By Gavin Gibbon
Over 110,000 are expected to attend this year's Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens as the event celebrates its 50th anniversary, a far cry from its humble beginnings back in 1970
“It’s a bit like having a party at your house, if everyone has a good time you probably feel pretty good about it.”
Everybody loves a good host. Except the ‘house’ Gary Chapman, President of Emirates Group Services & dnata, is referring to is the Sevens Stadium on the Al Ain road outside Dubai - and around 110,000 people will be attending the ‘party’, an estimated 30 percent from overseas.
He jokes: “I’m not providing the food and beverage.”
He is, however, responsible for arranging the entertainment, in what is the 50th anniversary year of the Sevens, and that alone should provide a good time.
Aside from the traditionally spectacular fancy dress at the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, there are three different rugby tournaments, the invitation tournament and the first and second legs of the men’s and women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series respectively.
There’s over 250 rugby teams competing, and more than 60 netball teams taking part in a separate tournament, over the three days.
And there’s a dedicated rugby village with games, karaoke, competitions, rugby legend appearances and more, with bouncy castles and entertainment for all the family.
“This year we’ll have 250-260 social teams playing (rugby), along with the international World Series. It makes it a who’s who of rugby,” says Chapman. “You have people who are interested in rugby there, who play rugby, mixing, and it creates quite a unique atmosphere, which makes it different from every other Sevens event on the circuit and, frankly, makes it the best.”
There’s also the small matter of Australian pop superstar Kylie Minogue headlining the after-party concert. Chapman revealed that, at the time of the interview, ticket sales for the annual event are currently 5,000 up on previous years, and he hopes for more.
He says: “There’s definitely been a boost from Kylie, so we’re well ahead on sales because of that. Being what I am, is it enough for me? No it’s not.
“We’re pushing it hard. Certainly on the Friday I’d love to see us have 8-10,000 people more. People ideally who wouldn’t have gone to the rugby, but they’re going to go to see Kylie and they’re going to go early and for the first time experience what the Dubai Rugby Sevens is.
“Everyone that goes for the first time, it blows them away. I think, how do I get more people to come for the first time, because I know when they do, word of mouth, they will be back and they will bring others back.”
The outlay for this year’s tournament, Chapman reveals, is in the region of between $9.5 million and $10.8m.
It’s a far cry from the event’s humble beginnings when it kicked off back in 1970 (before the UAE was even formed), courtesy of a group of British expats, who played together at Dubai Exiles RFC - the Staffordshire Regiment were crowned as the first-ever Dubai Rugby 7s champions.
Emirates became the major sponsor in 1987 and in the early 90s Chapman took charge of the tournament. In 1999 it hosted a leg of the International Rugby Board’s Sevens World Series, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it became a firm fixture in the calendar of the governing body.
Chapman explains: “Back in 2007 I became aware that the World Cup Sevens was available, it was being tendered by what was then the International Rugby Board. I mentioned this to my chairman, Sheikh Ahmed, and said I think there’s a chance I could go out there and potentially get the World Cup Sevens for Dubai, but I've got so much going on I’m not going to do it. He said he wanted me to do it. I kind of figured I should’ve kept quiet.
“Back then in early 2007 we went up against other cities like Melbourne and other cities that were tendering for it. We went and did a mini politicking as you do; we went around the unions and we met the various unions who were voting, to press the case and we were successful in winning that tender.”
However, there was no time for celebrating. “Having won it, within about two months, the government then said they were taking away the area that the Exiles and where we play rugby and they were going to redevelop it.”
And so The Sevens Stadium as everyone knows it came to life and was built from the sand up in less than 18 months. “Dubai was booming, construction was booming, no-one was really that interested. It was a challenge on top of the day job,” says Chapman.
“We had to put roads in, we had to put the infrastructure in, we had access, utilities from scratch because it was just desert.”
What it did was create an atmosphere that struggles to be matched anywhere else on the Sevens circuit.
And Chapman says the stadium will be home to the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens for some time to come.
“One of the things you could do is you could strip out the World Series from all the social events and you could play that in a one-pitch stadium, but then what you’ve done is you’ve made it anonymous and just the same as about every other event around the world,” he says.
“The character of it has changed and you’ve got really no differentiation from what might happen in New Zealand or Australia or Canada or the US or wherever.
“On that basis I firmly believe that the event, and certainly as long as Emirates is a supporter of it, the home of the Sevens will be the facility that we have built at our cost and of course which is now used on a community basis for lots of sports, not just rugby.”
Chapman has also promised “something special” for those attending to mark the half century for the tournament. “I’d like to think we’ll have something special to recognise the event, not just Kylie, but we’ll be working on something that will elevate it for the people who are there at the event, which will be a bit of a surprise,” he says.
However, he is keeping the details close to his chest and who can argue, it’s his party after all.For all the latest Sport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.