Olympic Games Benefits

Does Hosting Sports Events like the Olympic Games or Super Bowl Really Benefit Cities?

As Minneapolis prepares to play host to the Super Bowl, we recently spoke to CEHD Ph.D. student Madeleine Orr, who studies the economic, social and environmental impact of large-scale international sporting events – specifically the Olympics and the Pan Am Games. Orr’s research has given her insight into the benefits – and drawbacks – for cities that host these sports mega-events. Her 3-Minute Thesis presentation on the subject, “The Rhetoric vs. the Reality of Sport Event Legacies,” (watch it here) won CEHD’s 3MT competition last March, and the U-wide competition in December. This spring she’ll compete in the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools 3MT regional competition in Grand Rapids, MI.

During our conversation, Orr presented her views on the legacies of sports events, the often-ignored negative impacts and her observations on how Minneapolis has handled its preparations for the Super Bowl.

How did you become interested in studying the impact of large-scale sporting events like the Olympics?

I got my master’s degree at the University of Brighton in the U.K. in the period between London hosting the Olympics in 2012 and the Rugby World Cup in 2015. At that time, there were a lot of conversations happening about the benefits and effects of hosting the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup. That’s when I first got interested in examining the impact of these huge sporting events. My 3-Minute Thesis, which was based on my master’s thesis research, is centered on the 2015 Pan Am Games, which were held in my hometown of Toronto, Canada. Looking back, it was an interesting time for me. I was living just south of London and observing what was going on there with the build-up to the Rugby World Cup and looking to travel to my hometown where we were about to have the Pan Am Games. A lot of the same conversations were happening in both cities.

You’ve examined the civic PR campaigns that go into selling cities on hosting events like the Pan Am Games and the Olympics. Why have these campaigns been so successful, despite the evidence that the events don’t have the economic impact that they are purported to?

A big factor is who we include when we talk about the “people of the city.” Because if you look at the leaders of the city when they bid for an event, the politicians and event organizers don’t have any long-term stake except their general interest in the city’s well-being. That’s why it tends to be so popular; we don’t see the full impact until the event is done and its legacy starts to play out. Some of the leaders might be out of office by then.

The other piece that doesn’t get discussed is that these events offer benefits for some, but not for all. That’s a key distinction that needs to be made and that local community members be made aware of.

For example, if you’ve got a Super Bowl moving into downtown Minneapolis and you build U.S. Bank Stadium there – along with the construction and gentrification of downtown that goes with it – you’re going to see some people lose in that situation. You’re going to see people in low-income communities move out of that area. Now, overall, is that new stadium and development positive or negative? That’s hard to say, there are going to be some people who will win a lot and others who will lose.

In addition to the displacement of communities that live in certain neighborhoods, are there any other short- or long-term effects of large sporting events that don’t get talked about enough?

The environmental impact of these events is almost totally ignored. Part of that is just the current political climate and what we will acknowledge – or not acknowledge – in terms of our carbon footprint. But these events obviously generate way more traffic in a city, far more flights and a huge increase in tourism for a short period of time. For this very short increase in tourism, you’re going to have a massive expenditure of energy. So, the environmental impact is a negative.

Also, indigenous communities, women, people of color and other marginalized groups tend to get ignored in these conversations about mega-events. Using opening ceremonies as an example, when you fail to acknowledge the people you should be acknowledging, and just tell the stories of White leaders, or men, or another privileged groups in the performances and displays, you’re just telling one small part of the story of a city, and the unrepresented communities tend to feel very excluded from these events.

Do you observe any meaningful long-term benefits for these events? Or are they primarily short-term benefits?

No, of course there are benefits. There are benefits to the athletes in the city. When you bring in events, you tend to attract the best minds in sports medicine, the best coaches and the best facilities. And the athletes who perform at the elite level now have the benefit of all the greatest resources at their disposal. Although there isn’t a lot of research on this, there is some suggestion of athletes actually having a competitive advantage in future events. So, that’s one positive.

There can also be a bit of benefit to a city’s image as a destination. However, if you’re Rio de Janeiro, it’s a toss-up; some people see Rio as better off after the Olympic Games, some see it as worse off now. But if you’re Vancouver, for example, it can be a great opportunity to showcase your city and put it on the map. Beijing did a great job showcasing their city and what China can offer to a tourist as a destination. So, there are some positives, but it really is a mixed bag.

