The high cost of sporting glory

Events such as the World Cup and the Olympics are not the economic juggernauts that their promoters

There is no doubt that the World Cup has been a joyous party for those lucky enough to attend. There is also no doubt that it has been a bon­anza for Fifa, football's governing body. The commercial income accruing to Fifa will come to about £2.2bn for TV rights, sponsorship and merchandising, while an estimated £800m has been spent on organising the tournament and £700m on local development projects.

Fifa, therefore, generates a tidy profit of £700m, which it either retains to promote its own pet projects or disburses to national football associations: a significant bargaining chip in the hands of its 24-man executive committee. In 2004, the projected cost to the South African taxpayer for hosting the finals was R2.3bn, or £200m (the bid book was lost for years until the Mail and Guardian posted it online in June); the current figure is said to be R33bn (£3bn). Fifa does not pay for the stadiums, but gets to put its brand all over development projects in the host country. And what does South Africa get in return for its investment?

The organisers claim that the event will produce an economic stimulus of R55bn (£4.8bn), generating in excess of 300,000 additional foreign tourists and promoting growth across the economy. Similar claims have been made for previous World Cups and other major sporting events, especially the summer Olympic Games. Politicians seem especially fond of claiming that major events bring significant economic benefits. This case rests on two foundations: first, that the building of stadiums and related infrastructure will boost the construction industry, with knock-on effects into the wider economy; second, that there will be a large influx of foreign visitors.

Eye candy

The problem with the first claim is that it is predicated on the assumption that the resources required for construction are lying around idle, waiting for something to do. In reality, modern infrastructure construction requires skilled labour and expensive resources. The question is not whether construction generates income; it is whether this particular form of construction puts resources to best use. It is not difficult to see that the needs of a developing country such as South Africa would be better met by building roads, houses and related infrastructure in the townships rather than building big stadiums. As with the Olympics, facilities for the World Cup are likely to be little used after the event. It's like building a bridge that is going to be used only once.

Take the development of Green Point in Cape Town at a cost of R4.5bn (£400m): the stadium will have hosted just eight games by the end of the tournament. It does offer spectacular views of Table Mountain, but remember just how much this eye candy cost. The original plan was to upgrade the existing stadium in Athlone, at an estimated cost about R1.7bn (£150m). The Athlone redevelopment was attractive because the facility is located in the poor Cape Flats and could have triggered public-sector spending in an underdeveloped area while providing a long-term facility for football fans.

Green Point, by contrast, is located in an affluent area and the mostly white sports fans there are already well provided for in the sports that interest them: rugby and cricket. The local authority had developed the Athlone plan with the South African government. It came into question when Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, visited the Cape, after an advance delegation realised what a superb TV image a stadium at Green Point would provide. A dubious case was made that Athlone would not provide enough seats, and the semi-final promise was dangled in front of the organising committee. The result: £400m for a few TV shots.

It is questionable whether developing stadiums is a good use of South African government revenue, but the absurdity of the Green Point white elephant seems beyond doubt. Similar questions were raised about the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, which cost R3.1bn (£270m). Local housing activists have bemoaned the waste of resources when so many ordinary people remain without basic facilities. The question of visitor numbers is similarly problematic. It sounds as if the event ought to bring a tourist bonanza, but the records from previous tournaments provide little evidence of any. Take Germany, for example. In June 2006, hotel bookings for overnight stays increased by 1.4 million compared to the previous June - which sounds impressive, until you realise that stays were significantly down on the previous year in May and August 2006, and that 2005 overall was a bad year. The entire 2006 overnight stay figure was only slightly higher than that recorded in 2001. Thus, the World Cup did little to boost German tourism that had stagnated after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

The decision to attend a World Cup hinges on complex factors. Many people who would have visited a location anyway choose to reschedule their trip to coincide with the event. Worse still, others will avoid visiting the country while the event is on. In 2003, there were 14 million visitors to Greece, but in 2004, when it hosted the Olympics, only 13 million. A better comparison with South Africa is the Japan-South Korea World Cup, which was some distance from the main sources of affluent, travelling fans. Japan had an increase in visitor arrivals in June 2002 of 37,646 over the previous year. South Korea suffered a decline of 56,864. South Africa expected a tourist uplift from Europe and the US; experience suggests disappointment.

