How Dubai set up a glittering party future for rugby sevens

Joe Byrnes looks back at the near 100,000-strong party that was the opening round of HSBC SVNS 2024 and asks: Please, can we have some more?

Formula 1 is a sport that rugby sevens dreams of emulating in terms of consumption, column inches, captivation and riches. Motorsport’s top gear of competition has always possessed a daredevil allure, but its global growth has accelerated to unprecedented levels in the last decade.

There are parallels between F1 and HSBC SVNS 2024. Both are high risk, high octane, with supreme athletes, exotic destinations and now, a dual focus on the fiesta can be added with SVNS re-energised to make event festivals that transcend the sport.

However, the direction of travel exists in both directions, and there can be friction: tradition versus evolution. Purist versus party. Max Verstappen, for one, doesn't seem to approve of distracting festival atmospheres surrounding F1. But, why can’t we have be both?

The Emirates Dubai 7s is done – and what a weekend that was. Gold for Australia women and the Blitzboks in two pulsating finals, yet there will be a percentage of people who travelled to The Sevens Stadium asking ‘Blitz-who?’ having not watched a minute’s on-field action.

If, however, you had asked those same people how their heart goes, you’d likely get a resounding ‘Dadida dadida’ as their main draw was Becky Hill who headlined ‘Frequency on 8’ on Saturday night.

I can only remark on what I saw and what I felt across the weekend, and in a decade of coming to the Emirates Dubai 7s this year’s festival – the curtain raiser to the new-look HSBC SVNS 2024 – was the best yet. Hands down.

The Friday before the international action kicked off was the busiest and most vibrant I’ve ever known. 

Men and women of all ages and families galore soaked up time together, enjoying the invitational action, while complimenting their day with the sounds of DJ Luck & MC Neat. What struck me most, however, was the number of children and young adults around, for whom the Emirates Dubai 7s was THE social event of the year.

Come Saturday, all competitions were in full swing and, with the new condensed format of the series, more international games took place on Pitch 2, giving spectators a different arena to connect to sevens. I know that playing on Pitch 2 rankles with some players, but there is merit in bringing some pool matches off the show pitch, as few fans have the desire or patience to consume an entire day of sevens sitting in one stadium seat.

The afternoon and early evening, though, was where things began to get interesting. A steady stream of young people began to arrive, ready to party. Glittered faces and party garms were the giveaway that these were not rugby die-hards, but Becky Hill and MK fans … and do you know what? I’m here for it. 

Rugby must engage a younger, multicultural audience if it is to thrive, and while 90 per cent of those coming to dance on Saturday may not have seen a shred of sevens, 100 per cent by association will have had their interest piqued by this unique sport, that marries itself to a culturally relevant music scene. I’d venture a few may come back for seconds, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Sunday came – a little sluggishly for some, perhaps – and with it the restorative qualities of finals day, not just for the HSBC SVNS 2024, but also the invitationals, the netballers, cricketers and padellers who had been battling it out for amateur supremacy since Friday. 

As a result, both men’s and women’s Cup semi-finals took place just after 13:00 local time (GMT+2) in front of modest crowds. Here, the arguments of the Verstappens of this world carry some weight. In the pursuit of luring new fans with additional entertainment, do we dilute interest and engagement in the very sport we’re trying to promote? The semis may suggest ‘yes’, but the bulging stadium seams of two fully invested finals later that night would counter ‘no’.

The best part of 100,000 fans taking part in an entertainment-packed weekend is a compelling argument that it works. The internet is awash with ‘best week ever’ and ‘take me back’ tributes, and while social media may not always be the truest barometer of balanced sentiment, you know what it isn’t awash with? Referee vitriol, or player criticism. It was a breath of fresh air.

And for all those fearful of the quality of on-field action, I implore you to seek out and marvel at Australia’s final-clinching try. Created by the brilliance of Charlotte Caslick and Demi Hayes and finished by the phenom that is Maddison Levi. Perfection.

The hybrid model will take some getting used to, but it is positive, progressive ... and a hype train worth getting aboard all season long and beyond.

By Joe Byrnes