From the editor: events at the end of the universe

In the first entry of a new weekly column, SportsPro editor Eoin Connolly asks if sport's mega-events are about to expand past their natural limits.

From the editor: events at the end of the universe

The universe, so I’m told, is expanding. It has been since the day of its creation and it will one day drift so far from its origins that it breaks apart.

All of which puts the travails of Arsenal and the Atlanta Falcons into perspective, and serves as a laboured means of suggesting that anything can get too big for its own good. If it’s true of all known existence, and it’s true of a metaphor used to introduce a sports industry thought piece, then it’s probably true of the world’s largest sporting events.

Speaking of which, preparations for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games passed the one year to go mark on Thursday, bringing an icy blast of refreshing publicity for the local organisers, partners, and the global movement alike. In a happy coincidence, the closely contested three-horse race for the 2024 Summer Games kicked into another gear with a lift on the bar to international promotion.

After the logistical contortions of Rio, where the famous Maracana stands for now as a sorry monument to misplaced optimism, and recent difficulties in filling out its bidding races, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) might have a chance at a return to something like business as usual.

So much for that: as you might have read elsewhere, each of South Korea, the US, France and Hungary has been incubating its own brand of administrative mayhem or anxiety. It may not entirely compromise them as Olympic venues and none of it is the IOC’s fault, but it is a reminder of the kind of political intermingling that is inevitable for events that now hold such significance and ask so much of their hosts, not least financially.   

The Fifa World Cup has its own corresponding issues. European confederation Uefa staked its claim this week for some of the additional places up for grabs in the 48-team World Cup of 2026. Bidding for that tournament is some way off but the idea that the USA might need to co-host with Canada and Mexico – last year’s constructive idea becomes this year’s self-writing punchline – might give some idea of how big it will get.

It’s not as if the 32-team edition is perfectly proportioned. Brazil and South Africa have struggled retrospectively to justify costs and while Qatar is a unique case, this week’s news that it is throwing US$500 million a week at updates for 2022 gives cause for pause.

Essentially, and the point is well-rehearsed, these mega-events are now the preserve of the well-heeled, the foolhardy, or the already abundantly prepared. Should Budapest be torpedoed by a late referendum, the IOC is widely tipped to take its 2024 Games to Paris and head to LA in 2028 – sidestepping political landmines, serving key partners and parking the bidding question for another decade. Still, it is hard to see how either event grows further without their gravitational ties eventually giving out.  

There is plenty of scope to rationalise: drawing back on numbers or commercial and logistical demands – or ‘plan B’, as it might be deemed in the boardrooms of stakeholders across the industry. But there is something else going on here that may be as inevitable as the laws of physics.

Between the Olympic Channel, the Youth Olympic Games and the trumpeting of year to go countdowns and the like, the IOC is already well on the way to turning Olympism into a fuller, year-round proposition. That’s part of the process of updating its landmark IOC TOP sponsorship model – which was working just fine until some vandal went and popularised the internet – and if the evidence of Alibaba’s recent nine-figure partnership is anything to go by, it’s working. 

That is the direction of travel. Earlier this week, Allianz confirmed a title sponsorship deal with the nascent Drone Racing League for what was reported to be an eight-figure sum. The NBA became the first US sports league to confirm plans for its own eLeague, in partnership with videogame publisher Take-Two Interactive Software. The ‘digital sports’ space may not be the genre-stomping monster of some imaginations but it is worth noting what its early investors find appealing: flexibility in staging, a direct route to the audience, and a hell of a lot of manipulable content. 

So maybe the day is approaching where the IOC will stop thinking of the Olympic Games as a two-week event with a single host. Maybe the future is a global Games, with events held simultaneously in cities across the planet, and any number of sports invited to join in for a colossal digital and broadcast experience. Maybe the World Cup, whose 80-game format takes it even further down the road from high-calibre sporting event to high-volume media property, will reconfigure itself, too. It could become a large-scale version of the Uefa Euro 2020 concept, with ever more teams taking part in miniature tournaments across the globe and a handful convening in one place for the closing stages. 

This isn’t intended as a suggestion: it’s a reading. It might well be where the whole thing is headed.