In 2004, when South Africa was awarded the World Cup, there was talk of visitor numbers as high as 600,000 from people connected to the bid. By last year, Grant Thornton, as consultant to the organising committee, was still anticipating 483,000 visitors, but down­graded its forecast to 373,000 in the spring. Even this number sounds optimistic; hotels in Durban, Cape Town and elsewhere have been reporting occupancy rates in the region of 10-30 per cent, rather than the expected 65-75 per cent. Journalists have been talking about how quiet it is outside the stadiums. Demand for tickets within South Africa and from the rest of Africa has been particularly disappointing and some of the group matches were played in half-full stadiums, as if to emphasise what a waste of money much of the investment has been.

To put it in perspective, visitor numbers from outside Africa totalled 331,000 in June and July last year, while visitors from other African nations exceeded 1.2 million. So it looks as if numbers of tourists to South Africa will be little different from previous years. This is a financial nightmare for South African commerce, including large numbers of small businesses that invested in facilities to meet a much higher level of demand.Yet none of this should come as much of a surprise: if the South Africans had asked for an objective view backed up by data five years ago, they could easily have got it.

So, why are such inflated and misleading claims presented by governments and organisers? The answer is that Fifa and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are monopolists selling the rights to the most attractive sports events on the planet and, like any good monopolist, they are not prepared to give their property away cheaply. That is why they organise bidding contests among potential host nations. Setting political rhetoric aside, what wins you the bid is the promise to lay on lavish games to the greater glory of Fifa and the IOC, largely at the public expense. These events could be self-funding, but then they would not be so lavish. Fifa and the IOC demand a government guarantee to underwrite the staggering cost. To justify this extravagance, politicians cover themselves by claiming that there is an economic benefit - a quite breathtaking refusal to face the facts.

Voodoo economics

In many cases, one might say that this does not really matter. There is good evidence that the public at large derives a significant feel-good factor from hosting major events and so is quite willing to subsidise them. Wealthy nations such as Germany and the UK can afford (more or less) to cover the cost if that is what people want. And, in the light of the banking bailouts, the subsidies no longer look so huge. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the public is not fooled by the organisers' voodoo economics. When it was announced in 2007 that the cost of the 2012 Olympic Games in London would be closer to £9bn than the original estimate of £2.4bn, few batted an eyelid.

But with South Africa, the issue is more serious. The UK government spends about £80bn annually on education, whereas South Africa spends about £12bn. The UK is spending a sum equal to just over 10 per cent of its annual education budget on London 2012, South Africa about 25 per cent to host the 2010 World Cup. Scarce resources are being diverted from activities that have much greater value added.

This is just not good enough. Historically, most major sports events have been awarded to wealthy nations that can afford to pay for them. Awarding the World Cup to a developing nation is an important step forward, but this achievement should not be bought by using essential resources to provide VIPs with freebies. There is no doubt that these events could be less lavish and remain equally entertaining. Most of us watch the World Cup on TV - we will be watching what is happening on the grass, and not from the blimp, or even the terraces.

There are many ways in which a more equitable World Cup could be organised, but most reforms require a more open and democratised governance at the top. Both Fifa and the IOC could choose to award their prestigious prizes not on the basis of extravagant public spending, but on sporting merit. For example, the nation that did the most to promote participation in sport could be awarded the right to host these events. Nor need they discriminate against the poor, as the key measure would be growth, not the base level at which countries start. However, such reforms require a commitment to pursuing purely sporting objectives, rather than the current system of rampant commercialism for the good of organisations such as Fifa. Football is meant to be the beautiful game, not the bankrupt game.

Stefan Szymanski is professor of economics at Cass Business School and co-author of “Why England Lose" (HarperSport, £7.99)