Like most things in Lebanon, it all began with sectarianism. Or, more accurately, with one basketball team’s efforts to break free from the yoke of patronage.
The year was 2001 — the Syrians were rounding up opposition activists in unprecedented numbers, the South was basking in its freedom and basketball was booming in Lebanon. Riding the crest of the B-ball wave was Hoops Club, an academy and sports center in Downtown Beirut, which took the opportunity to turn the sport’s new popularity into hard cash.
“To have our competitive team be self-sufficient, and not reliant on any political party, our academy had to be money making,” says Yassem sKanso, founder and president of Hoops Club and previously a player with the Sporting team. “It took time for Lebanon to adopt the idea of the business of sports because sports games were usually subsidized by political entities, and this discouraged the public to actively embrace it for fear of being labeled. Hoops was the first academy to challenge this political dominance and be apolitical,” explains Kanso. Fast forward to 2013 and Hoops’ combination of public court-rental fees, corporate sponsorship, youth academy programs and gym membership fees has allowed them to expand to three locations. And they’re not alone.
With the apparent success of Hoops Club, sports centers caught the interest of athletic investors looking to capitalize on the growing demand for non-politically affiliated sports clubs in the country. One such center is SportsVille, owned by the Tahseen Khayat Group, located in the densely populated area of Sakiet El Janzeer where, for $90 per hour, a group of friends can rent a mini basketball or football field and work up a sweat. SportsVille’s courts are regularly full and clients usually have to book at least a week in advance.
“There is clearly a [demand] for these facilities, but they have to be combined with academies, as profits from court rental alone are not that high,” says Martin Mugharbil, a former professional basketball player and the founder of Never Too Late basketball training academy, which has a partnership agreement with SportsVille.
Youth academy programs take sports centers’ earning capacities to the next level. Monthly and potentially longer programs guarantee income and training schemes, and travel opportunities add value and build loyalty, an important factor given that courses are offered from ages four to 21.
Advanced Soccer Academy (ASA), an example of such a successful academy, was founded by Raed Saddik and Rani Ghaziri. Both were coaches at the American Community School in Beirut but left when what started as a side business developed into one of the few dedicated football academies in the country with 500 members.
ASA grew from an academy into court management at their Ansar branch. Like Hoops, their revenues essentially come from monthly membership fees, of approximately $160, training camps and sponsors. ASA also acts as an agent for its top players, sometimes letting them train free of charge, developing their talents and seeks to secure them contracts with European clubs. If such a contract is secured, ASA takes a 10 percent finder’s fee. “It is a profitable business and we easily returned our investments in a year and a half,” says Saddik.
Hitting the big time
Now, plans for “the biggest sports complex in the Middle East” are being laid in Hazmieh. Champs, owned by famed basketball player Fadi el-Khatib and Nader al-Jaber, is set to open by early 2014 and will include seemingly every sports facility imaginable stretched over 20,000 square meters.
An ambitious project, Khatib says Champs’ “state of the art professional facilities” will include an international spa franchise, a hotel for academies hosting teams from abroad, training camps during school vacations and a diner. Aishti’s Michel Salameh will have an outlet for his sports brands and will sponsor all outfits from the academy members’ uniforms to the trainers’ and other staff’s uniforms.
The project will cost an estimated $8 million and both partners are confident of its success, despite the competition from existing facilities in Hazmieh.
“We are at a better location and have more facilities under one roof, plus some entertainment in the form of the eatery outlets and bowling alleys. We’ve combined everything so that if you want to do anything sports-related, you will want to come to our place. Parents can come with their children; the child trains in football and the mother can be on the treadmill watching from above. It is for all ages and activities,” says Jaber.
Khatib says membership fees will be reasonable. “We are going to compete and it will be affordable, without sacrificing the project and our investment,” says Khatib. “You are going to get a better experience for the same price, so why not?” adds Jaber.
Why not indeed? For a country where the lack of available and convenient public sports spaces forces enthusiasts of all ages into paying gym memberships and court rental fees — or more commonly, giving up physical activity altogether — the increasing number of such facilities can only be a good sign of a healthier culture.
As Hoops’ Kanso summarizes: “I always encourage such businesses because, at the end, we are promoting the culture of sports. I’m even happy with my competition as it ends up being a matter of who offers the best service; it creates a healthy competition and so sports become a culture and a habit in our country.”