What major sporting events can Wales host?

(Title Image: Markos90 via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Licence BY-SA-4.0)

Hosting major sporting events is a prime example of a city, region or nation using “soft power“. They often boost tourism (at least in the short-term) and can often put an overlooked place on the map.

Despite these benefits, there are some very clear disadvantages in terms of costs, corrupt bidding practices and the environmental and social impact of hosting major events.

“Major events” means more than just sports of course (the International and National eisteddfodau and the Hay Festival are major events in their own right), but for this exercise I’m going to concentrate on sport.

Major Events in Wales

The Welsh Government has a dedicated Major Events unit (Events Wales) and its current major events strategy runs until 2020 (pdf) – meaning it’s (presumably) due an update in the coming year.

The strategy defines four types of major event:

  • Mega Events – Events with a global reach, usually preceded by large scale capital projects which involve building new venues.
  • Major Events – Attract a significant domestic and international audience, but may only be a one-off or a rolling series of events or fixtures.
  • Signature Events – Recurring events which have a strong international dimension but are uniquely Welsh.
  • Growth Events – Smaller niche events on smaller footprints which add value and have the potential of becoming a bigger event in the future.

The next question is what sporting events fall under which category?

  • Mega Event – The obvious examples are the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, FIFA (men’s and women’s) World Cup and (in the Commonwealth) the Rugby World Cup. The last time Wales hosted a “Mega Event” was the 2010 Ryder Cup and the one before that was arguably the 1999 Rugby World Cup. There was a mooted Welsh bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games, but as I’ll turn to later there were serious issues associated with it.
  • Major Events – The last verifiably major event hosted exclusively by Wales was the 2017 UEFA Champions League final; the 2019 Cricket World Cup probably counts too as a co-hosted event. The Six Nations probably counts as do boxing title fights and the Heineken Cup Final (when hosted in Cardiff).
  • Signature Events – It’s hard to think of a sporting event that qualifies as “signature”, but you could probably include the Cardiff Half Marathon, Wales Rally GB, Cardiff Speedway GP, Welsh Grand National, Welsh Open Snooker, Pro 14 and English football league club fixtures.
  • Growth Events – Here you would find national championships in minority and growing sports (bowls, golf, ice hockey, field hockey, roller derby), niche events like Monster Jam, Iron Man and Bog Snorkelling and the semi-professional national championships (Rugby Premiership & Cup, Cymru Premier & FAW Cup).

What are Wales’ key strengths when it comes to hosting major sporting events?

The Principality/Millennium Stadium – The jewel in the crown, arguably. Very few places around the world can say they have a huge covered stadium within spitting distance of a city centre. It’s a world-renowned, multi-functional venue but, in terms of this exercise, the big question is whether it can be temporarily converted to hold an athletics track?

Perfect location for adventure and action sports (in particular) – We often frame mountain biking, surfing etc. in terms of tourism, but we have to remember these are Olympic sports too. We can probably feel somewhat aggrieved that Wales didn’t get to host mountain biking during the 2012 Olympics. We certainly have the landscape and the coastline for so-called “adrenaline sports”, it’s a matter as to whether we have the facilities necessary to host major action sport events, not just tourists. Afan Argoed is perfect for mountain biking, but as things stand you probably couldn’t see major championships being hosted there.

Sporting pedigree – For a country of Wales’ size, we massively punch above our weight in terms of sporting talent across men’s, women’s and disabled sport. In the absence of an independent foreign policy or engaged diaspora, athletes are probably the main way people around the world know about Wales. Gareth Bale is known everywhere, Tanni Grey-Thompson is one of the greatest Paralympians ever and the Welsh men’s rugby team will be probably what most people in the Commonwealth think of first when it comes to “Wales”. We also have quite a strong cycling and boxing heritage. Hosting sporting events “In the home of X” or with (insert major sporting personality here) as an ambassador certainly adds a lot of stock to them.

What are Wales’ key weaknesses when it comes to hosting major sporting events?

Many weaknesses were picked up in the feasibility study for the 2026 Commonwealth Games bid.

A lack of adequate venues outside Cardiff – There are exceptions to this like the Newport velodrome, rally courses in mid-Wales, golf and mountain biking courses nationally, the Liberty Stadium and National Pool in Swansea. But by and large, all of the top-grade sporting venues are in and around Cardiff, limiting the opportunities available to host a multi-venue event across several towns and cities (i.e. UEFA football championships, Rugby World Cup). The cost of hosting a Commonwealth Games in Wales (which would’ve involved significant capital investment in sporting infrastructure) has been put at £1.1-1.6billion.

Internal and external transport links; weak global brand – The addition of long-haul flights to and from Cardiff is obviously welcome while people in northern and central Wales have ready access too and from Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham airports – but it’s still a case that Wales is relatively difficult to get to directly from the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean it’s as hard as sub-Saharan Africa or parts of Asia, but for a developed economy, transport links to and within Wales remain relatively poor and that will probably be a markdown when it comes to  attempts to host major events – particularly those spread across multiple venues.

Lack of hospitality facilities – The situation has improved over the last few years, with the construction of ICC Wales in Newport, several new hotels and plans for a convention centre in Cardiff. Overall though, there’s a lack of higher-end hotels and other assorted infrastructure needed to host not only the athletes but visitors and the media – even in Cardiff. You could add the weather too, but that’s a given.

Which events to target?

Football: UEFA (Men’s) Under-21 Championship, UEFA Women’s Championship (possible joint-bid), FIFA Under-20s World Cup, FIFA Women’s World Cup (joint-bid), second bid for a Champions League Final, UEFA Europa League final.

Rugby: Men’s Rugby Union World Cup (joint-bid), Women’s Rugby Union World Cup, plus youth-grade tournaments (which Wales have hosted before), Heineken Cup Final (which rotates anyway). Possibly a men’s Rugby League World Cup.

Multi-sport event: Commonwealth Games (probably Cardiff and only after major investment), smaller multi-sport events like the European Championships, Commonwealth Youth Games, Gay Games, Special Olympics, Universiade.

Other possible one-off events: Second bid for a Ryder Cup (probably in the 2030s), World Athletics Championship (dependent on the success of any Commonwealth Games bid and/or how easy it would be to convert the Principality Stadium or Leckwith Stadium), Netball World Cup, Hockey World Cup and EuroHockey Championship (men’s and women’s), UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, Formula-E street circuit, Tour de France opening stages, NFL International Series.

Conclusions

Hosting a major sporting event is certainly one way to put Wales in the shop window, but I don’t see the point of bidding to host events for the sake of it. That said, there’s no harm in putting together feasibility studies and alike to determine what would be needed, how much it would cost and the potential economic and social benefits.

I’m sure if there’s a successor major events plan published during 2020 we’ll hear more about this, but speaking generally Wales should seriously consider bidding to host a “Mega Event” once every 10-15 years and aim to bid to host a one-off “Major Event” or Growth Event once every 5 years.

What’s crucial is not to over-reach and to bid based on our strengths. A larger number of smaller, but still internationally-significant events, will be better than a blow out trying to host a Commonwealth Games. For example, there’s no reason why Cardiff shouldn’t bid to host another Champions League final in the next decade as it’s far more feasible than something like the UEFA Championships.

If we had to pursue a joint bid for a multi-venue event (due to a lack of suitable venues in Wales) then the obvious partners in any would be the Republic of Ireland (all-Ireland in the case of rugby) and England – possibly Scotland too.

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