Winning a Global Sports Event Can Transform Economies

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… Robust economic development and communications strategies essential

By Martin Roche, Writer at Large

2017 will go down as an historic year. Not because Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States. Not that at least six general elections are on the cards for Africa. Not the UK formally giving notice to quit the EU. Not the series of general elections that could transform European politics. Not even the 31st Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2017, which will be held in Gabon. As important as AFCON is to African nations, and particularly to host nation, Gabon, it is not quite as critically engaging to me as the early January announcement from FIFA, the governing body of world football, that from 2026 the World Cup will have 48 nations in its later stages. Now that’s history.

The real meaning of FIFA’s expansion of the most prestigious football tournament on the planet is that for small nations the chance of reaching the finals has been substantially improved. This is potentially very good news for Scotsmen like me, as Scotland (where the world’s first football international match was played in 1872) has not managed to quality for the World Cup finals since 1998.

Dreams of glory

Now Scots can dream of glory with more hope.  Small nations everywhere can look to the future more confident that one day, just perhaps, one of their own will hold aloft the Jules Rimet Trophy, that golden statue that goes only every four years to the world champions.

But there is another prize. It’s the prize of winning the competition to host the World Cup. As we all know, hosting great sporting events has become a staple part of the economic development strategy of many countries and cities. But who will host the 2026 World Cup, or the event in 2020 or 2034? Which sub-Saharan Africa nation or group of states has the ambition, commitment, drive and vision to follow South Africa’s success of 2010?

Many African and Asian countries start from the difficult position of lacking a comprehensive infrastructure of stadia, local and international transport facilities and enough hotels, restaurants and other facilities to win the confidence of investors, global sports bodies and, most essentially, local people. Global prestige and admiration are valuable commodities to win from the successful hosting of a great sporting event. But they are fading and ultimately valueless characteristics if there ae no lasting benefits to the people of a place.

Addressing leaders of vision

Let me be bold and address Africa’s leaders of vision. Let me give away for free some thoughts gained from nearly four decades in the economic development business.

For those who dream of welcoming the world to their country to witness a great global sports event, here’re my simple fundamentals:

  • Don’t think of winning a sporting event in isolation or as an end in itself. Make it part of a strategic economic development plan that will widen and deepen the opportunities for citizens, local businesses, international investors and the country itself. A plan that will deliver before the event and continue being beneficial long after the event.
  • Have a twenty-year infrastructure development plan linked to stimulating specific industries and areas where sports facilities exist or are planned. Infrastructure should be created to service the whole economy and far into the future. It is easier to interest private infrastructure operators and their funders when they can see a return based on a broad range of economic actives. This approach will give local people better reasons to support long term ambitions, will bring jobs, stimulate national pride and – when done well – bring the admiration of decision makers and opinion formers worldwide.
  • Without great communication everything is at risk. It is no good announcing an intention to bid for a tournament or global event if the reaction around the world is surprise, or shock, or “Where?”, or “You must be kidding?”

There are more good reasons why early investment in communications is a good thing than I have space to explain here. Let me give you just three of the most important.

  1. Global sporting events rely almost entirely on commercial sponsorship and advertising. A place that does not immediately strike a positive note with the world’s biggest advertisers will have little chance of winning.
  2. Inward investors of all kinds, though particularly in the key areas of private infrastructure, hotels and leisure and TV and media rights must have a high degree of confidence that a place can turn grand vision into real success. If they don’t already know something positive about you when a bid is announced they are unlikely to be able to convince their boards and investors. Afterwards is too late.
  3. In today’s world of social media and the internet an idea, a reputation, can be made or destroyed in five minutes. The global consumer is king. Long before any bid announcement the key target consumers should be addressed. Millions will dream of attending a great event but never will, but their views now have great weight. The message has to go out to every part of the world that your place is safe and secure, clean and healthy, exciting, stimulating and fun. Most of all – and this is the single most critical quality in any successful drive to attract people and investment – they must feel genuinely welcome. There is no substitute for a genuine welcome, but it takes time, money and expertise to persuade the world to listen to your good news messages.

I was introduced to the disciple of place marketing by another Scotsman. He taught me many fundamental lessons that I’ve applied across forty years and in many countries. But the single best bit of advice he gave me is that a smile, a firm handshake and a look in the eye wins friends every time. The job of communications is to reach out on your behalf and win friends. Every time.

Martin Roche has advised countries, cities and regions in Africa, Asia and Europe on communications for economic devilment and foreign direct investment promotion for over forty years. He is a partner at the geological communications consultancy, Etoile Partners. www.etoilepartners.com