Let the games begin: attracting sporting events
Few things can electrify a city like the excitement of a championship sporting event. From World Cup soccer games to Little League playoff tournaments, athletic events have a way of building civic pride, as well as attracting large numbers of visitors (and dollars) to the host cities.
But there are many factors involved in successfully attracting a national swim meet or volleyball championship. Indeed, the processes involved in securing an event vary from sport to sport — some sports’ governing bodies operate on a rotation basis, others on a bidding system, and still others limit the bidding to certain cities. Also, the actual entity making the bid has changed over the years.
The past decade has witnessed a huge growth in the number of local sporting commissions whose purpose is attracting and overseeing amateur and professional sporting events. Since the city of Indianapolis created the Indiana Sports Corporation (ISC) in 1979 — widely recognized as the nation’s most successful — almost 100 other cities have formed similar agencies.
“Indianapolis is what prompted us to start contacting other sports corporations to find out if there is a big interest in taking our events there,” says Kathy Rogers, marketing secretary for U.S. Swimming (USS), Colorado Springs, Colo. “The city works very closely with the local swimming committees in hosting the events, and they do an outstanding job.”
Presently, USS will place an event only in a city that is home to one of its 59 local committees, but legislation is about to be presented to the organization’s House of Delegates that would allow it to send out bid sheets to all the nation’s sporting commissions.
“The successful cities have a strong partnership between the public sector — governmental agencies and other not-for-profit entities — as well as the corporate sector,” says ISC President Dale Neuburger. “Both are necessary to have successful sports strategy, because these events need to serve the public interest, and they also need to be a part of corporate strategy.”
“The good thing about commissions is they have some experience and a feel for what we’re looking for,” says Matt Pensinger, corporate programs and events manager for the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA), also in Colorado Springs. “They have a grasp of the technical side of setting up an event, and they tend to deliver a lot of the answers we’re looking for right up front.”
Funding for sports commissions varies, with some being supported almost entirely by state or local governments and others relying on corporate donations. For example, the Massachusetts Sports Partnership (MSP) in Boston receives most of its money from the private sector with some help from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism as well as the Port Authority. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, located just outside Minneapolis in Blaine, is state funded.
“Ideally, you would have a public/private partnership,” says MSP President Baaron Pittenger. “If you can put yourself in a position to get private sector funding on a reliable basis, that’s probably the best way to do it because, within the political process, priorities change so rapidly.”
For the past nine years, the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) has provided an information network called the Sports and Convention Center Consortia to members interested in finding out more about hosting an event. With the advent of the local sports commissions, however, the organization is finding the larger cities no longer need as much help. But the program still offers benefits for smaller cities.
“We’re currently in the process of taking the consortia and the Resort and Tourism Network and combining them to form a new program called ‘Invest: Building Partnerships for Sports, Tourism and the Arts,'” says Beth Miller, ICMA project manager. “We’re hoping that the new program will generate more interest since we’re not focusing on a professional sports team.”
Different sports have different bidding processes, as well as different objectives when placing an event. Obviously, certain sports are more popular in some areas of the country than others, and the governing bodies of those sports may feel it necessary to hold major events only in cities where they are assured a large audience. That is not always the case, however.
Neuburger had the opposite approach — building an audience where a sport is not quite as popular — in mind when making a pitch to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) water polo committee. “We told them we thought it was important the sport have more geographical diversification in the sites of their championship events, in spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of the elite athletes in water polo come from California,” he says. In 1990, U.S. Water Polo moved its headquarters to Indianapolis.
In Tennessee, Nashville Sports Council Executive Director Jenny Hannon made a similar proposal to USFSA. “The South is not a hotbed for figure skating,” Hannon says. “We only have one figure skating club, but Milwaukee and Cleveland, the two cities we competed against, probably have 40 or 50 clubs.” Still, Nashville will host the championship in 1997.
“I guess we look at it both ways,” Pensinger says. “There’s definitely some benefits to going to established markets, but we’re always interested in expanding the scope of our sport, in trying to get more people to participate.”
USFSA operates on a rotation basis for its major events, as do other sports. Rogers says USS’ four junior national meets — based on the speed of the swimmers, not their ages — are divided into East and West regions. The organization is now accepting bids for its 1997 events, and Rogers says it is concentrating on the southern regions of the country.
“A bid from that area will get first consideration, and, if everything it has meets the criteria, that site will be selected,” Rogers says. “But we go ahead and accept bids from other areas for backup.”
Pittenger says the Boston Bruins management bid directly on the 1996 National Hockey League All-Star Game, with MSP providing support. Formed in August 1993, the MSP has managed to lure the World Junior Baseball Championships, the World Junior Hockey Championships and the 1996 Olympic gymnastics trials to the Boston area.
As far as the bid sheets themselves, all sports’ governing bodies will list a number of requirements for the facility in which an event is to be held, as well as other criteria. For example, the governing body wants to be sure there is plenty of hotel space, preferably in an area close to the facility. Rental car availability is also a concern.
“[Governing bodies are] looking for opportunities a community would make available to the governing body in hosting the event,” says Joe Mittiga, special assistant to Orlando, Fla., Mayor Glenda Hood. “They’re very interested in knowing what kinds of things a community can do for them, whether there are housing options, what kind of pre-game ceremonies there might be, etc.”
