In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), thousands of men sign two-year contracts to work long hours and live in labor residential areas in hopes of building better lives.

“These guys are real fighters. They’ve left everything back home and taken this adventure,” said Tolga Cebe, the head of marketing in Coca-Cola’s Middle East region. “They’ve come to this place to make a mark and make money to improve the lives of their families back home.”

More than 90 percent of these workers come from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Most of them live in labor accommodation areas and take buses to and from work each day. Since the wages are higher than in their home countries, they are able to build their savings. They return home for a month of paid leave each year.

In burgeoning cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the laborers behind ambitious construction projects are often overlooked by both residents and businesses. “We need to start engaging this segment in a dialogue,” Cebe said. He knew that there was an opportunity to make a meaningful impact with these workers from a business and human perspective.


 

The road to dialogue began in 2011 when Coca-Cola noticed the migrant workforce’s preference for lemon-lime flavored drinks. This encouraged the Sprite team to get more involved with the labor community – but what united this diverse group of men besides their preference for lemon-lime drinks? Cricket.

“Every single person seems to love the game and wants to play,” Cebe explained. On their day off each week, the men would find some way to play their favorite game, even when they lacked space and equipment. It was only natural to create a program aligned with what Cebe called their “all-consuming passion” for cricket.

For a group of men who worked tirelessly but were rarely acknowledged, cricket could provide a positive outlet. “Why not create stars out of these people? Why not give them the recognition?” Cebe said. “A platform to come and express what they are good at, something that they love.”

This mission inspired the Sprite Cricket Stars program, featuring the region’s biggest amateur cricket tournament. From August to November, the program enables passionate amateur players to partake in legitimate cricket competition by providing them with coaches, equipment, facilities and more. Teams can register free of charge at www.spritecricketstars.com.

Sprite Cricket Stars is growing rapidly in popularity and size. Eight teams competed in the original tournament in 2011; the 2015 edition will feature more than 300 teams who will compete in more than 700 matches. This year also marks the tournament’s international debut as it expands to Qatar and Bahrain.

The final round of the tournament this November will be played at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, which seats 20,000 fans. The winning team will be awarded over $13,000 in prize money and the second-place team will earn more than $6,000.

Sprite Cricket Stars fosters a celebratory environment that extends far beyond the tournament, with cultural activities, concerts, movies and free sampling events. Overall, Cebe estimated that the promotion reached over 300,000 people last year. It received overwhelmingly positive feedback and is now a permanent fixture in the UAE.


In 2013, Sprite brought in Shoaib Akhtar, a cricket legend from Pakistan, to serve as the as the official Sprite Cricket Starts 2015 ambassador. Besides his obvious appeal as one of the best players in the history of the game, he comes from the same working-class background as the laborers and relates to them well. He attends several of the games and events and shares tips and advice.

The Sprite team works with several other local organizations to maximize the impact of this event. This year, it partnered with the SmartLife foundation, which hosts various programs to improve the lives of workers. The Emirates Cricket Board now endorses Sprite Cricket Stars as the official grassroots cricket tournament in the UAE. In addition, Sprite will donate over $27,000 to the Emirates Red Cross.

The Sprite team looks forward to reaching more than 500,000 people during this year’s event and making its biggest impact yet.

“It’s not just about cricket,” said Cebe. “If we can bring a little joy to them, bring a smile to their face at the end of a hard day’s work, at least we are doing our part.”