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If You Build it, They Won’t Come

December 8th, 2009 · No Comments · Basketball, Business, Football, Government, Racing, Sports, Sports Media, Track and Field

An op-ed on how despite the rise in sporting venues throughout China, the country’s sports stadiums remain empty once the lights fade and the games conclude.

There is no question that large, global sporting events can help change the image of a city. Governments use the spectacles as a means to redevelop or invest further in a city’s infrastructure. South Africa proposed a nine billion rand — or about 1.7 billion USD — budget on city infrastructure projects for next year’s World Cup. According to the Beijing Organizing Committee, the 2008 Olympic Games saw about 60 billion USD invested in city-wide infrastructure projects, which included new stadium venues for the sporting events.

Last week, the article “Sloppy Services Bode Ill for Guangzhou’s Asian Games,” which appeared on the Global Times and was reported by China Sport’s Review’s David Yang, noted that Guangzhou would spend approximately 29 billion on infrastructure throughout the city, and an additional 900 million USD on stadium construction and renovations, in preparation for the athletic events in 2010.

China continues to show willingness to play host to several international sporting events, as well as increasingly popular national athletic endeavors. As mentioned, there are the 16th Annual Asian Games in Guangzhou. The 2009 East Asian Games are currently taking place in Hong Kong until Dec. 13.

Nanjing, which bid and was eventually eliminated for consideration as the host city for the 2012 Youth Winter Olympic Games, is currently in the bidding process for the 2014 Youth Summer Olympic Games. Even animatronics is getting into the mix, as 2010 will also see Harbin play host to the Robot Games, where androids designed from more than 100 universities worldwide will compete.

Apparent in the infrastructure bubble that takes place in cities around China that are vying for the chance to host a major sporting competition is that chinks are beginning to arise in just how productive and profitable a host city can be in the years after the athletics have moved on. Just recently, China Daily reported the city of Harbin gave up on its plan to bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, saying that a push by the People’s Republic to host a winter Olympic Games event was “premature.”

Beijing’s crown jewel of sporting events, the 2008 Olympic Games, cost a reported 400 billion RMB, with 12 venues constructed for the two-week event. A 2006 New York Times article titled “The China Syndrome” noted the original budget for the National Stadium was about 500 billion USD, yet the Bird’s Nest currently sits toiling just north of the city center.

Long-term use of Olympic venues has always been the Achilles heel of hosting the event, but in China’s case, where the country is taking on larger sporting events, when infrastructure includes new stadiums and sporting venues, what is happening to these places after the games have finished?

In January, USA Today reported the Bird’s Nest is still searching for a permanent tenant, has yet to hold a major sporting event, and there are doubts the stadium will ever recoup the 450 million USD the government spent to construct the architectural wonder.

According to an Oct. 2005 Reuters article, the budget for the 2005 China National Games held in Jiangsu province was roughly one-third of the 2008 Olympic Games spending, and the Nanjing Olympic Sports Stadium —constructed in 2002 and an integral part of the 2005 China National Games — according to the stadium’s official Web site is now used almost exclusively for local events.

chinaSMACK, which translates “hot topics” on Chinese Internet forums and Chinese news reports, reported that in addition to the myriad of scandals at the 11th National Games held in Shandong during the month of October, the total cost and construction for the event totaled 200 billion RMB, including the Jinan Olympic Sports Center, a 60,000-seat stadium that was the centerpiece of the National Games.

China Daily reported in 2008 that Harbin needed three more stadiums built — at a price tag of 370 million USD — for the 24 Winter Universiade, which featured 4,000 athletes from 50 countries. And the East Asia Games, according to the secretary of home affairs’ home page, saw renovations on the three stadiums in Hong Kong, costing about 240 million USD.

The question surrounding all these monumental athletic venues is who plays in them going forward? The China Basketball Association, the country’s most visible sport, lost 17 million USD overall during the last season, according to an Economist Intelligence Report released in October. The People’s Republic currently has no homegrown athletic teams in any sport that can fill stadiums to capacity on a weekly basis.

Both the National Basketball Association, Premier League and the National Football League have made attempts to bring games to China, but the results have been marginal: a few preseason NBA and Major League Baseball games, an outright rejection to ship Premier League games outside of Europe, and two cancellations by the NFL.

China’s sports powerhouse ambitions, while praiseworthy on the field, have yielded few positive results for long-term sporting events. Yes, major international competitions take time and planning, but China has the infrastructure in place to do more with its sporting venues,  and tying its infrastructure plans to major sporting events should draw continued usage for years after.

— Zachary Franklin

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