You’ve been in Minneapolis studying at CEHD during the planning and preparations for hosting the Super Bowl. Have you observed any significant difference between the build-up to the Super Bowl compared to the Olympics or Pan Am Games?

I’ve been in Minneapolis for just under two years, so I didn’t get to see the bidding here, just the planning and construction phase. I’ve been here since a little before U.S. Bank Stadium opened. I will say that, when it’s an event hosted by a private entity with no government involvement, or no governing body with national representatives like the International Olympic Committee, it’s a different ball game altogether. Super Bowl is a private event hosted in a public space, as opposed to what should be considered a full publically-funded event. The interesting thing about the Super Bowl is that you’ve got a publicly financed facility that was built that, I can conservatively say, was needed.

One thing that I think the Super Bowl Host Committee has done very well is it to strategize the acceleration of changes in the city that would have happened anyway. They’ve done a very good job of building the event for the benefit of the city rather than building the city for the event. They put a lot of thought into making sure the changes they make, like the new light rail stations and the extension on the airport, are long-term benefits to the community and will continue to be used.

You’re contrasting that with the athlete villages, arenas and facilities that get built for the Olympics and end up abandoned.

Right; if you’re not strategic about new infrastructure, you get these “white elephants” that you’ve built just for the event. It never works. But when you build the event to suit the city and benefit the city, you tend to get better results.

Do you think that Minneapolis and St. Paul will see a large economic boost from the Super Bowl?

Maybe in the very short term. In general, we tend to see a boost in the short term and then it returns to the baseline or slightly below what the baseline is. The excitement in the city will stay, but the actual attraction to the city will dip. There will be an impact on tourism, but it will likely be brief. What we hope to see, and what the Super Bowl committee, City of Minneapolis and Meet Minneapolis have done well, is to follow up the Super Bowl with further events that will sustain that tourism boom. So, you’ve got the X Games that were held this past summer and will be back again next summer. We’ve got the NCAA Final Four coming next year. So, it’s not just the Super Bowl that will be responsible for the boost; it will be the whole sport events portfolio. It’s a strategy that was employed here in Minneapolis that they tried to do in London with the Rugby World Cup, which worked initially, but then dipped immediately after. So, we’ll see what’s happening in Minneapolis in 2020.

Looking at the Olympics, and the tremendous amount of expense and construction that goes into hosting, are the Games, number one, good for cities and, number two, sustainable over the long term?

Short answer: no and no. I’ll give you an example that’s concrete. London spent about $12 billion U.S. dollars on that Olympics. Twelve billion dollars could nearly pay for all the elementary school teachers’ salaries in all of England for a year. It could pay for a full revamp of the whole metro transit system in London. It could nearly end homelessness in the U.K.

So, we’re talking about a lot of money, and you want to bring the Olympics to town for two weeks, and then that’s it. Hopefully those facilities get used in the future, but to me that’s a hard sell. It’s something we don’t often think about. What are the trade-offs? That money comes from somewhere – it comes from public budgets, sports budgets, tourism budgets, event budgets – but it’s at the expense of something else. Those are the opportunity costs. [That money could be used] taking care of the people of the city, and I would argue that that’s more important.

The IOC has had trouble getting cities to bid on the Olympics in the last few of years.

The only city in the last 50 years to come out in the black after the Olympics was Los Angeles in 1984. L.A. used a very different model; they were very commercial and really revolutionized the Olympic model in terms of how to get sponsors involved and have private entities pay for things. The ’84 Games were an exception because L.A. got the Games as a substitute for another city that was supposed to host it but backed out at the last minute. So, L.A. said, “We’ll take it,” but only if we can put this commercial spin on it so we don’t have our public bodies pay for it. It was clever, but again, it was an exception.

If we moved towards that model, we might see more success in future Olympics. It would rely more on private funding than public funding – which removes the issue of opportunity costs on public budgets. However, if you want to have a conversation about whether the current model is sustainable – no, it hasn’t been for a long time. I’m encouraged that we’re starting to look at the options of multi-city hosting. Malaysia and Singapore, and Germany, for example, are talking about multi-city bids, where one city would have some events and the other city would have others. That seems promising because you could put, for example, track and field in one place and swimming in the other – two major summer sports – and share the tourism benefits while reducing the costs of to these countries.

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