Throughout the latter part of its 88-year history, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has grappled with an existential challenge. In a fast-moving and rapidly modernising world, one in which the anachronistic notion of a neo-colonialist movement of the former British Empire has been persistently questioned, the federation has grown to recognise its pressing need to stay relevant.
“Legitimacy is a word that keeps going round in my head; how do we legitimise sport through our actions and through our governance?” muses David Grevemberg, the chief executive of the CGF. “That’s very embedded in our vision globally. We’re looking at influencing things globally, and so from that wide peripheral view, we needed to put into place the structures that were going to enable us to have all the checks and balances in terms of legitimacy in our standards.”
For the CGF, the challenge is to shape and develop a sporting movement that makes the Commonwealth relevant in the 21st century. It is a challenge that not only permeates throughout the entirety of an organisation whose 71 member nations and territories comprise an estimated population of 2.4 billion people, but which also underpins every project or initiative the CGF undertakes, including its flagship occasion, the Commonwealth Games.
“Once we recognised that if we’re going to be something else, to believe that we are something else and that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, we essentially put the building blocks together to be an impactful movement and not just an event pro bono,” says Grevemberg (right). “This is now a movement of change. This is now a movement that is looking to go well beyond and to be a shining example within the world, not just within the Commonwealth.”
One of those building blocks is CGF Partnerships, a commercial venture founded by the CGF in July 2017 in partnership with the Lagardère Sports agency. At the time of its launch, Louise Martin, the president of the CGF, described CGF Partnerships as “a historic step-change in our organisation’s focus from oversight of quadrennial Games to a standout, values-driven movement striving to connect citizens and communities through sport”. But the new subsidiary has a clear practical objective, too.
Chaired by Lord Robert Smith, the former chairman of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, and 60 per cent majority-owned by the CGF, the unit’s goal is to improve support for cities staging the Commonwealth Games through the provision of a new event delivery model, developing long-term commercial strategies and further strengthening community relations in host nations.
“In 2015, we created our first real strategic plan, Transformation 2022, and one of the action items within that was to establish a new delivery model for hosting the Commonwealth Games,” explains Grevemberg, speaking in the days after Gold Coast’s successful staging of this year’s edition. “That was really aimed at being more efficient, more effective, making the Games more affordable and more appealing. In order to do that, that delivery model required us to be more vested and invested in the project versus a simple host city contract auditing role, which has been the traditional model.
This is now a movement of change. This is now a movement that is looking to go well beyond and to be a shining example within the world, not just within the Commonwealth.
“What that required was us taking on some risk and responsibility for stabilising and sustaining the product, and the main product obviously being the Games, but this also trickles down to how we approach our Youth Games as well.
“One of the roles of this created entity was to ensure that we were having a sustainable commercial income because the cost of these Games has risen incrementally over the past several years and the commercial investment hasn't grown as much as we would like with the overall cost. One of the things we needed to do was work with more efficiency, to bring down the cost of these Games by working smarter and, at the same time, create long-term partnerships, whether it was sponsorships, broadcast or digital rights sales, merchandising and licensing.”
The CGF has teamed up with Lagardère Sports to create CGF Partnerships, which will help to build long-term, multi-faceted commercial packages
Under the new model, CGF Partnerships will work to deliver the commercial programme on behalf of future Games hosts up until at least 2030, as well as supporting those cities in other areas such as corporate services, broadcasting and operations. The long-term plan, says Grevemberg, is for the unit to develop and market multi-Games sponsorship packages, with “all the assets of the movement during and outside of the Games” bundled into “a much bigger portfolio and collection of assets”. The response from the market has so far been promising; talks with a number of prospective partners are progressing and Grevemberg is hopeful of finalising the first multi-Games deals in the near future.
“People are really intrigued; they’re fascinated, they want to see where this goes,” he continues. “They like the idea of having more assets outside just the Games themselves, whether those are the team and territory assets, whether that’s other events. That’s something we’re exploring right now - getting the Commonwealth to think outside of itself. Do we have a Ryder Cup scenario, with Commonwealth versus non-Commonwealth countries? We’re floating all these ideas right now and just seeing what the market comes back with in terms of interest.”
