San Diego’s startup Games

San Diego is set to host the inaugural ANOC World Beach Games in late 2019. Two years out, local organising committee president Vincent Mudd explains why the Californian city is the ideal host for this startup, international property.

San Diego’s startup Games

It is now a little under two years until San Diego will host the inaugural ANOC World Beach Games. For Vincent Mudd, president of the local organising committee, few events are a more natural fit for southern California’s second city.

“We like the idea of starting things from new,” he says. “Nothing can be more appealing to this young, vibrant economy that is San Diego than having a chance to start a Games centred around young people. We are a dynamic, multicultural part of the world, so when we heard about the ANOC World Beach Games, conceptually it was perfect.”

At first glance, the World Beach Games do indeed appear made for San Diego, a coastal city whose connection with the beach and the ocean runs deep. Devised by the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), a Lausanne-based organisation which is comprised of 206 member National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and is closely affiliated with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the organiser of the Olympic Games, the event is part of a new generation of sports events and properties designed specifically with youth in mind.

Featuring around 1,300 athletes across six days of competition, the event will take place in October of 2019 at San Diego’s iconic Mission Beach. Its programme will be formed of 17 non-Olympic disciplines in 15 sports, all of which have been selected for their appeal to youth audiences, according to organisers.

On paper, those sports make for an eclectic line-up. Seaside staples like volleyball, soccer and tennis are joined by established ocean-based pursuits such as wake boarding, waterskiing and kiteboarding, but there is also room for sports only loosely associated with the beach: BMX freestyle, 3x3 basketball, skateboarding, bouldering and duathlon will all feature, as will the more intriguing additions of karate beach kata and wrestling.

Spawned by the success of the Asian Beach Games, which were first staged by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), an ANOC regional member, in 2008, the global edition was originally conceived by ANOC in 2013, and later discussed as a potential joint venture between ANOC and SportAccord, the union of international sports federations. After relations between the two organisations broke down, however - SportAccord has since rebranded as GAISF following a tumultuous period that led to the resignation of its former leader, Marius Vizer - ANOC pursued the project alone under the guidance of its president, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti powerbroker who has orchestrated the Games’ conception but could yet miss the inaugural edition having been implicated in an ongoing corruption investigation in the US.

Starting from scratch

San Diego was unanimously chosen to stage the event in October 2015, picked ahead of Sarasota in Florida, the Russian seaside and sometime ski resort of Sochi, Dubai, and an unnamed destination in China. Looking back, Mudd says having the opportunity to create and shape the inaugural World Beach Games from scratch was appealing for several reasons. Not only will it help position San Diego as “the number one startup city in the United States”, he says, it will also highlight the internationalist mindset of the local region, a place where “open-minded, entrepreneurial folks” gather for both business and pleasure.

“We call the World Beach Games Thursday in San Diego County,” he says, speaking to SportsPro shorty after returning from the ANOC General Assembly in Prague in early November, where he presented a progress report on preparations. “If you go to our beaches pretty much any day of the week, we’re doing all of this anyway. It’s completely natural for us.”

San Diego’s interest in staging the World Beach Games materialised as part of a long-term, all-encompassing development and economic growth plan devised several years ago by local authorities and business leaders. Mudd, who previously served as chairman of the San Diego regional chamber of commerce and on the board of its economic development corporation, explains how the city originally envisaged staging the Olympic Games - “the largest, most effective masterplanning tool that I think I had seen” - as part of that plan, which set out a blueprint for San Diego’s future up until 2050.

With that ultimate goal in mind, Mudd himself spearheaded the formation of ’32 for 2032’, a group of local stakeholders whose initial aim was to land the 2032 Summer Olympics. In the end, however, the group elected to put San Diego forward as the USA’s candidate city for the 2024 Games, an honour that initially went to Boston before being reassigned to Los Angeles, which would eventually win the 2028 edition thanks to an unprecedented arrangement agreed with the IOC earlier this year.

