The great Scottish summer: Could European Championships provide a World Cup springboard?

As Scotland continues to cement its reputation as a dependable major event host, VisitScotland director of events Paul Bush reflects on two of the highlights of the 2018 sporting calendar, and looks ahead to a future that includes entertaining the Solheim Cup, Euro 2020 and a potential joint Fifa World Cup bid.

The great Scottish summer: Could European Championships provide a World Cup springboard?

Believe it or not, summers like these are starting to come around more often in Scotland.

That isn’t to be mistaken as a reference to a deceptively drier and milder than usual July and August, but rather another period which saw the country play host to some of the most sought-after events on the UK’s sporting calendar.

Some would say the mood was set as early as 10th June, when cricket fans flocked to the picturesque Grange in Edinburgh or perched themselves on trees outside the ground to watch a much unfancied Scotland team record a historic victory over England, the world’s highest ranked one-day international (ODI) side.

Attention would soon turn to the European Tour’s Hero Challenge, which saw the likes of Ian Poulter, Rafa Cabrera-Bello and eventual winner Matt Kuchar wow more than 4,000 live spectators and over 500,000 viewers on Twitter as they fired golf shots towards Edinburgh Castle as part of an innovative format in which players take aim at a specially-built target 80 metres away.

It was outside of the nation’s capital, though, where the Scottish sporting summer really made its mark. With Edinburgh effectively fully-booked for August because of the annual Fringe Festival, the responsibility tends to fall on other cities and regions within the country to take up the mantle.

Golf and its origins are synonymous with Scotland, and this year saw the Open Championship make its eighth pilgrimage to Carnoustie in Angus, roping in a record-breaking 172,000 spectators as Tiger Woods threatened to turn back the clock with a final-day charge, before Italy’s Francesco Molinari held his nerve to lift the Claret Jug for the first time, becoming his country’s first major winner in the process.

And while golf’s oldest major might only span four days, The Open can be worth anywhere between UK£100 million and UK£140million to Scotland through economic impact and media benefit, and Paul Bush (right), VisitScotland’s director of events, reveals that the tournament’s influence extends long beyond that four-day timeframe.       

“Having Carnoustie back with a record attendance was pretty special, because we’ve always struggled with it as a venue geographically,” he says. “One of the things you can’t always measure is the bounce effect both pre and post-event, so how many golfers would go and play Carnoustie or the links courses around Carnoustie before the event, and that effect will now last for two or three years.

“We found that at Gleneagles after the 2014 Ryder Cup; people were still coming and are still coming to this day four years on to play that course on the back of that event.”

Beyond golf, though, which has its roots and is already well established in Scotland, were the inaugural European Championships, which for the first time brought together the flagship quadrennial championships of some of Europe’s leading sports. The event, uniquely, was co-hosted by Glasgow and Berlin, with the former staging aquatics, cycling, gymnastics, rowing, triathlon and a new European Golf Team Championships, while the German capital took charge of athletics.

This year's edition of The Open saw a record 172,000 spectators embark on Carnoustie in Scotland

Given that it had never been staged before, there was an element of uncertainty going into the European Championships, especially regarding whether spectators and viewers would buy into a new multi-sport event. But as Bush points out, “the real smart thing about that event was the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) intervention.”

Indeed, the umbrella body for Europe’s free-to-air channels ensured that the European Championships reached a potential audience of 1.03 billion as 567 million hours of action were shown across the ten days of competition by a total of 44 broadcast partners.

“Because the EBU decided to buy into this,” begins Bush, “you’re then obviously locking in the BBC, France Televisions, TVE in Spain, RAI in Italy etc., and they’re all our key markets from a tourism perspective in Scotland, so that was really important. The BBC were also amazing for us – they showed 12 hours a day live which was just spectacular.”

The Glasgow 2018 organising committee is still awaiting the economic impact studies of the European Championships, but Bush is confident that they will return positive results. On top of a number of cycling and open water swimming events that were open to the public for free, Bush forecasts that just short of 140,000 spectators attended events that could be paid for, while a junior European gymnastics event even roped in a 5,000 strong crowd to Glasgow’s Hydro Arena for a single morning session.

I think this model is the one that we have to look at more carefully. This does exactly what Olympic Agenda 2020 was going to do by actually spreading the love and spreading the benefits – and spreading the risk as well.

Berlin, meanwhile, sold a staggering 285,000 tickets for what European Athletics president Svein Arne Hansen described as the sport’s ‘best ever’ European Championships.

