New international study evaluates mega-event stadiums

Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa. Photo: Ceiling/Flickr


By Søren Bang
Mega-events may trigger the building of iconic stadiums and plenty of promises about a sparkling future. But in reality the result is often oversized, expensive structures that turn into financial burdens. A new, on-going study evaluates prestigious stadiums from all over the world.

Mega-events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup are closely connected to the building of a number of iconic stadiums that might look impressive on photos and create a spectacular stage for the event itself.

But are such stadiums fulfilling their promises of a long-lasting sport legacy and a bright future for the communities that invest heavily in them? Or are they in fact ending up becoming more of a burden when the party is over and the mega-event has moved on the next willing host?

A new study from the Danish Institute for Sports Studies presented at Play the Game 2011 puts a critical perspective on the ongoing stadium building indicating that many stadiums actually suffer so severely from the lack of events and spectators that they are ending up like so called ‘White Elephants’ – or monuments of broken dreams and a waste of public money.

While some stadiums indeed are spectator magnets with more than a million visitors a year, other stadiums can count their customers in a few thousand.

The study has identified 75 stadiums that since 1996 have been erected or upgraded in connection with the hosting of mega-events like the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, UEFA European Championships, Africa Cup of Nations, Commonwealth Games, Pan-American Games and Asian Games. 

The study, which is still ongoing, has been focusing on collecting factual data on construction costs, capacity, number of annual events and visitors, and major tenants supplemented with qualitative information on the different venues.

13.1 billion-dollar investment
So far the study has collected data from 65 stadiums in 20 countries, and despite the lack of some stadiums, the numbers are awe-inspiring: The total construction costs of the 65 stadiums were 13.1 billion US dollars with an average of 201.5 million dollars per stadium. The price tag of the most expensive stadium, Cape Town Stadium, was 600 million dollars. The least expensive stadium in the survey, the upgrade of Baba Yara Stadium in Ghana, was done for 25.9 million dollars. 

Even more striking is the difference between the use of stadiums. 

While the downgraded Olympic stadium of Atlanta 1996, with its high profile anchor tenant, the Atlanta Braves baseball team, attracted over 2.5 million spectators in 2010, the former Euro 2004 stadium Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa in Leiria, Portugal, with a capacity of 24,000, only managed to get 53,000 spectators through the gates in 2010 and the stadium has become a financial burden for the local municipality.

Proper data on the utilisation of all 65 included stadiums are still not available, but based on the data collected so far, the study has calculated an index showing the differences between the most used and less used stadiums in 2010.

The difference is significant: Atlanta’s former Olympic stadium managed to attract 50 times more spectators than is capacity of 48,000. At the other end, four Portuguese stadiums couldn’t even fill their arena five times with all of their visitors in 2010. Two stadiums, not even two times.

Common pitfalls 
Such numbers are thought provoking, said Director Henrik H. Brandt from the Danish Institute for Sports Studies.

He drew some preliminary conclusions from the study:

  • Without having a high profile anchor tenant/operator in place before the opening of the venue, the success of the stadium is heavily at risk.
  • Existing venues are often better at meeting local needs and will be tough rivals to a new stadium built for a one-off event.
  • Estimates of the regional and local needs after the events must be realistic. Emotions often seem to rule the construction plans.
  • Sometimes proper plans are needed to downscale or modify the stadium after the mega-event.
  • Mottos like ‘Visions for the future’ do not constitute business plans – they are really a disguise for no planning at all

The Danish Institute for Sports Studies is planning to continue collecting and analysing stadium data. So far the study has been supported by a number of researchers and information-gatherers from several countries, and the institute will expand this work in the future.

Click here to see a PDF of Henrik H. Brandt's presentation


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