The squad formerly known as Lampre had a tumultuous winter with sponsors, but its budget is secure for four years.
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (VN) — Over the last two months, Giuseppe Saronni’s WorldTour team went from Italian to bust and back to the top again with Abu Dhabi. Emirates Airlines has joined as the main title sponsor and boots the team’s budget to a new level.
The team, now known as UAE Team Emirates, gathered in the luxurious Crowne Plaza hotel in Abu Dhabi to launch the deal. It was one of the poorest in the WorldTour, with a rumored budget of 10 million euros, but now that stands around 15 or 20 million euros. Full details have yet to emerge.
“I don’t want to go into the details of how much we are paying, but the important thing for me is how much we are investing in the UAE and where we want them to be in four years,” said Sheikh Majid Al Mualla, divisional vice president of commercial operations for Emirates.
“It’s not about money so much but about what we are giving to the UAE. This team needed a sponsor and here in the UAE, we have seen a lot of emphasis on cycling. It is a good match for both the team and for Emirates Airlines.”
Emirates is one of the top airlines in the world. Over the last year, it flew 51 million passengers and made a profit of what amounts to $2.26 billion.
The company with the same colors as the nation and now the team — red, green, white, and black — sponsors major sports. Its name is on the top soccer teams in Europe, such as Real Madrid, Benfica, and AC Milan.
Sheikh Majid added, “We sponsor many teams, only the best things.”
General manager and 1982 world champion Giuseppe Saronni presented the sponsor and other backers on the stage in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. After 20-plus years racing as Lampre, the Italian has Emirates. It as though he stepped out of a Ford Focus and into a turbo-charged Ferrari.
His team includes 2013 world champion Rui Costa; Luis Meintjes, the South African who placed eighth in the 2016 Tour de France; and Englishman Ben Swift.
“Now we have a responsibility to win,” Saronni said. “Important sponsors expect big results.”
Last fall, Saronni was leaving pre-fabricated coated metal manufacturer Lampre behind and launching China’s first professional team backed by TJ Sport. In December, though, the deal crumbled when the TJ Sport president Li Zhiqiang fell sick.
Saronni’s sponsor liaison Mauro Gianetti had been working on various projects in the UAE with property developer Matar Suhail Al Dhaheri, who wanted to start a local team. He convinced him that if he wanted to do so, now was the time. Matar saved the team, but saw it sailing into the 2017 waters with a minimum budget.
However, the start of a professional team in the UAE and early wins by Costa and Diego Ulissi sparked interest at home. Team president Matar spoke to Emirates Airlines and agreed to a four-year deal.
The swiftness was something that was impossible in government-controlled China. The UAE, with thousands of business hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, considered it normal.
“First, we have to say thanks to the organizers of the Abu Dhabi Tour and the Dubai Tour because they brought cycling to this part of the world,” added Saronni.
“This is a big brand and it’s beautiful for all of cycling, not just for our team. That means that cycling has some interest.”
Saronni went from bust to boom. The Abu Dhabi Tour starts Thursday, with Meintjes riding for the overall, but Saronni already has an eye on 2018.
“And clearly we need to create or better the team for the future. We need an important structure. Yes, I’m already looking at new riders for 2018. I can’t tell you which ones!”