Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Main Event

Earlier this week, Plaid Cymru took the unusual step of splitting their weekly debate allocation into two equally important and interesting ones – the first dealing with the Wales & Borders franchise, the second with major sporting events.

As I'm working on election stuff at the moment (amidst other things), and fearing an uncharacteristic gap in posts, I flipped a coin to decide whether it would be trains or football to write about. Football won.

The debate motion called for :
  • Recognition of the value of major events to the Welsh economy.
  • A bid for the Commonwealth Games in either 2026 or 2030.
  • A bid for men's and women's stages of a cycling Grand Tour (i.e. Tour de France).
  • An official send off for the men's football team before Euro 2016.
  • The establishment of "fanzones" around Wales during Euro 2016.

Plaid's culture and sport spokesperson, Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West), decided to focus her contribution on Euro 2016 (clip), saying it was important to honour the Welsh men's national football team with an official reception. Talks between the Assembly Commission and Football Association of Wales (FAW) are ongoing, but it would be "embarrassing" if it passes unrecognised - though the FAW have suggested a "welcome home" event instead.

Next, Bethan turned attentions to fanzones. Cardiff Arms Park fanzone hosted more than 150,000 fans during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but she stressed that it was important to have them around Wales, not just Cardiff. She also called for marketing and business experts to travel to France in the summer to promote Wales.

With the Ryder Cup resulting in an estimated £82.4million economic boost, a successful cycling tour stage on the same scale could build upon that and the idea's already being explored. Most important of all, there's a need to get people involved in, and excited about, sport to promote exercise.

Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) introduced a Lib Dem amendment relating to transport problems during the Rugby World Cup (see also : AMs Criticise Rugby Rail Scrum).

She supports a Commonwealth Games bid (clip) and said welcoming the world was a "source of great pride". It could also lead to a lasting impact on infrastructure and housing. On cycling, while Eluned admitted Velothon Wales was successful, it caused difficulties for local residents and was disruptive.

If these major events aren't planned properly they can damage the economy, as Cardiff still needs to operate as a city and not give over completely to events; she cited the Cardiff fanzone – which was located in a residential area – as an example, as well as cancelled buses, excess litter and closed shops.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) was excited Wales qualified for a major football tournament, and he expects Swansea's Castle Square to show all of Wales' games (clip). He supported the reception idea and would be "amazed" if something wasn't arranged. Wales has hosted more major events since devolution than before it, and it was a huge achievement to win the right to host the 2017 Champions League final – while every Swansea City game counts as a major event in its own right.

On the Commonwealths bid, Mike highlighted two important questions – How much would it cost? How will you pay for it? He suggested a full Barnett consequential for the 2012 London Olympics and – as you might expect – pushed Swansea as a possible Welsh host of the games.

Shadow Sports & Equalities Minister, Mohammad Ashgar (Con, South Wales East), supported the motion (clip). Hosting major events bring benefits - such as increased sport participation to combat obesity and chronic diseases - as well as promoting the host venues abroad. He cited Cardiff hosting international cricket matches which has generated £75million for the economy over the last six years. He fully supported a Commonwealth Games bid as we already have world class venues in place, and it would enhance Wales' reputation for staging such events.

The 2014 Commonwealth Games were said to have boosted the Scottish
economy by up to £750million.
(Pic : STV)
Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) emphasised the need to look at the positives (clip). £750million was generated in Glasgow as a result of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and 2,100 jobs created. It was organised on time, within budget and attracted 690,000 visitors. Llyr therefore believes that the case for Wales to host the games was "incontrovertible".

2.5million people lined the streets when Yorkshire hosted the first stage of the Tour de France, while the first stage of the Giro d'Italia was staged successfully in Northern Ireland. All we need is a bit of imagination and commitment from the Welsh Government.

In reply, Deputy Culture Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), said Wales has hosted successful events like The Ashes, Rugby World Cup and Rally GB - plus cultural festivals - with Welsh Government support (clip). They make a positive contribution to jobs and wealth creation as well as promoting Wales' international profile. 39 events have attracted 400,000 visitors and generated £120million for the economy – a return of investment amounting to £30 for every £1 spent. Wales has also been listed as a "must see" destination in major tourism guides for 2016.

