Middle East has simply given the region more work to do to catch up.

“Cycling was not part of the culture before, but now the culture is arriving. I was cycling recently with the Abu Dhabi Cycling Club and honestly I saw some young riders – between 12 and 16 – who myself and the team thought had real talent.

“If only one percent of the population cycle, it’s obviously difficult to discover talent. If a greater percentage of the population do cycling, that talent will emerge as it has done in other countries. It’s just a question of time and opportunity. The opportunity is here, with the support of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and our team. Now we have to be patient. The time will come.”

Like any major sports team, sponsorship plays a vital role in bankrolling UAE Team Emirates. Beyond Emirates airline, First Abu Dhabi Bank is another key sponsor, and while cycling may not seem the most obvious choice for sport sponsorship, there are major benefits for the brands involved.

“Emirates are obviously our chief sponsors and we feel very lucky as they sponsor many different sporting events but we are the only team to carry the Emirates name. Of course it is good for Emirates too, and our other main sponsor First Abu Dhabi Bank. Cycling gives fantastic global exposure and we see the value of that exposure as being up to 25 to 30 times more than the investment.

“Riders participate in 303 races, 250 of which are live on TV, with an average of two-and-a-half hours of exposure in each race. Whether we win the race or not, our rider maybe was in the breakaway and we can see First Abu Dhabi Bank and Emirates, front and centre. In the Tour de France, 193 countries in the world were showing the race live – sometimes for even six hours. The TV viewership was somewhere around 300 million per day.

“If you would like to buy this sort of advertising space in 193 countries for two hours, it would be totally impossible to buy. Actually, not impossible, but it would definitely cost more than one season of sponsorship costs with us! That is an obvious advantage.”

Beyond the TV exposure, the potential to activate sponsorships around the globe has also proven to be a major benefit.

“We race all around the world so of course our sponsors can invite VIPs to many different countries. We start our season in Australia so we can have guests of Emirates in Adelaide. Then later the month we can have guests in Argentina. Through Europe, USA and China – our sponsors can create events around the world in any city where they have a partner or business.

“UAE Team Emirates participates in races across all continents, all through the year. This is not possible with a football team, or any other sport.”

Professional cycling’s presence in the UAE will be a little different in 2019 when, for the first time, the tours of Dubai and Abu Dhabi will merge to form the UAE Tour. Designed to be a showcase of the emirates’ varied terrain, Gianetti thinks the Dubai Sports Council and Abu Dhabi Sports Council have made the right decision in unifying the event.

UAE Team Emirates’ Mauro Gianetti rides with Abu Dhabi Cycling Club.

“All the riders have loved racing in the UAE because there’s a very nice route, nice hotels, nice facilities – it’s the perfect race. The temperature is good, there is no rain. It’s fantastic.

“Bringing the two races together makes perfect sense. There is more value for the UAE as a country from a commercial point of view. The attention is on the UAE as a whole, and we will see a high level race in which all the best riders in the world will participate. It’s a strong signal of the unity of the UAE.”

It is clear that investment from the sports councils and government in cycling is having an impact, particularly at the amateur level. But is a change in behavior really more important than bottom line for UAE Team Emirates.

“Cycling is a way of life, something we want more people to embrace,” insists Gianetti. “It helps ease traffic congestion and is one of the easiest sports for men and women to do. We care about our team’s success of course but we also care deeply about spreading cycling to the UAE and hopefully to the rest of the Middle East too.”