SPONSORS AND VOLUNTEERS
In preparing an attractive bid, a host city must make sure it has in its pocket the two things, aside from the facility, that are most important in running a succesful sporting event: money and staff.
“You’ve got to have community support, and it takes two forms,” Mittiga says. “One is financial support, and the other is volunteers. None of these major events can survive without volunteers. They do everthing from help bring towels to the sideline to help staff the press box. It’s a huge volunteer undertaking.”
In bidding on and hosting events from the annual New Year’s Day Citrus Bowl to World Cup soccer matches in the summer of 1994, Orlando uses every edge it can get.
“One of the advantages Orlando has is the [nearby] attractions are often very willing to offer a special rate,” Mittiga says. “Most of the major theme parks did offer special rates for people coming to World Cup.”
Community support has been a key factor in the continuing relationship between the University of Georgia and the NCAA Men’s Tennis Championships. With rare exceptions, the Athens, Ga., school has hosted the championships for the past 20 years.
It started in 1972 when, after a stretch of 72 straight home victories for the UGA men’s team, Dale Lewis, then chairman of the NCAA tennis committee as well as University of Miami coach, decided to hold the championships in Athens. The event was so successful that, after serving out contractual obligations in other sites for four years, it returned to Georgia in ’77 and has been there almost every year since.
“We began drawing the biggest crowds in college tennis, two or three thousand people,” says Dan Magill, director of tennis for UGA. “We sell a lot of season tickets in advance. We get a lot of people willing to help as volunteers, and the local newspapers support it.”
When it comes to sponsors, some sports have long-standing histories with corporations that must be observed and catered to. For example, USS enjoys relationships with United Airlines and Alamo Rent-a-Car, so cities attempting to secure sponsors for a swimming event may not want to ask other rental car companies or airlines for their sponsorship dollars.
Also, when wooing potential sponsors, it pays to mind the bottom line. “There are very few companies today that make decisions based on corporate citizenship,” Pittenger says. “You need something that appeals to their marketing objectives. Put together a package with some basic benefits, but understand that that only serves as a starting point for discussion.”
Once a city lands an event, the sport’s governing body usually will cooperate with it to sign on more sponsors. “We do try to help the local club and consult with the arena marketing staff,” USFA’s Pensinger says.
Unlike professional sports teams, which require periodic infusions of capital to upgrade facilities and/or placate team ownership, most touring events are one-time deals with more clear-cut balance sheets.
The financial benefit of an event varies widely, of course, with the type of event and the amount of work a city must do to its facility to get the event in the first place. But the money is there to be made, and sometimes there is a lot of it.
In hosting World Cup soccer in 1994, Orlando leased the Citrus Bowl to the World Cup Host Committee in return for a cut of concessions revenue and other incentives. The city also had to fund transportation for players and fans and security. According to the books, Mittiga says the city was in the red about $100,000 from concessions versus these two expenses, but returns to Orlando businesses far outweighed this deficit.
“There were some attractions in some areas of the city that did very well,” Mittiga says. “By and large, the typical World Cup traveler was male, 20 to 30 years old and traveling with other males. They like to eat at restaurants, and they like to drink beer, so there were several businesses in downtown Orlando that enjoyed a very profitable series, and there were some hotels that did very well.”
Some governing bodies attempt to measure for themselves the economic impact of their events. A USS study listed net profits as high as $140,000 for a 1992 meet in Indianapolis.
Neuburger’s ISC commissioned a study to determine the economic impact of sporting events from 1977 to 1991 on the city of Indianapolis. During that time, the city invested approximately $164 million (in real 1991 dollars) in industry development, more than 90 percent of which went to facility construction. More than half of this, the report says, was made by philanthropies.
Under the assumption that every event-related dollar is spent more than once in the host city, the study used a multiplier of 1.79 — much lower than that normally used, the study says — to calculate real economic impact. It concluded that total gross revenues from that time exceeded $1.8 billion dollars, mostly in wages and profits to city residents.
“Not only are financial returns [to Indianapois] high by any reasonable standard, but there have been other social returns,” the study says. “The strategy has made available an array of health-enhancing recreational facilities unparalleled in other cities. It has attracted sufficient visitors to enrich commercial opportunities for residents. It has contributed to significant improvements in shopping, restaurants and cultural amenities. And, it has revitalized the city’s image.”
These intangible side benefits of hosting an event are as enticing as the bottom line to host cities. Mittiga agrees that much of the payoff from the World Cup could not be measured in dollars and cents.
“If you were to factor in the amount of advertising and publicity that occurred in newspapers all over the world, it’s almost incalculable,” Mittiga says. “These were newspapers from Dublin to Morocco to Mexico. It was amazing. If you were to calculate the ad value of all that, certainly we came out on the plus side.”
In perhaps the most telling statistic of all, a related ISC survey measuring community opinion found that 93 percent of Indianapolis residents felt the city should continue to pursue events, especially larger ones, and 91 percent feel the city’s strategy has been successful.
Of course, not every city will enjoy the kind of success that Indianapolis and Orlando have. And, as the number of commissions continues to climb, and cities become aware of the benefits of hosting events, competition will grow more and more heated; there are only so many events to go around. Governing bodies may begin to demand more of host cities in the potential sellers’ market.
Still, the lure of a major sporting event is undeniable and, as long as fans continue to spend money to watch athletes compete, hosting such events will remain a very attractive opportunity.