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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sporting chance of lifting the S'pore spirit - ST

March 6, 2008
Sporting chance of lifting the S'pore spirit
By Andy Ho

HOW can the F1 in September and the Youth Olympics in 2010 be leveraged for Singapore's benefit?
Studies of sport tourism regularly lament expensively built sporting facilities that become underutilised after major sporting events and financial debt that plagues the organisers of these events. This may not be the case in Singapore, which will spend just US$1.14 million (S$1.6 million) on permanent works, mostly to upgrade Bishan Stadium, which will host athletics and football. Still, US$5.73 million will also be spent on temporary spectator stands, lighting, security, media facilities and doping controls.

Another US$100 million has been budgeted to organise the Youth Olympics. The hope is that such mega-events will brand the city globally with tourists. Also, the public dollars invested may keep the construction and hospitality industries churning. Local businesses may benefit from tourist spending too.

Some experts warn, however, that such projections may be exaggerated and that many studies on the subject make unwarranted assumptions in their modelling. A 2005 study conducted by the Sports Tourism International Council based in Ottawa, Canada, for instance, warned that such models tend to have 'an inflated multiplier (because) all factors of leakage including public investment' may not be included. Infrastructure works such as upgrading of roads leading to a sport venue should not be double-counted as both a benefit and an expenditure, it said.

Visitor numbers may also be exaggerated if tickets dispensed are used as a proxy for them. One person may buy tickets to many events on the same day, yet he would occupy only one hotel bed. Furthermore, tickets are given away free to VIPs, athletes, referees, staff and the media. But these things are not captured in even sophisticated economic models. Other factors such as visitor consumption patterns and how long they stay all matter.

Moreover, the larger the event, the more likely is their so-called 'displacement effect', Professor Glenn McCartney of the Macau University of Science and Technology noted. A big sporting event may discourage other travellers from coming here and encourage some locals to leave, so as to get away from the noise and congestion.

To offset that effect, organisers could promote repeat visits, especially with recurrent mega events like the F1. In his own study of the Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix, Prof McCartney found that the 54-year-old street race - like Singapore's F1 - can attract not just new visitors but also repeat ones. This loyal base of repeat visitors is important as they might stay longer if there are entertainment options available.

Organisers should thus plan to leverage opportunities to get visitors to actually stay and spend. But as Prof Laurence Chalip who teaches sports management at the University of Texas, Austin, pointed out, 'most sport tourism organisers treat each event as a given and simply hope and wait for benefits without actually planning and implementing any leverage to provide opportunities to buy food or souvenirs, enjoy ancillary entertainments, or try new products, say. This oversight often leads to disappointment'.

To practise leveraging, organisers must focus not on mere decorations but on the-ming - telling stories and conveying a sense of celebration, using symbolic elements such as logos, flags, banners and displays. Ethnographic market research can help identify symbols and narratives to foster the desired celebratory atmosphere, he added.

'During one of the Gold Coast IndyCar events I studied, a precinct that neighboured the circuit wanted to convey the sense it was part of IndyCar, so it was themed to the event. There were banners proclaiming the location as a place to celebrate the event, a bridge across the main street that was decorated in event colours, a float on which there was entertainment and dancing girls in Indy-themed attire. Local restaurants put up event posters and were decorated in black and white (to go with the chequered flag). TVs were placed in local businesses and tuned to the event. There was a sense of ongoing celebration throughout the locale,' said Prof Chalip.

Economics aside, mega sporting events also have social value because of the deeper symbolic aspects of sport. As celebratory events, they can promote camaraderie and communitas - an intense spirit of solidarity and togetherness that lifts congregants to a different level of community.

Imagine crowds inside and outside venues at the Youth Olympics when a Singaporean kid wins a gold. With home advantage in 2010, that is not impossible: No host country for any Olympiad has ever gone without at least one medal. In 1988, the South Korean women's handball team was ranked 11th in the world but won the Seoul Olympics gold.

Imagine a Tan Howe Liang moment right at home. For a brief moment, everyone gathered would experience a deep, heart-meets-heart connection. For one sweet moment in time, differences of age, gender and race would fade away. For one moment of manumission, social and religious distinctions would disappear.

Ethnographers have consistently observed this communitas at sport events - at cricket festivals in the Caribbean, at rugger matches in Australia or football matches in England. Communitas creates social capital, which is why such events - including the National Day Parade - can enrich social lives and strengthen the fabric of communities.

Social leverage and economic leverage can be synergistic if the commercialisation isn't too crass, suggested Prof Chalip. Organisers may encourage people to come to the venues early or stay late to tailgate - barbecue, feast and drink in the carpark lot, say. Food and drink vendors could also be permitted in the area. Organisers could provide benches, dustbins, lighting, water and portable toilets outside venues so ticket buyers and non-buyers can mingle, socialise, and celebrate together.

There could also be convenient locations where picnickers may watch the events live on large TVs, like the 'Live-Sites' during Sydney 2000 or 'FanFests' in Munich during the 2006 Fifa World Cup.

Prof Chalip agreed it would be a challenge for planners in Singapore to forge the necessary alliances among business, government and NGOs to create these and other cross-leveraging opportunities. However, it will be worth the effort if such leveraging serves to move not just the Singapore economy but also the Singapore spirit.

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