EK05 from a chilly Manchester lands at around 7am, Dubai-time. Sitting comfortably in Business Class, the 28 players and staff from Bolton Wanderers Foxconn will be checking into their beachside rooms in less than an hour, around the time Emirates’ Heathrow flight delivers the Arsenal squad. It is mid-February and a pleasant 27º in the Gulf.
For Craig Bellamy, the 37-year-old BWFx manager-cum-spokesman, there will be just enough time for hair and make-up before heading off for the day’s first press conference. His Communications Team will brief him on the expected barbs from his aged counterpart, Arsene Wenger, ahead of tomorrow night’s top-of-the-table clash.
With the 78,000-seater Dubai Sports City stadium sold out, both managers will be encouraged to act the showman for the TV viewers. Last month’s Dubai fixture, Tottenham v Birmingham Tata, failed to beat the NBA’s 76ers-Magic clash in the global ratings. Despite a week-long promotion featuring the best efforts of Spurs’ tub-thumping presenter, David Ginola, viewing figures fell-off after a goalless first half.
The League’s principal sponsors – Emirates, SAB Miller and Visa – are demanding a better show this time round. Bolton-Arsenal may well be the deciding game of the 2017 Premier League season, but Sky still needs sexy sound-bites to sell to channel surfers in Emerging Markets. They’re selling this one as ‘Fire and Ice’.
For Arsenal, this will be their fifth League appearance of the season in Dubai, and their 14th in the three years since Emirates stumped up $1.5billion to stage 10 games a season in the Gulf. They will tack on a one-day meet-and-greet for fans and sponsors in Mumbai before heading to Munich for a one-match quarter final against Bayern in the Champions League. Bolton, last year’s English champions, their first title since being acquired by Foxconn, have opted out of the Champions League in favour of a promotional tour with Shanghai Telecom. Mandarin-speaking Bellamy is now one of the most recognisable (and popular) faces on Chinese TV.
Cheer squads from the official Bolton and Arsenal supporters clubs have been arriving throughout the week, many of them stretching the trip into a week-long holiday. Dubai expects to bump football tourist numbers by 15% this year, adding $850m to the economy. The Liverpool-Manchester United game on New Year’s Day brought in $120m alone.
Football is the star attraction but by hosting the 2015 Rugby World Cup, along with the bi-annual 20/20 Cricket World Cup and annual golf, horse racing and tennis championships, plus warm-weather training facilities, and three of the World’s Top20 golf courses, sports-related business is now one of Dubai’s key drivers. One US branding specialist recently estimated sport adds $5billion per annum to the value of ‘Brand Dubai’. Delegations from Dublin, Moscow and Tallinn have come to town to study the business model.
Back in Bolton, Garry Hardaway, manager of Real Trotters, won’t be watching the game. Just three years after being formed his team of amateurs have a chance of promotion from the Northern Counties Division 2. A crowd of 1,500 is expected for the game with Witton Albion.
The TV cameras will be there. Hardaway has a production meeting with Channel 4 to discuss script changes.