Hollow visions create empty stands
Abuja in Nigeria, Nagano in Japan, Aveiro in Portugal – there are not many similarities between these three cities located on three different continents, but two things bind them together: They have in recent times built a modern stadium for one of sport's biggest events, and they are all left with expensive, underutilised arenas.
In the report 'World Stadium Index', the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (Idan) and Play the Game have analysed the use of 75 stadiums built for mega-events. The report documents a striking lack of sporting and economic justification, when stadiums costing hundreds of millions of dollars only draw a few thousand spectators each year.
The most thought-provoking aspect is perhaps the report's demonstration of how often these so-called 'white elephants' occur in the wake of sport’s mega-events, despite the sporting organisations’ and local authorities’ promises of economic, sporting and social gains.
Less than half of the Portuguese arenas from the European Championship in 2004 are used with reasonable intensity today. The expensive, oversized, but often architecturally interesting stadiums have in several Portuguese communities ended up as a heavy financial burden for the local taxpayers. Similar examples are found in abundance among arenas constructed for the Olympic Games, continental championships, World Cups and Commonwealth Games.
Visions as a substitute for consideration
The many examples of unsuccessful stadium projects reflect the fact that the most fundamental principles of stadium operations are often overlooked or deliberately ignored when cities and countries build a nest for sport's greatest events.
Rather than basing the project on realistic business models, more or less flimsy visions are often launched describing how the event and the stadium construction will boost the local sports interest and economy, although the more certain legacy is often a continuous drain of public funds for the maintenance of buildings that are rarely used. In developing countries, this is especially noteworthy, as the cost of stadium construction projects can be completely disproportional to the local living standards and economic ability.
Often, host cities and countries overlook the fact that even a very modern stadium is not in itself a guarantee that the stands will be filled after the event. Rather, this depends on whether the local area already has a high profile home team that can draw a lot of spectators or a highly professional operator who is able to fill the stadium in an alternative way with concerts or other events where there are no sports teams to draw in crowds of people.
The consequence is that large stadium facilities are often out of touch with the more modest local needs for culture and sport. Therefore, even the most iconic prestige buildings may end up as windswept concrete shells without significant sporting or cultural content. Just ask Leipzig, Cape Town, Istanbul or Beijing.
From hollow to real sustainability
One may sadly fear that shady interests of the construction industry or corrupt decision-makers in some cases are the real 'visions' behind the idea to bid for a mega-event.
That local authorities bear the main responsibility for the inflated dreams of iconic stadiums is certainly obvious. Less regarded is the joint responsibility of the international sports organisations in these stadium ventures.
Several sports organisations, including the IOC, have put 'environmental sustainability' on the list of formal requirements for potential hosts of sporting events. But can a building project costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars be environmentally friendly if it basically serves no purpose after the event? And why does sporting and economic sustainability rank so far down on the sports organisations’ lists of expectations for the aspiring candidate cities?
In its specifications for the facilities for Euro 2016, UEFA writes that ”when planning the stadium capacity, the future use of the stadium must be taken into account.” But at the same time UEFA, like FIFA and other sports organisations, is drastically expanding its stadium capacity requirements.
When Denmark played England at Malmö Stadium during the European Championship in 1992, the match took place in front of 26,300 spectators, many of them standing. Today, UEFA calls for arenas with room for a minimum of 30,000-40,000 seated spectators and an even bigger stadium for the final. In addition, the European Championship has grown from just eight teams in 1992 to 24 teams in France four years from now.
This development, in combination with the growing international competition for hosting major sporting events, contributes to a waste of resources which in the area of stadiums alone accounts for billions of dollars, but which will most certainly be even larger if one includes other sports facilities built for major events.
The economic and ecological waste of resources can only be stopped if the leaders of sport’s governing organisations accept their part of the responsibility by adding stricter sustainability criteria into their bidding procedures – and take them seriously.
Large, architecturally acclaimed stadium constructions can become icons of sporting events, but even the most beautiful icon cannot excuse the decisions to build redundant or unnecessarily expensive stadiums, which are left over after the events as symbols of a waste of money that could have been spent much better on sport itself.
You can also go to Play the Game’s theme page dedicated to the report, where you can find more information on the study of mega-event stadiums, download specific chapters from the report or read other articles from Play the Game regarding mega-event stadiums and their legacies.