While on the field the game is thriving in the Emirates, the country’s mounting economic concerns are having a huge knock-on effect off the pitch.
Sponsorships are drying up because companies are increasingly tightening their belts, while pitch hire fees continue to sky rocket to astronomical levels. And whereas there has always and will continue to be a myriad of players switching allegiances during the off-season, clubs are finding it harder to keep hold of star names as rivals dangle carrots that are increasingly difficult to match.
Sponsoring rugby events and teams in the UAE has and continues to be big business. The Dubai Sevens is backed by HSBC, while Dubai Exiles swapped one brand giant for another last year when Porsche replaced Canterbury as their principal jersey sponsor.
Three seasons ago the majority of Dubai-based clubs played for free at The Sevens as part of their participation in the UAE Premiership or Conference. Now, second-tier clubs fork out in the region of Dh6,000 per game for pitch hire, a post-match meal and one drink per player.
It’s not as if the oil price crash the country is currently gripped by has affected only small fry like Wasps though. It shows no favourtism, with last year’s leading lights, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, falling foul of faltering finances.
The club has this summer lost long-time backer Etihad Airways, meaning it could be forced to pull the plug on its regionally renowned youth tournament next season, while as it stands, 3,000 playing and training jerseys and vests will be arriving without a main sponsor.
The club parted with Dh773,000 last season for 1,104 hours of use of its home field at Zayed Sports City – which advertises a full pitch for hire at Dh750 per session.
Exiles, meanwhile, are set to cut all post-match meals for players next season after spending Dh65,000 last season.
Yet, while every team is floundering to stay afloat, the action and athletes on the field continue to flourish.
The standard of the UAE and West Asia Premiership has visibly increased each year, with Apollo Perelini picking his UAE squad for this year’s Asia Rugby Championship exclusively from the top division for the first time.
The UAE are ranked 72nd by World Rugby – the highest they have been since joining in December 2012 – which is testament to the growing standard of the game here.
Yet, the success on the green and gold pitches of grass and sand goes hand in hand with the growing distress off it, with clubs increasingly being driven into the red.
It can’t continue like this. If clubs like Wasps wilt and die, it won’t be long before others and the game in general gets stung too.
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