“A teacher is worth more than Neymar,” read a banner held up in 2013 by a Brazilian protesting against the cost of the country’s hosting of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Clubs Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona arrived at a recent valuation of football player Neymar which would suggest that protestor’s claim is open to challenge. But the real point being made was whether the public authorities should have been spending money on high-profile sporting events or, rather, on basic social needs like education.
This point is a topical one in Ireland, where the government is bidding to host the 2023 male Rugby World Cup, with the promise that it will not just “capture the imagination of the world”, but also be a “commercial success”. The bid organisers are claiming that the tournament would pull in an extra 450,000 visitors to Ireland and add £1.3 billion to the economy.
Maybe it will do all this, and good luck to it (the Ireland-hosted women’s Rugby World Cup in 2017 seems to have done okay). Because we are going to be in trouble if it does not: the Oireachtas has passed legislation that allowed the state to front up a €138 million tournament fee and indemnified the international organisers (we do not know for how much) against losses that might arise.
In reality, the likelihood is that Ireland hosting the male Rugby World Cup would not, at the end of the day, lose the state money (and it would hopefully generate other, less concrete benefits, which I discuss further below). But there are grounds for caution because the record of countries hosting big sports tournaments is not a wholly happy one.
As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski noted in their 2014 book Soccernomics, “the Brazilian World Cup is a wonderful thing if you happen to own a construction business; not so wonderful if you pay tax in Brazil, or if you were hoping the government would do something about all the terrible roads that don’t lead to football stadiums”.
The more governments spend on stadium construction/upgrades and on related infrastructure (and these days on increasingly onerous security costs), the less they have to spend on hospitals, schools, flood defences, or repair of burst water pipes.
And some at least of what gets built may have limited long-term value – most of the South African stadiums built for the 2014 football World Cup ended up largely unoccupied; likewise, by 2010, 21 of the 22 stadiums built for the 2004 Olympics in Greece were found to be vacant. That latter, corruption-riddled debacle made a substantial contribution to the subsequent Greek debt crisis.
Meanwhile, the promised gains, as Kuper and Szymanski point out, are often exaggerated and ephemeral. For example, an estimated 30,000 visitors to Liverpool for the Euro 1996 football tournament spent barely £1 million between them, generating the grand total of 30 temporary jobs.
Yes, some more visitors are attracted to a major tournament than would otherwise have come to that location, but then others who might have come are deterred by the likely madness associated with an influx of sports fans. Even a country like Germany, with little need to spend much on new infrastructure, is estimated to have turned only a very small profit at best from hosting the 2006 football World Cup.
What is beyond question is that some people do very well indeed out of major tournaments, not least the corrupt governing bodies of organisations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the football oligarchy that is FIFA, where bribes to determine the award of major tournaments have long been standard practice.
Within host countries also, the gains and losses are unevenly distributed. For example, the slum dwellers evicted from Rio favelas to make way for the World Cup and the Olympics bore all the pain and received none of the gain from those tournaments. The migrant workers suffering appalling abuse and exploitation during the construction of new stadia for the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar come out on the losing end also.
Of course there are intangible benefits from hosting sports tournaments – the hard-to-pin-down feel-good factor, the profile (hopefully positive) the tournament’s spotlights cast upon the host cities, and so on. With luck, that will be the case for Ireland in 2023 (as it was for Germany in 2006).
But there can be less-tangible costs too. In his achingly beautiful album Chavez Ravine, Ry Cooder brought back to life the story of a mainly Mexican Los Angeles community that saw its homes bulldozed to make way for the Dodger baseball stadium in the 1950s.
In the song “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium”, an elderly former resident tells a contemporary fan of what lies beneath the stadium’s surface: “Back around the 76 ball, Johnny Greeneyes had his shoeshine stall. In the middle of the 1st base line, got my first kiss, Florencia was kind. Now, if the dozer hadn’t taken my yard, you’d see the tree with our initials carved. So many moments in my memory. Sure was fun, ’cause the game was free. It was free.”
But the game is not free now. In fact, it is commercialised to within an inch of its life, as the hype-fuelled exploits of Conor McGregor and the Sky-ification of the GAA testify. And, like all large-scale money-making operations, it brings risks as well as rewards – both of which are likely to be distributed extremely unequally.