Despite missing out on the Olympics - at least for now - San Diego’s interest in attracting more major international sports events remains undiminished, says Mudd. “When we were approached to go to Lausanne to learn about ANOC’s World Beach Games, we were pretty prepared for that conversation,” he recalls. “In the end, it worked perfectly for us because it was an authentic opportunity to share that which makes San Diego San Diego. Our secret sauce is our lifestyle, a sports and active lifestyle with a beach community attitude around it.”

All events at 2019 ANOC World Beach Games will be staged at a temporary site constructed at San Diego's Mission Beach.

A further appeal of the World Beach Games, says Mudd, is the comparatively small investment required to stage them, especially from an infrastructure perspective. Then there is the lack of red tape that usually comes with these kinds of major sporting events. “There was no five volumes of ‘here’s how these Games are going to be run’,” he notes. But that is not to say preparations have been plain sailing. When San Diego was selected in 2015, the inaugural Games were slated to take place this past October. In August of last year, however, ANOC’s executive council took the contentious decision to postpone the event until 2019, a move they said would allow NOCs and IFs ‘optimum time to prepare their athletes’.

At the time, reports suggested the decision was in fact made due to concerns over sluggish progress being made by local organisers, particularly in relation to the marketing and financing of the event. On reflection, Mudd accepts that his team could have done a better job of raising awareness and stoking interest in the domestic market from the outset, but he insists the process was always going to be one of trial and error.

“The nature of a startup event and the nature of a startup business are very similar,” he says. “It’s the first time for everybody with this event. But, truthfully, I think the length of time to get prepared when we were first awarded the Games in October 2015, for an event in October 2017, that’s a lot to ask for. Had it been four years at the time, I think that would have been awesome.

“But having to go faster gave us a chance to focus and crystallise our plans. Had we had four years, we might have wasted two. Having two years, we didn’t waste any time.”

Our expectation is that we will generate more revenue than the US$38.955 million it’s going to take to run the event.

If such an ambitious timeframe was perhaps wildly optimistic, there have been other bumps in the road, many of which have led to cost-saving measures and cutbacks to the event concept. While several separate venue clusters were originally proposed, for example, organisers later settled on staging every sport at a single temporary site constructed at Mission Beach. Additionally, the number of sports and competing athletes, and the duration of the event itself, have all been reduced in an effort to cut costs, with early announcements having stated that as many as 5,000 competitors representing all 206 of ANOC’s member NOCs would take part in a 20-sport event lasting ten days.

For Mudd, each of those tweaks has been symptomatic of the startup nature of the event. In any case, he says, the result will be a more compact, sustainable occasion that will ultimately deliver a more intimate spectator experience. 

“We all agreed that getting all the events in one place would be better for the festival nature of the event,” he adds. “That move by itself cut the budget in half. Without changing the quality of the Games, that was the number one budget-saving, and then when we went to six days versus ten days, that was also a dramatic saving - on hotel costs and everything else.”

As it stands, the total budget for the event is a shade under US$39 million - far lower than the US$135 million originally reported. A significant portion of the money will go towards subsidising travel, accommodation and food costs for competing athletes, as well as representatives of ANOC and participating international federations. Mudd says costs for infrastructure like grandstands, power generators and administrative tents represent a relatively small portion of the budget, as do marketing costs since they will be partly assumed by tourism authorities in San Diego and California.

What’s more, no public funding will be used directly to finance the event. Instead, the budget is underpinned by private investment and revenue generated through sales of commercial rights, meaning any returns will not take into account economic benefits derived through tourism for the city of San Diego.

“Our expectation is that we will generate more revenue than the US$38.955 million it’s going to take to run the event,” Mudd says. “If you look at our game plan for how we’ll do that, it feels possible to do so. We do not anticipate losing money because we won’t let the cost increase and we won’t let the scope increase. We only have x amount of dollars and I’m never going to let anyone increase that scope because it will jeopardise the budget.”

The World Beach Games are something of a pet project for ANOC president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah.

Hitting the marketplace

With the event format and programme largely finalised, Mudd and his team are now in a position to ramp up their marketing efforts. In October, the San Diego Exploratory Foundation (SDEF), a non-profit organisation that doubles as the local organising committee and which Mudd chairs, was given the green light by ANOC’s events working group, which is led by Hong Kong's Timothy Fok as well as ANOC secretary general Gunilla Lindberg, to move to the next phase of preparations following two days of coordination meetings in San Diego.

