Western countries are losing the race for major sporting events

The World Cup in South Africa was far from being a 'one-off' affair. The biggest mega-events go global. Photo: An artist's impression of the refurbished Soccer City Stadium(c) City of Johannesburg


By Søren Bang
Non-Western countries are now hosting the majority of sport’s mega-events. The biggest events are leaving Europe and North America and challenging the West’s traditional dominance. Prestige and profile are the driving forces behind this shift towards new countries and regimes.

Globalisation has turned on its turbo engine in the sporting world. An analysis conducted by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (Idan) shows that in recent years the world’s biggest sporting events have been moving away with increasing speed from previous core Olympic sport domains in Europe, North America and, to some extent, Japan.

Just 10-20 years ago, it was considered an exception when major sporting events like the Olympic Games or the World Cup in football were held in countries outside of the Western world.

Today the picture is turned upside down. The most media-exposed and commercially powerful events are leaving the West in favour of new countries with global ambitions, growing economies and huge event budgets.

Figure 1: Location of five mega-events (number of events per region)

Only three out of a combined total of 13 Olympic Games and world championship tournaments in football, athletics and swimming will be held in Western countries (here defined as the current EU/EFTA countries, North America or Australia/New Zealand) after 2010. The category “others” includes the remaining European countries, Africa (south of the Sahara Desert) and Central/South America.
The shifting location of global mega-events, like the Olympic Summer and Winter Games, the World Cup in football, and the World Championships in athletics and swimming, highlights this evolution: Whereas the West and Japan shared all of the mega-events in the 1990s, under a quarter of these events will be held in these parts of the world after 2010 (see Figure 1).

Only next year’s Olympic Games in London and the World Championships in swimming in Barcelona in 2013 are within the West’s view, while FIFA’s recent awarding of the World Cup finals in football to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, and the IOC’s choice of Rio de Janeiro as Olympic host in 2016 offer the most striking indications of a growing shift away from Western countries.
Some of the most attractive events staged in economically powerful and professionalised sport disciplines that do not hold their world championships in a single event are also becoming more global.

A notable example is Formula 1, which is tearing towards the East at full throttle. During the Grand Prix season in 2000, only three races were held outside Europe, North America and Australia. Ten years later, China, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain were included on the race calendar. In the current season, little less than half of the season’s 19 races will be held in non-Western countries.

A similar pattern can be seen in tennis, where the WTA tour in particular has become global. Ten years ago, only Tokyo laid claim to a top-tier WTA tournament. In 2010, four of the 14 largest tournaments, including the four Grand Slam tournaments, were held in the Middle East and Asia.

Customers moving away
This development is recognised by Lars Haue-Pedersen, the director of international consultancy firm TSE Consulting. From its headquarters in Lausanne and its regional offices around the world, TSE Consulting, among other things, assists applicants in bidding for major sporting events.

“We see plainly first-hand that our customers are moving away from Europe. Five years ago, a clear majority of our customers were in Europe, but now the majority of our customers are outside Europe. We’re opening offices in Brazil, Qatar, Singapore, Northern Africa, but not in Europe.” 

Figure 2: The West’s grip on other world championship events remains firm (events per region)

Although the West is losing its grip on the world’s largest sporting events, the decline is less dramatic among other World Championship and World Cup tournaments: 70 out of 102 events held or allocated after 2010 lie in Western countries. The low collective tally of events from 2010 onward indicates that many of the events proposed for the current decade are yet to be allocated.

Although the West is losing its grip on the world’s largest sporting events, the decline is less dramatic among other World Championship and World Cup tournaments: 70 out of 102 events held or allocated after 2010 lie in Western countries. The low collective tally of events from 2010 onward indicates that many of the events proposed for the current decade are yet to be allocated.

One reason why many countries are fighting over events could simply be that more countries now have the infrastructure and raw economic strength to accommodate them.

The countries that are actively pursuing and acquiring events, like Brazil, Qatar, China and Korea, are prime examples of growing economies. In contrast, poorer African countries lying south of the Sahara Desert (except wealthier South Africa) are completely absent from the list of new mega-event hosts.

But why spend millions on stadium facilities and events in countries that, in spite of their economic growth, often struggle with significant social challenges, and which economically still have to bridge the gap with the West? According to Lars Haue-Pedersen, it reflects the aim of overcoming prejudices among Western countries and positioning rising nations globally.

