Fixing bidding won’t help, because the problem is hosting
Greg Curchod
Greg Curchod is a partner and director of TSE Consulting, a Burson-Marsteller company headquartered in Lausanne, CH. Greg works with international sports organisations as well as leading cites worldwide.
Bidding and hosting
21st April 2017, 08:33

Major international sporting events are finding it harder and harder to find host cities. But the sports world seems to have found the solution to get rid of the problem: fixing bidding processes. The bad news? That solution is probably not going to fix anything, because the bidding process is not the problem.

Many sports organisations, not only the IOC, face the recurring problem of potential hosts withdrawing their bids. Recently, the Commonwealth Games Association made the headlines by suggesting that, following the withdrawal of Durban as host city for the 2022 debacle, it will seek to find a replacement on a “first-come, first-served” basis.

The remedy? Well, many have argued that there is an easy one: fixing the bidding processes.

The basic notion here is that if bidding processes for a city or a country are improved, the number, and indeed quality, of bidders will increase.

Many sports organisations, not only the IOC, face the recurring problem of potential hosts withdrawing their bids

But are there any indications that working on fixing the bidding processes will solve the problem?

In our view, no.

In over 15 years of assisting public authorities to put together quality bids for sports events, we have repeatedly seen that ambitious city leaders never ask about the bidding process. Their focus is on the event, the hosting, and what that can do to their city. Recent rejections in Switzerland, Italy, Norway and Hungary of bids to host the Olympic Games did not result from the perception of any bidding process, but of the actual hosting of the Games. Naturally, if the bidding process can be made simpler, cheaper and even more transparent, no one would complain - but it wouldn’t necessarily create more bidders.

If it’s not about fixing the bidding, it must be about fixing the hosting, meaning the commitments potential host cities have to make. And yet, we would argue, the hosting commitments are not really the problem either. Of course, host cities would like sports organisations to be a bit more flexible or willing to lower some of their requirement levels that have, over the years, become too demanding.

We have repeatedly seen that ambitious city leaders never ask about the bidding process

But while such changes would be beneficial, major sports events are still intrinsically attractive. The problem, we would argue, is more about how the hosting of the event is explained to cities.

Because in today’s environment sports organisations are not in a position to convince cities; cities need to convince themselves. The sports world should therefore be focused on facilitating this by helping public authorities effectively explain to their population (voters!) why hosting a sporting event is a good idea. 

There are many considerations sports organisations need to take into account here, but based on our experience, there are three main aspects that they can consider when explaining why sports events can be good for potential hosts: 

Promise small and specific rather than big and undefined

The sports world has a tendency to be somehow patronising. “This event would be great for your city,” is what is often said to mayors at the helm of major cities. This is a somewhat naïve approach, as one can assume that he/she knows what’s best for them.

Also, sports organization have a tendency to oversell. Mayors, and their voters, now know that a sporting event can’t change their city forever. But all sporting events can do very specific things to very specific targets, more than many other activities and policies.

Practical impacts on sport, on the economy, on civil society need to be clearly documented and communicated. Right holders are well-placed to generate very useful data, which can be provided to potential hosts to fine tune their own communication. As the saying goes: say what you can do to be attractive, say what you can’t do to be credible.

Say what you can do to be attractive, say what you can’t do to be credible

Take control of the numbers game

A lot of the resistance that has been built over the last 10 years against the hosting of international sporting events is related to finances. Whilst some might say it is because cities don’t understand, it can be argued that it is because sports organisations have failed to explain.

It is time for the sports world once and for all to learn how to explain the costs and revenues related to their events. The Olympic Games cannot continue to have people around the world thinking that they cost $50 billion to be organised. It is not the case. Sports organisations need to be stronger at controlling the financial discussion around their events and use active communication to deconstruct the mythology – something that would be extremely useful to public authorities worldwide as they build their own argumentation.

Develop and use language that serves the purpose

Rights holders and public authorities don’t use the same language. This creates a disconnected message which regularly gives the perception of the sports world being out of touch with reality. For example, why do sports leaders focus so much on the rather vague and hard-to-define concept of ‘legacy’, when city leaders are more often asked to report on ‘benefits’, ‘costs’ and ‘impacts’? 

And while cities will need to bear the costs of hosting the events, why make it harder for them by presenting them with such an unattractive document as a ‘deficit guarantee’? Who wants to sign that?

The sports world needs to focus on using language that is more useful to those who will be on the ‘front line’, working to change perceptions in their cities and countries. Their task would be made so much easier if rights holders could rather help them to build arguments about revenues, balanced budgets, meaningful investments: just to name a few - realistic - expressions.

Sports organisations’ relationship with potential hosts is facing a serious issue that could rapidly become fatal if no action is taken. A lot of work needs to be done to explain sports event hosting in a clearer more concrete and helpful way.

Let’s get started.