And while one might naturally expect that co-hosting a new event would throw up a number of stumbling blocks for the cities involved, Bush describes Scotland’s collaborative effort with Berlin as a “smooth, straightforward process” – and he believes that the success of the event should set a precedent for hosting models going forward.

“I think as a property it’s here to stay,” Bush says. “One of the advantages is that both Glasgow and Berlin have a huge track record of successfully delivering major events, so you’ve got quality people involved. I do think for the regions and even countries, this provides a unique opportunity to do something a bit different.

“I think this model is the one that we have to look at more carefully. This does exactly what Olympic Agenda 2020 was going to do by actually spreading the love and spreading the benefits – and spreading the risk as well. The value particularly around transfer of knowledge, capacity, capability and cultural exchange between Berlin and Glasgow was huge.

The European Championships reached a potential audience of 1.03 billion largely owing to the involvement of the EBU

“So people have asked me: ‘would you do it again?’ Yes I would. I think the interesting thing is whether they should do it biannually rather than every four years, because it’s a really smart thing.”

No sooner has this summer come to an end that Scotland is already setting the wheels in motion for next year’s major events it has been selected to host. Bush reveals that ticket sales for March’s European Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow have already reached 40 per cent, and there is a confidence that the event will sell out – especially given that home favourite Laura Muir will be expected to star as one of Great Britain’s major medal hopes.

Meanwhile, the Solheim Cup, the biennial women’s golf tournament featuring teams from Europe and the USA, will be heading to Gleneagles for the first time next September, which will be particularly pertinent at a time when women’s sport is flourishing in Scotland.

“The Solheim Cup is in good shape,” says Bush, “and we’re operating a very different model there, because unlike the Ryder Cup, the Ladies European Tour gives all the rights and benefits to the host country, so we’ve entered into a joint partnership agreement with IMG to deliver the event.

Scotland will host the Solheim Cup in 2019, along with the European Athletics Indoor Championships

“I think next year is really important, and for women’s sport it’s especially important in Scotland. Our football team has just qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever, so shining a focus on women’s sport next summer will be really critical, and that will culminate with the Solheim Cup. We recently had a function in the Houses of Parliament celebrating one year to go until the event, and I wanted to make the point very clear that this is world class sport – these are the best female golfers in the world.”

Looking even further ahead, Glasgow’s Hampden Park, which was recently purchased by the Scottish Football Association (SFA) for UK£5 million, has been chosen to stage games for the 2020 Uefa European Championship as part of a multi-city hosting model designed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the international tournament.

I think next year is really important, and for women’s sport it’s especially important in Scotland.

And if recent reports are to be believed, it might not be long before Scotland welcomes the Fifa World Cup as part of a joint home nations bid to stage international soccer’s flagship competition in 2030. Exploratory talks with England, Wales and Northern Ireland are already said to be underway, and Bush reiterates that the appetite to bring the tournament to the UK is certainly there from a Scottish perspective.

“I think Scotland is very open to it: the SFA are, we are, the Scottish government are, and there is work ongoing at present,” says Bush. “I actually think it’s probably the only way the UK will win a bid to host the World Cup, because the coalition and strength of the home nations is pretty powerful in an international context, and Uefa has said that it would want one bid from Europe, which is positive.

“Again, it goes back to the European Championship model a little bit, and even the Euro 2020 model to an extent, which is a bit more diverse in terms of using 12 countries, but it spreads the benefits, spreads the love and spreads the risk, so I’d be quite excited and actually really optimistic about a 2030 bid for the UK.”

Glasgow's Hampden Park will stage games during Euro 2020, and could be involved in a potential joint home nations bid for the 2030 Fifa World Cup

Given Scotland’s success in continuing to host major sporting events, the country might be forgiven for resting on its laurels and continuing to stick with the same approach going forward. Bush, however, says that the country needs to continue to try to “innovate and improve”, especially now that the model for event hosting is reaching a tipping point.

“We’re constantly trying to push the boundaries and the barriers,” says Bush, “and as public funding becomes tougher and tougher, you have to be smarter and smarter in terms of how you deliver events.

“Just getting money for the sake of events will not exist in three, five, ten years’ time, so you’re going to have to turn the model on its head and really demonstrate that hosting an event will actually cause meaningful transformational change either in a country, a city, a region or a community.

“Ten years ago people just had a pot of money and they went out and bid for events, and they hosted them and then they went away. But I think rights holders are now looking for a greater value coming out of them.”