NEW YORK // A new direction was what the Sharjah-born Safa Taryam says she was looking for a couple of years ago.
“I felt it was time for a change, both on a professional and personal level,” says the former Abu Dhabi Media professional and avid football fan.
And what a trailblazing change she decided upon, becoming the first, and so far only, Emirati woman to complete the unique Fifa’s Master Programme for sports business management.
As various entities in the Arabian Gulf region attract and develop major sporting events and businesses, the requirement for a new generation of professionals who are in tune with the quickly changing world of modern sports business will only surge.
Where, in the past, most decisions were guided by conventional wisdom, there is now a breed of sector players who understand the concept of ROI (return on investment) – inclusive of sponsorships, TV deals, new media – and all in between. The sports industry has become more cultured.
Yet the industry is often regarded in a negative, male-orientated light regionally; the impression being either that there is no future in it or the industry is reserved for a select few who are, for want of a better term, born into the business.
The idea that a local a woman could break into the sector was, until recently, practically unheard of. But in the world of football – Ms Taryam, 32, has achieved what many, males and females, aspire to.
“A colleague of mine recommended the [Fifa] programme, it seemed like a great idea to take a break from the professional world and reassess what I wanted to do in the coming years and, at the same time, improve on what I already acquired as experience, but staying within the sports field,” Ms Taryam says from Zurich, Switzerland, where she currently lives.
The programme was initiated in early 2000, after years of due diligence by then Fifa president João Havelange who wished to open a “University of Football” to provide business management education within the sports world.
The course is designed to improve sports governance and takes students to three different countries and educational establishments: De Montfort University in Leicester, England; the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy; and the Université de Neuchâtel in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, regarded as among the best schools in their relative fields.
At the establishments they learn and develop critical skills in understanding the social and cultural aspects of the global sports environment along with the management expertise necessary to be effective in the sports business environment and to better manage the nuances of an always-changing sports industry.
The importance of the programme is perhaps justified more so in today’s environment, considering the ethical challenges Fifa, football’s world governing body, now faces. Claims of corruption at the highest level have seen arrests and the suspension of the head of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, who has since resigned, and Michele Platini, the man once intending to replace him, among others. The election for a new president of Fifa is set for February 26.
And just last month it was reported Italian financial police had seized millions of euros in assets after allegedly uncovering a vast tax evasion system that it is claimed involves some 35 first and second division Italian clubs.
A believer of the phrase “if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life” and a football fan since she can remember, Ms Taryam’s significant moment came while she was at Abu Dhabi Media, the publisher of The National, where she worked as a marketing manager focusing on Abu Dhabi Sports Channel for two years. The channel at the time had exclusive broadcast rights in the region to several high-profile sports properties including the Barclays Premiere League in England, Formula 1 and several tennis Grand Slam tournaments.
Ms Taryam says her mother was a source of inspiration.
“She was always a full-time employee, studying for her PhD and raising five kids … We weren’t angels either.”
An applicant of the 2012/2013 in-take year, Ms Taryam says the preparations for the programme were quite extensive. Potential candidates often now turn to her for advice.
“To be honest, there’s no winning formula,” she says. “Much like football, each person has their own set of skills that makes them unique.
“In hindsight, after going through the programme, it is just as much about what you bring to the table as what you would get out of it.
“So these days, my advice is to show who you are, what you can offer your fellow classmates, how you can benefit personally from the programme.
“It might be a cliché but just be yourself. At the end of the day, a standard set of responses won’t stand out from the hundreds of applications the organisers receive,” she says.
While the programme is open to everyone, the ideal candidate would be someone who can display a range of skills among a very selective student body from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and nationalities. That said, to be accepted, the student must have completed an undergraduate course, have an excellent command of the English language and have a minimum of two years relevant experience.
The three primary modules are humanities of sport – which is first and taught at the International Centre for Sport History and Culture at the De Montfort University. The second module – sports management – is taught at the business school of SDA Bocconi, with students completing the third module, sports Law, at the Université de Neuchâtel.
For prospective students, application dates for the one-year programme normally range between October and January, with all applications considered thoroughly by the Fifa’s scientific committee.
While the fees for the course are Dh90,000, students are urged to budget a further Dh72,000 to fund living costs, food, housing and other expenses. However, five scholarships worth Dh162,370 are available for students who can demonstrate the need of financial support.
So how did Ms Taryam feel when she was accepted on to the programme?
“Honestly? Relief … I didn’t have a back-up plan. I hadn’t applied to any other programmes, I didn’t even really have another job lined up. I knew exactly what I wanted and I didn’t bother wasting time on what ifs,” she says.
“I’m sure if I hadn’t been accepted I would have figured something else out, but I was so intent on seeing this through that I put all my energy into it, and I’m very thankful it went the way it did. I would say it took a few months from application to acceptance. I remember receiving my acceptance around April, but the dates may have changed since then.”
