Build it big, and the world will come?

12 10 2011

I’ve spent the last few weeks casually watching the rugby world cup. One match in particular has remained with me; Scotland v Romania in Invercargill. The main reason this outwardly unremarkable match has become lodged in my memory is that it was played in what seemed to be a country fair showground.

Some people accuse rugby of nasty things. They say rugby provides an arena for needless brutality and behaviour that requires a tolerance for drinking pints of vomit. Fortunately I’m a man of the world and I know that there  is a lot about rugby that is sort of charming; the camaraderie, the respect for officials, Max Boyce, drunk people in sparkly cowboy hats, morons waving at the camera during the national anthem when they see themselves on the big screen, the quintets of people dotted around the Millennium Stadium all wearing those daffodil shaped balaclavas to prove how  “wacky!!!!” they are,  etc, etc.

Speaking seriously for a moment, one of the better things about rugby is that in comparison to the olympics and football, the sport seems to have a sense of its size.  The administrators of rugby union seem to realise that their sport doesn’t need to be the biggest sport in the world, or even merely gigantic. Generally they don’t see the need for legions of PR execs or flashy architects.

In terms of the stadia rugby administrators tend to adopt a “make do and mend” approach. This approach was visible in Invercargill; some parts of the crowd sat in temporary stands whilst other parts of the crowd stood, yes stood, down one side of the pitch. 

I have become so accustomed to the placing of sporting events on the escalator of perpetual enlargement and brilliance that I struggled to remember that I watching a match in an international tournament in the 21st century during the match in Invercargill. I was transported into the past………

….. It was 1958 and I was in Sweden, Vasteras to be exact, and what a charming venue it was!!  Scotland were playing and the pitch was thronged by locals. Cherubic youngsters were sitting cross-legged around the perimeter, aaah the good old days, jumpers for goal posts, rickets and casual racism…

 Ahem …… Let’s get back on track. Let’s run with the theme that rugby lacks the need to describe itself as the biggest event in the universe.

A few hours after the Scottish match the most populous rugby nation on Earth, England, played their first match in a flashy new ground built for the tournament. This flashy new ground was small compared to the new grounds built for a football tournament. From just two pieces of evidence you can argue that rugby union does things differently.

I know you could argue that rugby is played in fewer countries than football, and therefore they don’t need the massive facilities, but there doesn’t seem to be much of desire to change the situation and there’s certainly not much desire to make billions in profit.

Rugby is charmingly out of step with the logic of major championships and a throwback to less stressful times. Piecemeal changes – A clean-up,  a coat of paint and a few corporate banners – plus modest new grounds will suffice. Other governing bodies need to take a leaf out of rugby’s book, they need a bit of humility. Football used to be like that, they used to have the quaint idea of using stadia that were already there for events.

The approach taken by tournament organising committees is one-eyed devotion to one-upmanship. The next tournament WILL be the biggest and best ever and most importantly, it WILL make the host country look fantastic. Henceforth I will call this approach the “Showbiz Outlook”.

All stadia MUST look futuristic and fantastic because the “Showbiz Outlook” sees a competition/tournament as a shop window for a country. Because each competition is seen as a shop window the organisers naturally assume that people WILL bring lots and lots of money to spend in the shop.  

The preachers for the “Showbiz Outlook” also try to sell us their dream by telling us we have the same dream. They will say that the competition will transform a country, bestowing development and goodness simply by taking place. Facilities will be built, airports will be built, roads will be built, the money will flow!!!

As Ricardo Teixeira says about  Brazil 2014;

“Over the next few years we will have a consistent influx of investments. The 2014 World Cup will enable Brazil to have a modern infrastructure,” Teixeira said. “In social terms will be very beneficial. Our objective is to make Brazil become more visible in global arenas,” he added. “The World Cup goes far beyond a mere sporting event. It’s going to be an interesting tool to promote social transformation.”

Similar claims about the potential transformation of South Africa (and Africa) caused by the world cup were made before the last world cup; 

If all this will happen it’s no wonder countries pay for new stadia, they’d be mad not to!!!

However there are a couple of points to argue against the “Showbiz Outlook”. Firstly we must dispute the accepted logic that massive positive changes will flow from hosting major sporting events. Will a country see any real change?

Forcing a relatively poor country like South Africa to build massive stadia is hardly the moral thing to do to. The main motivation for  taking this path is conforming to a bloated and misguided  image of how things should be. This kind of development diverts funding (actual and potential) away from more vital social policies;

Africa also falls into the trap of the “Showbiz Outlook” with the Africa Cup of Nations. Why should poor countries be forced to fit in with a logic directed by rich countries?

If your country is like Ricardo Teixeira’s Brazil; “We are a civilized nation” then why would your country wait for a world cup or olympics to develop a decent infrastructure? Your country should develop one anyway.