In addition to bringing fresh commercial ideas to the table, CGF Partnerships will work to reduce costs and improve operational efficiencies by streamlining every aspect of the Commonwealth Games, from the initial bidding phase to the final delivery. In that regard, its creation has already born fruit. After the South African city of Durban was stripped of the rights to host the 2022 edition of the Games amid concerns over budgetary constraints and the role of government, CGF Partnerships helped conduct a much-shortened bid phase that quickly yielded a new venue in the form of Birmingham, UK.
“We managed a typically two-year process in nine months and were able to get all the requisite guarantees in place,” reflects Grevemberg. “This delivery model is not something we’re planning for the future - it’s something that has already been put into place. We revised our host city contracts, we managed our bid process differently with 2022. We ultimately invested in the process to break down the cost to bid and it was much more of a consultative feasibility assessment and essentially has also nurtured interest for future bids in 2026 and 2030.”
People are really intrigued; they’re fascinated, they want to see where this goes. They like the idea of having more assets outside just the Games themselves, whether those are the team and territory assets, whether that’s other events. That’s something we’re exploring right now - getting the Commonwealth to think outside of itself
With a 2026 host due to be selected next year, Grevemberg says the CGF could potentially look to award the 2030 event at the same time – a move he says would bring about greater certainty and “further strengthen the interest from corporates Commonwealth-wide”. In any event, for both editions of the Games any profits generated through CGF Partnerships will go to the local organising committee in order to help cover staging costs and alleviate some of the burden on the public purse. It is anticipated that those subsidies would prove invaluable for host cities, particularly those in developing markets, by rendering the Games a more affordable, sustainable and realistic proposition for nations right across the Commonwealth.
“We know the usual suspects, but to create longevity and stability in this, we need to look at emerging markets,” says Grevemberg. “We basically have three different types of markets: we have emerging markets, more regenerative markets, and more sustained markets. Each one of them has risks and opportunities, so what we need to do is look at how we maximise return.
“By giving partners assets throughout the pool, in addition to the Games assets - not just being solely reliant on one Games or the big bang - we have a series of before, during and after events. What it allows us to do is go to emerging markets that may not be totally as profitable, but the overall trajectory is more valuable because we’ve actually boosted the brand as a result of having a more resilient and sustainable long-term investment approach.
“That’s the model we’re looking at, where we’ve got these long-term partners that help us potentially go to some of these emerging markets as well. It’s really important, and that is part of the Commonwealth aspect of this: being able to share that load and that risk. But in order to do that with a less risky proposition, we need to be more invested and connected, hence the new model.”
CGF Partnerships will establish a bank of operational knowledge and best practice that can be transferred between Games
Grevemberg explains that the creation of CGF Partnerships was a necessary response not only to the changing nature of major event hosting, but also to “lessons learned” from the Commonwealth movement’s recent past. He specifically recalls the operational difficulties faced in the lead up to the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, an event that prompted the CGF to rethink and ultimately overhaul its delivery model.
“There was a recognition that we needed to be the keepers of our own destiny on this,” he says. “I think some of the challenges experienced in the lead-up to Delhi , and the successes experienced - and, you know, Delhi was a success in terms of the actual delivery of sporting events. But the question is: at what cost?
“You get to Glasgow where you’re subject to an age of austerity, the political weight of referendums, all these types of things, and again, are we working with efficiency and effectiveness in this environment? Is the CGF just a passenger on this or is it helping to drive this? The risk that comes into establishing a brand that can be consistently amplified and perceived as relevant has been a real challenge.
“On one side it’s been out of just pure necessity to insure the future of our movement and also the impact of our actions and our brand. Because we’ve also fundamentally changed our vision as an organisation. The vision of this organisation is to build peaceful, sustainable and prosperous communities globally by inspiring our Commonwealth athletes to drive the impact and ambition of all Commonwealth citizens through sport. Now, if we use our big flagship event as a major driver to building peaceful, sustainable and prosperous communities, how do we actually tangibly show that?
“If we just give the keys to the car to someone who has never driven before, there is no guarantee that they’re going to have the maximum impact positively in this way. So by us becoming more invested, by us becoming a value-added partner, this model now allows us the agility to manage a much bigger commercial portfolio but also the focus to be on the ground, embedded, supporting the host city partners.”