Lars  Haue-Pedersen

In recent years the debate about the hosting of major sports events has intensified. 

The bad news for sports organisations and other rights holders is that the "naysayers" seem to be getting the upper hand - not least in Europe and North America, where a series of referendums about Olympic Winter Games hosting have resulted in local populations voting "no" to hosting the Games. 

At the same, many events of the International Federation have attracted only the minimum numbers of bids, creating something of a trend whereby the previous bidding process has turned into something of a "selection process". 

While this idea of proactively reaching out to a few selected potential host cities and negotiating with them individually might make sense on some levels, it cannot hide the fact that this is an outcome of a general event hosting fatigue among cities in various parts of the world. 

So why did we end up with such lack of appetite for event hosting? And, more importantly, what can be done about it?

Something has gone off-track in recent years. It has often been mentioned that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Fedederations and other events rights holders have promised too much to potential host cities in terms of what an event could do for the host. While at times this might have been right, the real problem might not be that they promised too much, but that they promised the wrong things. 

Here are just three examples:

⚫ For many years it has been a key argument that major events will lead to an increase in the number of people practising sport - and that this effect will be strongest among young people. In reality, however, a strong, sustained correlation between major sport events and increased participation has so far not been documented. Many have tried, but the numbers just don’t support this argument. There can be many explanations, but a quite simple one is that - today more than ever - young people are more influenced by peers than elite adults. Youngsters often admire and adore elite athletes, but they are not always influenced to do what they do.

⚫ A second key argument for why cities should host major events has been the use of events as a catalyst for the swift upgrading and construction of sporting facilities and infrastructure. The argument, so it goes, is that the deadlines provided by such events will ensure the timely completion of these infrastructure projects in an accelerated manner. But as we have seen many times over the years, the unusually tight deadlines for such projects often create circumstances for weaker planning and less relevant constructions. The result, as we have seen, can be poignant images of abandoned, decrepit event venues being circulated - providing the ideal fodder for critics of the events.

⚫ And finally, the so-called economic impact, where often inflated numbers of visitors are multiplied by an equally inflated spending factor. Yes, major events do attract visitors from abroad, and that’s a good thing - but they also result in other potential visitors not coming because of the event, and in any case such an impact of visitors has a limited, short-term lifespan. Moreover, the measurement systems for economic impact will always be open for questions and criticism, and so struggle to hold their ground in a highly-sceptical media environment.

Anti-Olympic campaigners have managed to successfully scupper bids in several countries and cities, including one from Calgary for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Anti-Olympic campaigners have managed to successfully scupper bids in several countries and cities, including one from Calgary for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

So is it all bad news for events rights holders? Are we moving towards the end of an era for major events because they are just worth the investment from the host cities?

Hopefully not. There should be no doubt that major sports events can do great things for a host city - at a cost much lower than it would take to create the same results in other ways. 

But in order to achieve this, we need a fundamental change in how we look at the hosting of major sports events. We need a paradigm shift. 

Yes, major events can create some motivation among the host city’s young people to take up sport, they can support the development of new and improved infrastructure, and even just a few additional visitors will create some economic impact. But because they are so difficult to document in a convincing way, especially over the short-term, these results should be considered positive side-effects of hosting major sports event, not the central argument.

Rather, the real benefits for the host of a major sports event lies somewhere else; something less tangible, but much more powerful and – as a result of globalisation and fierce competition between places - something in high demand all over the world: the awareness and positive perception of a city or a country.

Cities and countries are constantly looking for opportunities to tell the world their story about its place, its people, its plans and its potentials. Major sports events provide an extremely strong and attractive stage for international promotion - notably, they offer the chance to secure the attention of worldwide audiences around a positive, enthralling moment. 

Nothing - whether it be big international political meetings, major cultural events or international exhibitions - come even close to sport in terms of their appeal to a global audience across basically all demographics and income groups. Major sport events are second to none in terms of attracting international crowds onsite and online.  

It gets even better, because not only can major sports events create a fantastic platform to tell the world about the host city or country, the event also allows the host to demonstrate the same story by implementing the key messages in the way the event is organised. 

Good marketing talks, great marketing talks and shows - and a major sports event can do this in unique and exceptional ways. Moreover, such marketing is not limited to the event’s duration itself, but rather should be decisively established in the lead up to event, continuing on during such event and, importantly, after the event has taken place. In other words, the end of the sports event should only mark the beginning for the host - that’s real and effective legacy.

The end of a major event, like the 2012 Olympic Games in London, can only be judged many years later once the legacy of hosting it can be properly judged ©Getty Images
The end of a major event, like the 2012 Olympic Games in London, can only be judged many years later once the legacy of hosting it can be properly judged ©Getty Images

What of the costs? Well, when compared to traditional international marketing and advertising channels which many cities today spend fortunes on, the utilisation of sport events – and the positive messaging that can come with it, offers a truly cost-effective platform – if communicated correctly. 

In the modern-day world - the use of sports events to enhance the perception of host cities perfectly fits in with two, long-lasting societal effects of globalisation - the desire and ability to travel the world, and that special pride that one maintains in calling somewhere ‘home’. Focusing on producing a positive perception of host cities and countries perfectly taps into both narratives. 

A further modern-day development - that of digital and social media, can furthermore allow such efforts to snowball organically, creating an increasing cost-effective solution.

In recent years, sports events rights holders have done a tremendous job in negotiating successful, long-lasting partnerships with commercial entities, and the same philosophy should be applicable to public sector hosting organisations. 

Nobody in the IOC marketing department, for example, would focus solely on trying to convince McDonalds to become an Olympic partner by promising them that they can sell extra burgers during the Games. Of course, McDonalds might sell a few extra - and would take that side-effect with pleasure - but that’s obviously not what is attractive about being a partner of Olympic Games. It’s about the unique chance to utilise a platform to secure the attention and tell good storied to a worldwide audience around a positive moment. So it must be for the host city.

The "naysayers" might have won first round, but now it’s time for sport to fight back. It’s time for a paradigm shift.