While this thinking falls short on the moral level it also falls apart on the basis that they’re sold to us; the new stadia are said to encourage economic growth but there is no evidence that they do this.

The academic economist, Rob Baade, found that there is no economic case for new stadia and  has written many books and articles stating  his case, here the abstract from one piece of his research;

“Sports leagues, franchises, and civic boosters tout the economic benefits of professional sports as an incentive for host cities to construct new stadiums or arenas at considerable public expense. Past league-sponsored studies have estimated that new stadiums, franchises, and mega-events such as the Super Bowl increase economic activity by potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in host cities. A detailed regression analysis of taxable sales in Florida over the period extending from 1980 to 2005 fails to support these claims. New stadiums, arenas, and franchises, as well as mega-events, appear to be as likely to reduce taxable sales as increase them. Similarly, strikes and lockouts in professional sports have not systematically lead to reductions in local taxable sales.”

When there was a rumour that the Penguins NHL ice hockey team relocating from Pittsburgh to Kansas City Dr. Baade give the idea short shrift.;

“The idea that Kansas City could support yet another professional sports team seems to be unrealistic,” said Rob Baade, an economist and author at Lake Forest College in Illinois whose research includes the economic impact of professional sports teams on metropolitan areas.”

It was simple logic as the other sports clubs in Kansas City were suffering from poor attendances;

“The AL’s Royals and Major League Soccer’s Wizards are struggling at the gate, and the Blades and indoor-soccer Attack also rank near the bottoms of their respective leagues’ attendance charts.

Only the NFL’s Chiefs consistently draw large crowds.”

Despite these simple ideas Kansas City still wanted a professional Ice Hockey club. The mayor actually invited the co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins for discussions about moving. That’s the power of these spurious ideas about the potential economic benefit of building new stadia.

In the end there are two questions that need to be asked; why do we have to have these brand spanking new stadia? What’s wrong with using the existing facilities? Surely the rugby way of doing things is the way forward.

The second problem with the “Showbiz Outlook” happens when the outlook proves too difficult to resist and the stadia are built. There may be the problem of “The White Elephant”.

In poorer countries it’s obscene to divert all that public money toward stadia that are seldom used after an event, as you will have seen from the clip about South Africa. Even in richer countries you wonder if it’s the right thing to do.

Take Italia ’90. On a surface architectural level I was impressed by this tournament. All the stadia were breathtaking, Milan, Turin, Rome, Udine, Bari. They all made you want to be an Italian fan. A couple of decades after the event and the breathtaking stadia don’t seem so useful – Turin’s ground was demolished, refurbished and re-opened a few weeks ago with a better design, Cagliari have also done away with their athletic track by building stands on there. Bari’s stadium dwarves their average gate, the Milan pitch is frequently ruined etc etc

Sporting competitions from the past tell us of the danger of white elephants.  In Euro 2004 there was Faro, in Germany 2006 there was Dresden, in Euro 2008 there was Klagenfurt. In Korea and Japan there are a whole host of stadia that we too damn big for sensible post-tournament usage. None of these stadia was built cheaply. Take the Daddy of all costly stadia; the Montreal Olympic Stadium. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off the cost and they’ve now lost their main tenets.

The hubris of yesterday is often floodlit by the economic catastrophe of tomorrow. Next year’s European Championship is already showing signs of not making ends meet.

The cost is the nub of the problem. It’s rather amoral to spend billions and billions of pounds/dollars/euros on facilities that will be used for 4 weeks at the most (or a fortnight in the case of the olympics).  Even if they are used by a club after the event it’s still an obscene amount.

The situation becomes even more obscene when western governments shackle themselves to the Thatcher/Pinochet model of public spending (a severely limited budget that must be balanced). Chuck in the present economic difficulty and the situation appears even worse.

If a stadium is passed fit, and they have to be passed fit to host football matches, why can’t it be used for hosting big matches if the capacity of the ground is suitable? Why does it need redevelopment? Most football championship before 1990 seemed to manage with existing stadia, what was wrong with this approach?

Football needs a bit more humility. Yes football should have a bit of humility but….

“Premier League clubs should be able to do their own television deals abroad, Liverpool’s managing director has said.

Ian Ayre fears English sides will be left behind by their European rivals if overseas revenues continue to be shared equally between the league’s 20 clubs.

Ayre said: “The other European clubs just don’t follow that model. They will create much greater revenue to go and buy the best players.”

Ayre believes that Liverpool – along with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – deserve to receive an increased share.”

I think its fantastic that the premier league looks on the world in the same way that the East India Company did. You wonder what needs to happen to make people change their minds.



One response

16 10 2011
Redirecting::AllFootball Newsnow 

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