Opinion: hosting a big sports event like the Olympic Games or World Cup should not be measured purely on economic grounds, but rather the tournament's intangible benefits for society
Following the recent Technical Review by World Rugby, Ireland’s chances of hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup have decreased considerably. The race is certainly not over, but we now wait in hope rather than expectation.
The three tournament bids from Ireland, France and South Africa have been assessed on five criteria. For Ireland, the "Venues and Host Cities" aspect proved problematic, with the current stadia infrastructure cited as requiring "a significant level of overlay" and "upgrade and/or installation of technology and telecoms infrastructure" in order to meet the required standard. This shortcoming has been identified as a "significant risk factor that is not inherent in the other two bids".
On November 15, we will find out if this weakness is too great to convince those making the decision to bring the tournament here. Many living on this island had awaited the official announcement with much expectation. The disappointment, which has been clearly evident following publication of the Technical Review findings, highlights a salient point: the societal impact of hosting this tournament is potentially huge. And this is where the impact of the tournament lies.
Events such as the Rugby World Cup are serial commercial successes. The economic profit earned by organisers needs to be disentangled from the contribution of the taxpayer. A State contribution of €320 million has been committed under the Rugby World Cup 2023 Act 2017. In the context of Budget 2018, this amounts to just 0.5 percent of government spending next year. There is an opportunity cost, housing being an obvious example. If the Irish state does realise the headline economic impact projections that have been made public, it will achieve something no country has done in recent decades.
The 2023 Rugby World Cup should not be seen as an investment, nor should it be portrayed as such. Rather it is a consumption decision, organised for the public to enjoy. There are a number of facets to this consumption: anticipation of hosting, the satisfaction of hosting the six-week tournament and reflection on the entire experience in the years that follow.
It is here that intangible benefits are found. These include improved life satisfaction, greater levels of happiness amongst the population in both the short and medium term and an increased sense of national pride There is also the effect of greater civic engagement, volunteering and cross-border co-operation during the planning and delivery of the tournament. These will be dispersed throughout the island.
We certainly do not need to invest public money in sports stadia in this country. The island already has enough venues to host the various sporting events on the annual calendar. South Africa and France have used previous international events as reasons to invest in stadia infrastructure. The latter invested nearly €700 million of taxpayer money into stadium infrastructure prior to hosting Euro 2016. South Africa spent between €1.5 billion and €2.2 billion on stadium construction in preparation for the 2010 World Cup.
Should Ireland’s bid fall short because others spent public funds in this manner, then we should not be too disappointed. Stadiums leave few legacies. One needs only to look at Brazil’s Estádio Nacional or Maracana post-2016 to witness this.
There is, of course, still hope. All three countries have been endorsed by the Technical Group as capable of hosting an outstanding event. The Irish bid outscored South Africa in the "Vision and Hosting Concept" criteria. It is difficult to recall an occasion where such widespread support, both political and social, has existed regarding the spending of public funds. The Rugby World Cup 2023 Act 2017 passed through both chambers of the Oireachtas with almost unanimous support.
Such widespread popular support is often not the norm. In recent times, both Italy and Hungary have withdrawn from bidding to host mega-sporting events due to a lack of national and political unity behind the respective bids. Ireland is certainly not in this position.
It's the spectacle of watching the world’s best rugby players on our doorstep, the home advantage afforded to the Irish team and the numerous positive externalities associated with hosting the tournament which may now not materialise. This is what the island will have lost if the result does not go our way in the coming weeks.
This is what the island will have lost if the result does not go our way
However, the experience of bidding for a major sporting event has a value in itself, especially when one considers the strength of the opposition, both of whom have previously hosted several mega-events.
Indeed, success for both has been mixed with failure. Paris hosted the Summer Olympics Games in 1924 and will host the event again in 2024, but there were failed attempts in 1992, 2008 and 2012. South Africa failed in their bid to host the 2006 FIFA World Cup, but won the rights to the tournament in 2010. Ireland’s bid team should take comfort in this. After all, 2027 is only 10 years away.