Having a Ball in the Desert


In the middle of a stretch of desert where only spindly trees used to sprout, two lakes are improbably nestled among 18 perfectly groomed holes on a championship caliber golf course. Among the sand dunes and undulating slopes, broad and gently rolling fairways, and Bermuda grass putting greens create what at first glance appears to be an illusion. But this is no mirage. It’s the Els Club, the first fully functioning part of the extraordinary Dubai Sports City, a city within a city that features world-class sporting facilities, cutting-edge stadiums, and a variety of world-renowned sports academies. It’s the world’s first and only integrated sports city.

Seriously, take a moment to mull that over—an integrated sports city. It’s genius; a $4 billion, 50-million-square-foot mini metropolis powered by and devoted solely to sports. Launched in 2004 as part of Dubailand and set on lands adjacent to the Dubai Autodrome, the new city, set to be completed in 2010, is taking shape as the eventual home to a community of 70,000 people living in 970 gated villas and more than 100 residential towers.

In most places, such expansive and expensive plans would be unthinkable. But this is Dubai, the go-go business hub of the United Arab Emirates. It’s simply a matter of imagination, determination, and engineering. The sports industry is a multi-trillion dollar industry, and Dubai has recognized that it can profitably serve as the nexus between the eastern and western hemispheres.

Four brand new venues are the centerpiece: a field hockey stadium capable of seating 5,000 spectators; a 10,000-seat multipurpose indoor arena for hoops and ice hockey; a 25,000-seat cricket complex; and an outdoor stadium for rugby, football (soccer), and track and field events—with a 60,000 person capacity—can host just about any event. All of the constructions are built to international standards. A full community and specialist hospital is now under construction and will serve as a dedicated sports-medicine facility offering a 24-hour emergency room, surgical unit, and sport rehabilitation center. A sports-themed shopping mall will connect the arenas. Hotels, condominiums, a promenade of high-end retail shops and boutiques, and a health and fitness club will offer state-of-the-art services and accommodations to residents and visitors. And to think, no sitting in post-game traffic jams! It’s a sporting Shangri-La.

The sporting world’s movers and shakers are certainly excited. The International Cricket Council, which has already moved its world headquarters here from London, will open an academy in DSC. Dubai is a more centrally located hub than London for countries where cricket is popular—like Pakistan, India, Australia, and South Africa—and that was an important factor in determining the placement. But the deal was ultimately sealed by the chance to build and own its headquarters, run its operations tax-free and more cheaply than in London, and gain a government subsidy for relocation costs. For the I.C.C., these were the clinchers. Access to a modern stadium dedicated to cricket didn’t hurt either.

The stars of the future will be able to receive dedicated coaching in the specialized academies center. Manchester United will build a permanent soccer school, benefiting from the Middle East’s first FIFA-approved, full-size indoor pitch to go along with two other ones. There will be a Butch Harmon School of Golf, a David Lloyd Tennis Academy, and a first of its kind World Hockey academy. To support these schools, training facilities such as a high-performance health club, an eight-lane 50-meter Olympic pool, two outdoor cricket ovals, an outdoor football pitch, a major tennis complex, and golf training grounds are being constructed. And a Bradenton Preparatory Academy will educate all of the young athletes. While all the facilities will be elite, the academies on the whole will not be elitist. So, sometime soon, you or your child just might be perfecting your volley technique, tweaking that backhand, or learning how to bend it like Beckham in DSC.

Turning the emirate into a sports and leisure destination has been a goal for quite some time. Major sporting events are not new to Dubai. The Dubai Tennis Championship, which made its debut in 1993, attracts many of the top players in the world, and the Dubai Desert Classic, a stop on the PGA European Tour, started in 1989. Horse racing has also enjoyed an international stage, with Dubai hosting the world’s richest race. And now, with the DSC, the stakes are being raised, and all of this high-profile exposure could be the key to Dubai becoming the first Arab city to host the Summer Olympics. Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, confirmed in March that he is considering bidding for the right to host the games. If selected, the earliest opportunity is 2020.

Whether or not the plan succeeds, it still highlights the immense potential and permanent sense of community the total vision affords those who live and breathe sports. As mentioned, there will be more to Dubai Sports City than just spectator events and academies. A one-kilometer-long canal has just been completed to serve as a central gathering area on what promises to be a vibrant waterfront promenade between residential towers. The canal will be crested on one end by The Gateway, two 44-story commercial towers at the opening to downtown DSC. The Arena Mall, a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping center, will complement waterfront cafés and restaurants along the canal.

So while other Dubai attractions offer a singular experience, DSC will offer new opportunities each day. The mix of lifestyles, events, and athletes from all over the world will create an ambiance of constant action—kind of like a permanent, massive Olympic village.

As far as the future goes, the sky’s the limit. Perhaps someday the English Premier League will also move its headquarters, seduced by the financial rewards and ultra-modern infrastructure the DSC offers. Maybe the NFL’s Buffalo Bills won’t be moving to Toronto after all, as has been rumored. The Dubai Bills…and the nickname might finally make sense.