For many students who have made the decision to move away from home to a different land to pursue their higher studies homesickness is common, with some making an eventual or, at times, an immediate U-turn. Ms Taryam, however, says she never had any regrets about joining the programme.
“None whatsoever. Actually during the first few weeks, we got to meet a few alumni and it became even more clear how important it was to not only learn in the classroom, but to be part of an elite group of individuals that all play some role in all different aspects of world sport governance,” she says. “It’s also important to note that it’s not just football. The master programme clearly opened up doors for people working in everything from skiing, to motorsports, to basketball and everything in between.”
Ms Taryam’s intake amounted to a “small family of 30”, as she calls it.
There are campuses in each of the three cities where the students study, spending three months in England, three in Italy and four in Switzerland. Ms Taryam says she and her classmates worked on projects together, had lunch breaks together and, more often than not, spent their evenings getting to know each other socially. Students have the option to choose between university student residences (paid for by the students themselves) or to source their own accommodation (flat rentals mostly).
Naturally, by the time they graduated, the group of 30 from 24 different nationalities, including Brazil, New Zealand, India, Japan, Sweden and Mexico, had formed a strong bond. But the most beneficial aspect of the programme, says Ms Taryam, was the potential to network with the industry’s best.
“There were a lot of high points. I would have answered differently if you had asked me while I was in the programme, but currently, I think the network you build, coupled with the knowledge you gain, is something you cannot get with another programme.
“This is what makes it unique as opposed to other sports management programmes.”
Her final thesis, called The Game is Theirs, featured a benchmarking analysis of how different models of fan-involvement affect the governance structure of European football clubs. “One example is FC Barcelona,” Ms Taryam says, “which is essentially a club owned by its members or fans.”
She adds: “We would look at several clubs with varying levels of fan ownership or involvement and benchmark their different factors of success with each other, essentially showcasing correlations between fan involvement and club success.”
While Ms Taryam recommends the programme for aspiring sports business professionals, she points out there are many sacrifices to be made.
“Other than the financial investment you make to such a programme, the time you spend away from home, the time you take out from a career or job, essentially you are unemployed for a year, all these are very important factors you need to consider.
“However, if all the boxes are ticked, then yes, it’s a great programme. Both from a social/personal point of view, as well as professionally.”
Ms Taryam says support from her family, who remain in Sharjah, showed that for them, a Muslim Arab woman attempting to break into what has traditionally been seen as a male-dominated environment was not an issue.
“Of course my family asked many questions, but not for the reason you may think,” she says.
“They were concerned and wanted to be reassured as any parent would when their daughter decides to up and leave home, going to not one but three different countries. All these things like, where I’m going to live, am I going to be safe.
“That’s what they were asking about. It had nothing to do with religion and, to a certain extent, I do not think it had anything to do with my gender.
“I’m sure they asked the same questions when my brother went away for college, too. Having said that, I do recognise the fact that I come from a progressive Middle East family and that may not be the norm in many families.
“In many ways, applying for the programme was one of the few things I could do as an Arab female wanting to work in the sports field,” Ms Taryam adds.
“The opportunities are quite limited and it is a tough environment to crack into, so having a way in is definitely a positive.
“Sometimes as a female in such a male-dominated environment, there’s almost more pressure to prove yourself – so having the tools to make that journey a little easier is always a positive. ”
Not only was the course an eye-opening experience for Ms Taryam but also she was able to land a role at Fifa after completing the course.
She was offered a one-year work placement at its headquarters in Zurich, working in the marketing and TV divisions. Halfway through the stint, and just before heading to Brazil for the 2014 Fifa World Cup, she was offered a full-time contract with the governing body.
That makes her not only the first Emirati but the first from the GCC to work at the non-executive level for Fifa.
She currently works in the broadcaster-servicing department within the organisation’s TV division in Zurich. The department’s primary goal is to ensure that all rights and obligations, such as the rights to transmit the Fifa events worldwide via TV, radio, broadband internet, mobile and the like, are delivered and adhered to, both on site at Fifa events as well as throughout the year. And it is big business; from 2011 to 2014 Fifa’s broadcast unit accounted for the lion’s share of its more than US$5 billion income before expenditures, the world body says.
While Ms Taryam currently has no immediate plan to go back to the UAE, she is not closing the door on an eventual return.
“I’m sure when the time is right the transition back home will be a positive one,” she says.
“It’s not an easy year, you get homesick, you get tired of the logistical things you need to take care of, finding a place to live and move to three different countries, all the studying, it’s quite demanding.
“However, all said and done, it’s a fantastic course that has given me so much and still does with the network that I am now part of” Ms Taryam says.
“There are absolutely no regrets from my side.”