Friday, June 13, 2014

Sport should keep its white elephants

    International tournaments such as soccer’s World Cup and the Olympic Games hype national pride, showcase the host country and tout proximity to the event as justification for the astronomical costs of hosting those events. Despite the glamour, international events are different only in scale to a Little League tournament, and they should be recognized as such.
    Brazil is perhaps the most soccer-crazed country on earth. It was the only candidate in 2007 to be the 2014 host of the World Cup. At the time, the country was a poster child for growth in emerging economies.
    Since then, Brazil has fallen on hard times. The economy is in shambles. Its credit rating is just above junk status. Even so, it has spent an estimated $11.5 billion building World Cup infrastructure and displacing entire neighborhoods.
    Until 1964, when Los Angeles used the Disney licensing model and mostly existing sports venues, no Olympic host city had ever made money. It is uncertain whether any has done so since. Economic stimulation benefits are even harder to measure. What is certain is that these events eat up public funds and leave behind the white elephants of overbuilt and too little-used venues.
    In ancient times, supplicants seeking an audience with an Indian rajah were expected, however reluctantly, to present an expensive gift. A clever giver would gift a rare white elephant. Unable to reject such a prize, the rajah was left with the high cost of keeping it.
    Brazil will share the rajah’s fate. One of the World Cup venues, a $270 million stadium, was built in Manaus, a small community deep in the Amazon rainforest. Manaus is accessible only by air or river. The stadium will host only four actual matches. There are no plans for its use after that.
    Sport is not a spiritual experience. It is a business, a very profitable business for the organizers. FIFA, the governing body of soccer, will receive all the revenue from the World Cup—all ticket sales, all advertising revenues, all licensing fees and all broadcasting rights. Brazil will get the white elephants.
    Brazilians’ fanaticism for soccer makes Americans’ love of high school, college and professional football look like a passing fad. Despite that, their taste for hosting tournaments seems to have soured. Demonstrations against spending on the World Cup have been widespread. Unfortunately for ordinary Brazilians, Rio de Janeiro also “won” the right to host the Olympic Games in 2016.
    Greed and sport may waltz together, but the price of being on that dance card has become too high.

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