Simon Morton

It was almost as if the last two years never happened. Crowded trains packed with excitable event goers, children wrapped in flags, shared human experiences full of heartbreak and elation, and lasting memories to be re-told for years to come.

The past month has been the perfect reminder of how important big sporting moments are to the United Kingdom (UK). A spectacular EURO Championships and Commonwealth Games have helped the country fall in love again with international sporting events.

Postponements caused by COVID meant that this summer was always going to be one in which sports fans were spoilt for choice. The result has been a headache for organisers, but a headrush for event goers. 

In July alone, the UK hosted (with spectator numbers) the Women’s EURO Championships (570,000), the Commonwealth Games (1,500,000), F1 Grand Prix (400,000), Wimbledon (515,000) and the Open Golf (290,000). These are spectacular numbers for the events sector, especially as the UK already has the highest per capita sport event attendance of any country in the world.

It would be easy to look at all this and assume we’re back to normal and that these heady "summers of sport" will keep on coming, especially with events such as the Rugby League World Cup and World Gymnastics Championships still to arrive later this year. However, it is not quite as simple as that.

Over the last decade, the UK has grown an enviable reputation as a great place to host the world’s biggest sporting events. Since 2012, National Lottery and Government funding has helped to secure 130 big international events for the UK, providing extraordinary sporting moments for people in every corner of the country.

Investment has enabled the country to thrive in a competitive bidding market and develop an event hosting infrastructure beyond simply steel and glass. Expertise, passion, prestige, and innovation are huge assets on offer to international rights holders when they come to the UK.

However, nothing stands still in international sport, and living off past glories is the quickest route to decline. Part of our role is to look critically into the future, and the pipeline of mega events slated for the UK is less secure than we would like. 

There are some exciting prospects lined up, including an inaugural World Cycling Championships in 2023 and a Rugby World Cup in 2025. There is also the bold vision of hosting the 2028 EUROs across England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland.

However, even a cursory glance at the hosting ambitions of countries such as France, United States, Australia, and Japan shows that the UK has work to do to maintain its position.

The UEFA Women's Euro 2022 tournament was part of England's summer of sport, and broke attendance records along the way ©Getty Images
The UEFA Women's Euro 2022 tournament was part of England's summer of sport, and broke attendance records along the way ©Getty Images

The sensible way forward is through smart investment philosophy and long-term strategic planning. The international event-hosting market remains immature - the costs and benefits of events can vary wildly, pricing is often misaligned, and the seductive power of events means that decision-makers often make choices based on heart over head. 

All of this presents opportunity to the discerning investor, but navigating this market demands that everyone gets behind a long-term strategic approach. With finances tight, it is more important than ever to identify and back the right events, and to say no to the others.

Such a strategy requires us to be clear on why we host events. The recent 10-year anniversary of London 2012 has prompted a renewed debate in the UK on this, and whether sporting events justify the investment.

This debate continues to be dominated by the rather reductive question of whether sports participation has increased. Of course, we want events to encourage people to be active, and research suggests that they can help with this, albeit that impact tends to be felt most strongly by those already pre-disposed to sport. 

However, if events are judged solely by the number of new participants in sport, they will rarely justify their investment. We need to think more broadly than this.

Firstly, we need to look beyond just physical health alone, and recognise the potential impact of big sporting moments on our mental wellbeing. The indisputable power of events to illicit positive human emotions is one we are too quick to dismiss as fleeting. We seem to have a hang-up in sport that unless long-term behavioural change has been achieved, that an event has somehow failed. 

The arts don’t have this same hang-up. It is accepted that you can attend a concert or show, appreciate it at face value, and embrace the positive mental wellbeing it generates. Big sport is outstanding at creating shared human moments at scale, and such feelings go beyond simple joy and elation. 

Enhanced feelings of purpose, social cohesion, and civic pride need to be better understood and better valued as social outcomes of hosting big sporting events.

Secondly, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the economic opportunities presented by hosting major events. In recent years, funding bodies have shifted away from economic measures to focus increasingly on social impacts.

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games enjoyed good crowds for the various sports throughout the event, including athletics ©Getty Images
The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games enjoyed good crowds for the various sports throughout the event, including athletics ©Getty Images

This is a progressive move, and I’m proud that UK Sport is doing some pioneering work in this space. However, we should not lose sight of the economic arguments, especially in an increasingly challenging fiscal climate.

Last year, we published a list of almost 100 future hosting opportunities, spanning over 40 sports, and including 45 World Championships. Collectively they would represent a potential economic boost to host communities across the UK of close to £1 billion ($1.2 billion/€1.1 million) and would attract over 10 million event goers.

Critically, the distribution of world-class venues we have across the UK will help enable the distribution of this economic stimulus right across the country. Over 70 per cent of the socio-economic benefits from the biggest events we have identified to host up to 2035 would be felt outside of London and the southeast.

Our wider hosting target list would ensure that over 50 per cent of the UK population live within an hour of a hosted event, with 95 per cent living within two hours. The Rugby League World Cup is a case in point with research highlighting how, before a ball has even been kicked, the competition’s social impact programme has delivered more than £25 million ($30 million/€29.5 million) of positive change in communities, largely in the north of England.

An area we’ve improved significantly over the last decade is the recognition that events need parallel investment streams to leverage these impacts, and several recent events have seen comparable levels of investment into driving impacts as has been invested into event staging costs. 

This year’s Rugby League World Cup has already invested £7 million ($8.4 million/€8.2 million) into community facilities and equipment across the UK, with 57 per cent of this in low socio-economic areas. The Rugby World Cup in 2025 will do the same, levelling up grassroots and community facilities for women and girls. 

And in Birmingham, the community of Sandwell in West Birmingham will now have access to a world class swimming facility, while the city also now boasts a world class athletics facility, also available for community use, following the redevelopment of the Alexander Stadium.

We are now working closely with Government to develop a long-term strategic approach, with dedicated financial support, to secure a strong pipeline of mega sporting events over the next decade. We will publish an updated major sporting event hosting list later this year. 

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to double down on those areas where it remains a world-leading nation. Sport and major sporting events are one of those areas.