The rise in sports business programs globally reflects a growing need of professionals in the industry. From those who, in the past, would make decisions guided by conventional wisdom to those who can understand the concept of ROI – inclusive of sponsorships, TV deals, new media and all that which comes in between. The sports industry has become more cultured.

As various entities in the region play catch-up, along with recent allocations of several global high-profile football tournaments along with many other sports events, the requirement of a new generation of professionals who are in tune with the quickly changing world of modern sports, will only surge.

Yet the industry is negatively portrayed by the society, at least in this part of the world; the impression being that there is no future in it or the industry is reserved for the select few who are, for lack of a better term, born into the industry. Adding to this, the thought of a woman attempting to break the barrier makes it more interesting.

The ever-changing Middle Eastern landscape always provides one with an opportunity to pause and reflect on what was and what will be. Contrary to popular beliefs in the West, the region is one, which by design represses women. Stories/images of oppression in general, are widely displayed by the media and referred to by politicians any backgrounds. While, it is hard to deny that the larger system of gender-based laws do exist within the region and room to advance still exists, little do people realize that there is an increasing number of women who have taken a massive step towards progression.

From Pilots (both commercial and air force) to women in the cabinet, from CEO’s in various verticals to media personalities; they have managed to balance life, work and culture in their respective fields.

And in sports, more specifically, in the world of football – one determined woman has achieved what many from both genders aspire of. Safa Taryam is the first Emirati to complete the unique FIFA’s Master Program – a program, which was initiated to promote management education within the sports world.

FIFA CIES

The FIFA Masters Program takes you through three different countries where the select few learn and attempt to develop critical skills to better manage the nuances of an always-changing sport industry. The importance of this program is justified more so in today’s environment, considering the ethical challenges the football’s governing body and the various entities within and around in it, has and continues to face in recent times.

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 could remember, Safa’s significant moment came while she was at Abu Dhabi Media, where she worked as a Marketing Manager focusing on Abu Dhabi Sports Channel for two years, which at the time, had exclusive broadcast rights in the region to several high profile sports properties including the Barclays Premiere League, Formula 1 and a few major Tennis Grand slam’s.

“I felt it was time for a change, both on a professional and personal level. A colleague of mine recommended the 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.”

An applicant of the 2012/2013 take-in year, the preparations for the program tends to be quite extensive, having myself gone through the application process unsuccessfully on two different occasions. Potential candidates, in fact, always approach Safa, regarding the preparations, and/or if they manage to advance to the interview process, how should that be handled.

“To be honest, there’s no winning formula,” Safa says. Going on to add, “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. Might be 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 organizers receive.”

And like any similar situation, the most nerve-wrecking moment would be the wait to hear back from the officials. I wanted to understand how Safa had felt after being accepted, considering that only a select number of individuals are chosen for the CIES Progamme.

“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. 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.”

Many students I have come across, who have made the decision to move away from home to a different land to pursue their higher studies have faced some sort of homesickness, with a few making an eventual or at times an immediate U-turn. As a well-determined woman, Safa had no regrets about the program.

“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. It’s also important to note that it’s not just football. The master program clearly opened up doors for people working in everything from skiing, to motorsports, to basketball, and everything in between.”

Apart from the fact that she was not only working towards her goal of being among the few Arab women trying to climb the ranks in the Sports world and also the opportunity to meet legendary names in the game, she was also exposed to 30 individuals who just like her joined the programme with the intention to better the world of sports governance. A “small family of 30” as Safa called it, went to class together, worked on projects together, had coffee and lunch breaks together, and more often than not, spent their evenings getting to know each other socially.

So it would be natural that that by the time they graduated, the group of 30 from 24 different nationalities would form a special bond till this day. But the most beneficial aspect of the programme, as Safa recalls is 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 program, but currently, I think the network you build, coupled with the knowledge you gain is something you cannot get with another program. This is what makes it unique as opposed to other sports management programs.”

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.

Safa would recommend the programme for aspiring professionals but places emphasis on what comes after.

“Other than the financial investment you make to such a program, the time you spend away from home (friends & family), the time you take out from a career or job and essentially are unemployed for a year… All these are very important factors you would need to consider. However, if all the boxes are ticked, then yes, it’s a great program. Both from a social/personal point of view, as well as professionally.”

However, the question that lingered in the minds would pertain towards an aspirational female colleague involved in Football especially from the region. The question regarding any reservations from family; friends or colleagues considering that she was a Muslim female applying for a sports program. But as anxious as it may sound Safa unsurprisingly, had been asked this question at different occasions in the past. And she actually is glad because it provides her with yet another opportunity to set the record straight appreciating the support from her family.

“Of course my family asked many questions, but not for the reason you may think. 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, etc. 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 recognize the fact that I come from a progressive (for lack of a better word) Middle Eastern family and that may not be the norm in many families. I can only speak for myself, and I do come from a supportive environment where I have always been encouraged to work hard, strive to be the best I can be at what I do, and that nothing is out of reach.”

Safa Taryam

Going on further to mention her mother as her inspiration and role mode.

“She was always a full time employee, studying for her PhD and raising 5 kids … we weren’t angels either. In many ways, applying for the program was one of the few things I could do as an Arab female wanting to work in the sports field. 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 your-self – so having the tools to make that journey a little easier is always a positive. To answer the second part of your question, the program offered absolutely no challenges to any of us, regardless of background or faith. There might be personal challenges or adjustments that would need to be made, but that really differs from one individual to another.”

And naturally, being among the few Arab women to complete the program, she would be an ideal role model for an aspiring female prospective who is interested in the programme. Her advice to them would be:

“The same that I would give anyone – do the research, figure out what your plan is, and then go for it if that is what you want. 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 3 different countries, all the studying, it’s quite demanding. However, once that’s 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, so absolutely no regrets from my side.”

Not only was it an eye-opening experience for Safa but also she was able to land a role at the esteemed (or not-so at the moment) organization after completing the course.

Safa was offered a one-year work placement at FIFA spending six months each 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 FIFA, which makes her the first Emirati and the first from the GCC to region to work at the non-executive level. She currently works in the broadcaster-servicing department within the TV division. The department’s primary goal is to ensure that all rights and obligations set out in each media rights agreement with the various media rights licensees are delivered and adhered to, both on site at FIFA events as well as throughout the year.

Safa currently has no immediate intentions of returning back to the United Arab Emirates but is not closing the door on an eventual return as of yet, “I’m sure when the time is right the transition back home will be a positive one.”

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