“When people think of Qatar, they think about big events and extravagant arrangements, whereas Saudi Arabia is just associated with Islamic conservatism. Countries want to be seen as modern nations. They hate the stereotypical perceptions people have of them in the ‘old’ world. But it takes a long time to become modern. It is easier to influence the outside world’s perceptions – and this is where sport and sporting events help,” says Haue-Pedersen.

“These events offer shortcuts in the ways in which others see them. A country can advance years ahead in a matter of three weeks. Today people see South Africa a little differently [due to the World Cup in 2010, ed.] from the way they did one year ago. Is that enough? Yes, I think so. They have a number of stadiums that stand empty and will become dilapidated from now on, but to pay such a price that is peanuts compared to a half percent increase in exports.”

The desire to improve global image among these nations can explain why major events that have the most media interest and prestige are also the most attractive. This applies strongly to Formula 1, which is particularly attractive as a recurring event.

“Formula 1 is a classic example of this phenomenon. Formula 1 is considered by many of the new markets to be the coolest event. It not only attracts media attention during the weekend it takes place, the host joins ‘the club’. It gets a stamp of approval that its country or city is ‘something’. It is incredibly important for a small city or country like Abu Dhabi or Bahrain to be involved in Formula 1, because from there the event continues on to Japan, Melbourne and England.”

Europe still holding the majority of smaller events
Idan’s research also indicates that new event markets are focusing primarily on mega-events. If these larger sporting events are taken out of the equation, the overall change seems less dramatic (see Figure 2).

The Western countries still have their hands on approximately seven out of the ten world championship events in Summer Olympic disciplines, supplemented by a handful of single sporting events that are not a part of the Summer Olympic program. The allocation of these events has more or less remained constant since 2000.

This may change in the coming years, but geographic, climatic and cultural factors are working against the complete globalisation of all sport disciplines. For example, alpine skiing events require snow and mountains, which – for now – pose a barrier to even the most sports-interested oil sheik. A discipline’s connection to a specific sport culture can also slow down its extending to a wider event market. American football, baseball and cricket are examples of such sports.

Back to the “mother ship”
But generally, the wider market for sporting events has strengthened the right owners of sport events, typically the international federations, who can benefit from having more potential bidders in the market – bidders that, in some cases, also offer centralised and rapid decision-making procedures due to weaker or absent democratic traditions in their countries.

At the same time the development can weaken the West’s influence on international sport. Lars Haue-Pedersen predicts that “countries that are organising major events and investing a great deal in sport will start seeking to influence organisations,” and notes Mohamed Bin Hammam’s candidature at the forthcoming FIFA Presidency election as a clear example.

But if highly sought after mega-events move too sharply away from the West, they could run into longer term problems. The main income sources to sport in terms of sponsorships and TV rights are still generated in Western countries, and according to Lars Haue-Pedersen it is still the connection to the Western world that gives major sporting events their global glamour and value.

“There is a risk that the value of events will fall. Maybe FIFA has made a big mistake in placing the two World Cups after Brazil in what could be called ‘new markets’. This could perhaps become the deathblow for the football World Cup, because 90% of the revenue from football still comes from Europe. Fans may start saying that the World Cup has become a strange third world development project and decide not to attend the event at all,” says Haue-Pedersen, who believes that major events held outside the Western world would need to turn back to the “mother ship” (i.e., the West) from time to time to gather public interest, economic value and global prestige.

“It was, in fact, the World Cup in Germany that put the energy and focus back into World Cup football – it was not South Africa. Therefore, it is not good for Russia to host the World Cup after South Africa and Brazil. It could make the event a bit ‘second class’ in relation to prestige. So I think that FIFA has made a mistake.”

The analyses
Idan has tallied the placement of all Olympic Games and world championships in Olympic Summer Games disciplines from, and including, 1990 to today (also taking into account world championship events that have not yet been held).
World Championships in ice hockey (men’s) and figure skating, and the World Cups in rugby union and cricket are also included in the analysis.

Event locations are tallied in the following regional categories: the West, Japan, other Asian countries, the Middle East (including Turkey), and “others”. The category labelled “others” includes the remainder of Europe (including countries from the former Soviet Union), Africa (south of the Sahara Desert), and Central/South America.

Events shared between nations (e.g. the football World Cup in Japan/Korea) are counted in each region as a ‘half’ world championship.

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