David Owen

The bidding business for sports events has been in a state of flux for some years now.

Potential hosts, particularly of multi-sport events, are much scarcer than 10, 20 or 30 years ago; consequently, property owners are having to try much harder.

Even in the context of the innovative climate spawned by this bear market, the Strategic Event Attribution Process (SEAP) implemented by the World Rowing Federation (FISA) stands out as an ambitious and imaginative undertaking.

The big idea behind SEAP is to enable prospective host cities, public authorities and FISA alike to adopt a more strategic approach to investment decisions and the allocation of major regattas by selecting a large number of venues simultaneously.

The Federation has opened no fewer than 36 events, to take place between 2021 and 2026, to bidding, with interested parties encouraged to indicate any and all regattas that they believe would further their respective hosting strategies.

In April, the first indication of how far cities and other jurisdictions had bought into the new approach emerged, with the disclosure that 21 national federations had submitted bids covering 31 rowing venues. Several venues have been put forward either for multiple events or the same event in a number of different years.

There are good reasons why rowing – a sport with an exceptional track record for producing thoughtful and talented administrators – should be at the forefront of this sort of industry innovation.

You cannot stage an orthodox rowing event in a multi-purpose facility such as a convention centre or a concert hall.

Venues, even when sited on natural lakes, are big-ticket and rather pernickety infrastructural items likely to require regular maintenance and upgrades.

Rowing, furthermore, is not by and large an especially appealing commercial proposition for private promoters.

The Strategic Event Attribution Process is an ambitious undertaking by FISA ©Getty Images
The Strategic Event Attribution Process is an ambitious undertaking by FISA ©Getty Images

It follows that Government investment in the sport and its arenas is vital, and that an event attribution system which can, as far as possible, aid realisation of whatever public policy goals authorities hope to realise through rowing is highly desirable.

“The events require Government subsidies to break even – even the world championships,” says Matt Smith, FISA’s executive director, who has been a key figure in devising the new approach, in the wake of a thought-provoking meeting a few years back with the Austrian Sports Minister.

“For non-commercial sports, the relationship with Government authorities is very important,” Smith goes on. “Because we depend heavily on Government for our venues and to help stage our events, it is doubly important we are in close communication with them about staging the events they are interested in.”

When prompted, Smith acknowledges that working out the allocation of so many events more or less simultaneously is “a huge amount of work”.

This has necessitated both the recruitment of an additional FISA staff member and the purchase of a videoconferencing unit which “we will be utilising quite a bit”.

Overall, though, the new process is expected to lead to a modest reduction in the costs incurred by FISA to place its events.

With many bidding venues already familiar to FISA officials, site visits ahead of the presentation of final bids, including financial guarantees, at the end of June will only be conducted at those venues that are less well-known.

Most awards are to be announced at the next FISA Congress in September which is to be held, appropriately enough given the genesis of the idea, at Linz in Austria.

One lesson that Smith admits has already been learned is that FISA was, as he puts it, “a bit overzealous” in looking as far ahead as 2025 and 2026.

“More and more these days we find that the trend is for Governments to hesitate to commit beyond their term in office,” he observes.

Rowing could be showing other sports the way forward ©Getty Images
Rowing could be showing other sports the way forward ©Getty Images

“We wanted to open the discussion to long-term infrastructure investment considerations, bearing in mind that if someone builds something today, they are building it to last for the next 30 or 40 years,” he adds.

“But the funding of the operating budget for events, we recognise, is more of a short-term discussion.”

The FISA official also emphasises that rowing events remain “nearly totally volunteer-driven”. This tends to mean in practice that the “motivation of an Organising Committee is very much driven by one leader”.

There are one or two gaps in the line-up: the 2021 Under-23 European Championships have attracted no bidders, even at this preliminary stage in the process; nor have the 2026 World Championships.

But Smith points out that a number of venues, though more than willing to stage FISA events, did not want, for one reason or another, to take part in the formal bidding process.

Some of these may ultimately step into the breach and take on either bid-less regattas or any events for which the current bidders fall by the wayside.

One would have thought, for example, that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic rowing course would be an obvious candidate to stage future FISA events.

According to Smith, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government “definitely” want international events, but “are too busy getting the Games up and running at this point”.

Less than three weeks after publication of the full bidders’ list for the first time, it is understood, indeed, that a potential venue for the vacant 2026 slot is in discussions with their Government.

To summarise: while not every Olympic sport will want – or need – to devise this sort of long-term, strategic blueprint for deciding the location of their events, even while the bidding market is in the doldrums, some might well benefit from taking a leaf out of FISA’s new book.

Smith, for his part, describes SEAP rather arrestingly as “a collection of borrowed and stolen ideas from different organisations”.

Even if this were true, the amalgam strikes me as both quietly groundbreaking and potentially of interest well beyond the sport of rowing.