Maximising the Value of Sports and Cultural Events

By Jonathan Long
Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure
Leeds Beckett University

This event, held at the imposing cricket pavilion in Headingley, was part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.  The various speakers approached the issue from different angles and in an informal atmosphere responded to questions from others attending the event.  Guess what – there weren’t a lot of simple answers.

Jane Earnshaw, who now works for Leeds City Council, reflected on her work as an independent producer and programmer to encourage us to reconsider what might represent the value derived from arts/sport events.  Jane was able to show how some of the projects she had been involved with had engaged people who would not otherwise have been involved in the arts or community activity generally.  Her interest is in the transformational, how she can assess that and how she can communicate it to potential funders.  From knitted sheds to two and a half thousand decorated Y-fronts and bands or symphony orchestras playing in the middle of a Victorian swimming bath, the originality of projects captured people’s imaginations and facilitated their interaction with others.  At times when council finances are under assault Jane says she sometimes worries about taking resources away from other pressing needs to spend on art projects, but then reminds herself, not only of the benefits, but that a £30-40k arts project would only pay for three or four speed bumps.  In terms of funding, Jane observed ruefully that it was easier to raise £4m for a building project than the £4k for older (60-90) players.

Emma Wood, from the International Centre for Research in Events, Tourism and Hospitality at Leeds Beckett University also looked beyond the economic to social benefits and in doing that wanted us to take into account not just the immediate impact that events might have on those attending, but the wider effects on others.  She didn’t want to deny benefits ‘in the moment’, but has tried to consider events as tools to achieve something else, with benefits accruing over time and space (to more people).  So there may be longer term attitudinal, behavioural or political change.  In doing that researchers need to consider who is being reached by the event.  Some of the events Emma has considered have promoted pride in place and pride in self: for example, relating to sexual identity (gay pride events) or ethnicity (mela).  We were cautioned against making inflated claims about the effects of events.  For example, social capital is unlikely to be enhanced by a single event.   Our attention was drawn to evaluation of the Shoreditch Festival Trust that led to a smaller event supported by other events through the year with a view to developing people and increasing social capital.  We were invited to address the uncomfortable question: if events do deliver the claimed social and economic benefits why are they not still funded in times when that is exactly what is needed?

David Andrews drew on his experience as an independent consultant, and before that head of the Yorkshire Tourist Board, to consider the reasons behind bidding for and winning the right to host major events.  These ranged from Royal Ascot in York through the International Indian Film Academy Awards (commonly known as the Bollywood Awards) and Round the World Clipper Race to the Tour de France in Yorkshire.  David was sceptical of the scale of economic impact supposedly derived from some major events and pointed to how those for the Tour de France in Yorkshire were revised down after being subjected to scrutiny.  Research he had seen did suggest that 30% of Indians have now at least heard of Yorkshire, though they seem to have the impression that it is a suburb of London (in terms of Indian distances it probably is).   David pointed out that it is not unusual for bids to be motivated by political goals, though the London Olympic and Paralympic Games were a bit late for the Labour government (and the Labour mayor of London).  One of the implications of what he had to say was that rather than waiting for research to tot-up the benefits after the event potential bidders would be well advised to be more realistic in their assessments before bidding.

Like Emma Wood, ShiNa Li is from the International Centre for Research in Events, Tourism and Hospitality at Leeds Beckett University.  She picked-up the theme of different estimates of economic impact and illustrated how difficult it is to separate the impact of an event from other factors.  Whereas it had been expected that the Olympic Games would attract tourists to London, in fact the city had been relatively quiet.  The same had been observed in Beijing, but that may have been attributable in large part to visa restrictions being imposed at the time the Chinese government.  Converting Olympic venues to shopping malls after the event may not have been in line with Olympic ideals, but the Games had regenerated tourism facilities and the BBC became more positive to China.  Partly as a consequence of those difficulties, when examining the impact of the Busan Exhibition and Conference Centre in South Korea, questionnaires had been administered to local residents to identify what benefits accrued.  That exercise revealed that people were generally persuaded of the benefits, something that had undoubtedly been assisted by a programme of events for locals.

I know enough about evaluation techniques to treat impact assessments with a degree of caution.  I was already inclined to look beyond the economic consequences so was amenable to exhortations to consider the transformative potential of events.  However, I am not sure whether Emma Wood’s inclination to move away from a search for a common metric to a story-based approach will carry clout with potential funders and policy-makers.

That was all well and good, but then, as warned, we had to complete an ESRC evaluation sheet.

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