Earlier this month, the organisers unveiled an event logo and visual identity inspired by the blue sky, beaches and sunshine synonymous with San Diego. Now, they are getting down to the nitty gritty, working to finalise contracts and permits for important logistical elements such as hotels and transportation services.

“We’re going to finish all of our permitting that we have to do, which we had prepared and ready for 2017,” says Mudd. “Then the major element that we have to do is begin to market these Games because we know that not everybody in the world knows what ANOC is, and not everybody in the world has seen all of these beach games in one place.

“We need to begin the process of exciting the entire planet about these amazing Games, what kinds of athletes are going to be participating, where those athletes are going to be coming from. From the end of December, we have to hit the marketplace as hard as we can because a lot of people just don’t know what this is.”

We’re fortunate that the United States is a target-rich environment, filled with people who want to be involved in sponsoring significant and important events.

As the exclusive marketing rights holder of the event, Mudd says his team at the SDEF are out in the market having “deep conversations” with prospective sponsors, working to find domestic and international partners who are looking to tap into the event’s 18 to 34-year-old target demographic. “We want to get them involved now because they can shape the delivery of these Games,” he adds. “These Games haven't been done and if we get the right sponsors we can help them leverage what they’re already doing in this marketplace and hopefully accelerate that.”

In the interest of securing commercial partners, Mudd says the focus is initially on companies with existing ties to the Olympic movement, adding that his team is in advanced talks with “two major sponsors” that cannot yet be announced, including a broadcaster that is likely to serve as the event’s presenting sponsor.

“We’re not using the rings, which gives us some flexibility,” he explains, referring to the Olympic trademark owned and tightly controlled by the IOC. “But our goal is to give any of the TOP sponsors that are interested the first right. We’ve begun having conversations with some of those.

“We are looking at folks who have a heavy technology infrastructure in their business model, particularly those companies that are looking for good strong content to deliver to their customers. Without saying the names of those companies you can imagine who those might be.”

Vincent Mudd, speaking at the ANOC General Assembly in Prague earlier this month.

All told, the organisers are seeking to fill 23 sponsor categories, but Mudd is hopeful his team will not need to sell them all. “We’re fortunate that the United States is a target-rich environment, filled with people who want to be involved in sponsoring significant and important events,” he continues. “We have a lot of folks to talk to. However, from a global standpoint, we need more exposure to gain access. I think there are folks out there on the global level who, if they know more about this event, would probably want to have a conversation with us.”

Asked whether the SDEF could look to bring in a third-party agency to help value commercial packages and exploit the rights, Mudd concedes that the startup nature of the event has somewhat complicated matters. “We tried the agency route early on but the challenge was, and still is, it’s an inaugural Games,” he says. “It’s a tremendous amount of risk to somebody. We’re willing to take the risk because we’re all in in terms of what we’re going to do, but we struggled to find an agency that would be able to take this event on with so much risk.

“We’re going to do it internally, and we think that because it’s an inaugural event and we can shape it, we are in a position to be very flexible.

“I don’t want to say anything bad about the agencies. We just talked to a couple of them and it just felt like they were going to struggle with this inaugural event. It may be that they’ll do awesome with it once we establish it in 2019, and I’m sure for 2021 and 2023 there’ll be plenty of agencies that will want to take a shot at this.”

With a view to getting the event off to the best possible start, Mudd says the plan is to engage younger audiences by “blowing up” the event’s digital strategy. He explains that much of the pre-event promotion will be done, as is now customary, through social media, but the event itself will also incorporate an array of technological innovations - including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) integrations - to enhance the experience for both on-site and off-site spectators.

“We’re going to do things that people talk about in the digital community but are still restricted by the traditional model,” he says. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve got a year and nine months to make athletes many of us have never heard of famous, to make countries many people have never heard of exposed to the entire world, and then to make sports that few have heard of as famous as we can.

“We’re going to put on the best event that we can that can be viewed on any platform. You don’t have to be at the Games to experience it with our AR or VR or 360 technology. You’ll be able to view these Games and be actively immersed in this cultural festival no matter where you are.”