A feasibility study is underway on a 2026 Commonwealth Games bid which will look in more detail at the potential costs and benefits – taking into account the economic impact of Glasgow 2014. On cycling, Wales has hosted stages of the Tour of Britain and hosts 2 of the 4 major cycling tournaments in Great Britain.

On the FAW reception, the FAW said that the time the team has together will be limited and so the focus will be on pre-tournament preparations – so there's a preference for a welcome back reception instead, while Ken suggested that the final home game before the tourament next month would be a good opportunity for a public send off.

He was concerned that fanzones would impact pubs and clubs – where Euro 2016 matches would be broadcast anyway - so he wouldn't want to support anything that might impact their revenues. However, the FAW has expressed support for fanzones and is exploring the idea with sponsors....but their focus is still on preparations.

An unamended version of the motion was unanimously approved.

It would be fantastic if Wales could get all these events, and I can think of few reasons why any bids would be unsuccessful as we have a lot to offer. I just wish politicians from all parties would stop putting forward proposals without having a grasp of what needs to happen beforehand. It's the difference between a brainstorm and a brainfart.

It's great to see enthusiasm and imagination and I can't fault the ambition - I like that. But false hope isn't so great, and a professional journalist would tear them to pieces without breaking a sweat. I realise details are boring, but when they come up with these bright ideas, few people seem willing to tell them things they don't want to hear. You could say I'm just being honest (or an arse),
but I don't particularly enjoy being a party pooper either.

One of the single biggest obstacles to a Commonwealth Games bid (Could Wales host a Commonwealth Games?) is Wales lacks an athletics stadium with the necessary capacity to host events, as it's unlikely the Principality BS Stadium could be converted without causing serious disruption - sorry Mike, but Cardiff would be the only realistic host. Besides, the most important issue isn't necessarily what would need to be provided for the games itself, but what happens to those facilities afterwards.

A successful Commonwealth Games bid would require a lot of up-front capital, but it would also lead to much-needed investment in elite sports facilities, which could help inspire those with higher ambitions to compete on the world stage, but not necessarily the public.

I don't know where TPTB get the idea that watching professional sportspeople – people who've probably spent most of their lives practicing to get to a level that 99% of people will never achieve in a million years – suddenly makes us want to do it. For instance, I doubt those who regularly watch boxing or MMA feel inspired to get punched and kicked in the face.

Update 16/02/16 : I stand partially corrected following Sport Wales' report - and I'm happy to admit that. It's clear major events perhaps do provide some inspiration, but investing in venues for major events won't give the public any further/easier access to the right facilities, coaches, clubs etc.

Hosting legs of the Tour de France (or another cycling race) is a good idea as we undoubtedly have the road network and scenery for it whilst also having a strong but understated cycling heritage; I remember Bethan Jenkins mentioning it in her Glamorgan Gazette column a while ago. It sounds simple enough, but it would be reckless not to learn lessons from Velothon Wales on road closures, residential impact etc.

Again, Bethan brought up the issue of fanzones several months ago, so Andrew Davies' recent attempt to jump to the front of that bandwagon won't fool me that easily, and he didn't even stay for the debate. Regardless, I'd agree with what Ken Skates said; we already have fanzones – pubs, clubs (including our smaller football clubs) and bars.

Despite that, fanzones would be a fun way to watch Euro 2016 and the idea deserves to be properly investigated - as suggested in the debate, perhaps by showing games on big screens in stadiums.

Fanzones are usually (but not exclusively) provided in the host nation for everyone who travels but who doesn't have a ticket, because bars will usually be full and having a lot of angry fans with nowhere to watch a game is a public order powderkeg. That's why it worked in Cardiff for the Rugby World Cup because it was there for the whole tournament - right next to the action - and there was a constant buzz. Security concerns aside, I'd expect the French to provide them in the summer anyway.

There are also plenty of other tournaments and events Wales could seek to host that haven't been mentioned : UEFA Under-21 Championships, FIFA Women's World Cup (perhaps as a joint bid with the Republic of Ireland), Women's Rugby World Cup and major golf tournaments other than the Ryder Cup – though Porthcawl should certainly be a front runner for any future Welsh Ryder Cup or Solheim Cup bid.


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