In 2007, Paul Bristow and Marc Joerg, former collaborators on the development of European soccer’s Uefa Champions League, began talking about a new and very different concept – so different, in fact, that Joerg refers to it as “the antidote to football.”
“It came out of developments we saw in the marketplace,” Joerg explains. “Against the power of football, the federations had challenges to find their place. There’s a huge richness in the sporting world, and everyone wants to be in the public eye, but it’s difficult to find airtime for these sports.”
A former head of sport at the European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella body of public-service broadcasters, Joerg points out that, however good their intentions, “it’s not only about variety for the broadcasters, they need to get viewing figures.” What was needed, he says, was “more medals for their own nations, to engage viewers and make the broadcasters more successful.”
At the same time, Bristow and Joerg had long been aware that, uniquely in Europe there was no regular continental multi-sport games, to compare with the likes of the Asian Games, Pan American Games or African Games. Although the situation has since changed (more of that later), Bristow says: “We saw a gap in the marketplace: no multi-sports event in Europe. Every other continent has a successful games. That was the starting point of our curiosity, and the main driver for why we started.”
As a former track and field athlete, Bristow had been accustomed to the alternating schedule of a European or World Athletics Championships every two years, a successful format during the 1970s and 1980s when both events attracted “massive media attention and profile.” But then, he says, the European Championships “started to lose profile [in part, perhaps, because of competition from the soccer juggernaut], and ratings were going down with the fragmentation of TV, to the extent that it was harder and harder for European public-service broadcasters to clear their schedules for a week for swimming or athletics.”
That predicament prompted Bristow and Joerg to ask whether, in Bristow’s words, “if we put sports together, would that create sufficient aggregation effects to bring audiences up to the level to justify free-to-air coverage? With some small sports, it’s very difficult to justify free-to-air.”
This summer’s inaugural European Championships in Berlin and Glasgow, combining and aggregating the existing European Championships of athletics, aquatics, cycling, gymnastics, rowing, triathlon and a new golf team championships, is the result, with athletics to take place in Berlin from 7 to 12 August (thanks to a hosting deal that had already been agreed), and the remaining sports to be staged in Glasgow from 2 to 12 August.
The EBU, which was early convinced of the value of the concept and signed up as the event’s television partner, has already agreed coverage of the inaugural championships across the top five markets for 2018, with the BBC in the UK, ARD/ZDF in Germany, France Televisions in France, Rai in Italy and TVE in Spain. In total, over 40 EBU members have now signed up to show the first edition, while negotiations continue with broadcasters in the remaining territories in Europe, plus other global territories such as China, Japan and USA.
“Our mission statement,” Bristow says, “was to create a must-watch, must-attend event that elevates the champions of Europe. Being the best of out of 850 million people in Europe is not celebrated in the way it should be. It needs a new elevated platform for them to shine.
“We did our research: we compared world championship audiences to the Olympics in Europe, and found the Olympics were achieving [audience] multiples of five times, yet it was the same athletes. That’s the power of aggregation. The sport is very compelling, but by branding, packaging and bringing them together, in theory the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.
“The full proof we will only know in August, but we know the level of commitments, with 40 broadcasters committed to 35 hours of live coverage. The BBC has said it will give this the ‘big event treatment’, in line with BBC flagship events, like Wimbledon, the FA Cup and the Olympics, with up to 10 hours a day of coverage, mainly on BBC2.”
Paul Bristow, co-founder and director, European Championships Management
We’re speaking in the London offices of European Championships Management, the company co-founded by Bristow and Joerg (who joins us via video link from his office in Nyon in Switzerland) to develop and realise the concept of the championships.
It’s been a long, sometimes hard road to reach this point. The challenges were “enormous,” according to Bristow, who says: “The concept was simple, but the execution was challenging: seven sports, each at a different stage, with its own characteristics. A lot of the challenges were common, but a lot were unique.
“Building a consensus was the first challenge. For example, commercial rights: when we started, a lot of long-term rights agreements were already in place, and some sports were unable to participate because they had already sold their rights for 2018 in 2011. Others had media rights and sponsorship agreements in place that had to be respected, making it harder to get a cohesive commercial proposition.”
Those constraints meant that ECM has created a flexible, hybrid commercial model for the championships, headed by four overarching official partners: 'People make Glasgow', the brand name for Scotland’s largest city, backed by the city council; the Scottish Government; 'Be Berlin', the German capital’s marketing campaign; and the EBU.
Below this is another tier of official supporters for Glasgow 2018, including the likes of Atos, the Olympic Games IT partner, Glasgow Airport and Aggreko, the Scotland-based provider of temporary power and temperature control solutions. Each sport also brings its own sponsors, but, says Bristow, “there is a range of categories across the board, and there are still some open. We’ve signed up 24 companies covering 15 to 20 categories.”
As for the sports programme, Bristow says: “We identified that we needed between six and eight sports for the first edition [existing contracts meant that conversations to include about three or four other sports were unsuccessful for the first edition]. We also needed a host city to commit to staging the event and we were fortunate to talk to Glasgow when it was in the midst of preparations to stage the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and understood the power of the event.”
With Berlin already in place for the athletics event, “we said we could end up with multiple host cities for the first edition. But when we talked to Glasgow, they saw the benefit of staging more than one sport, and made an offer for the others.”
Throughout the process, Bristow says, “the biggest challenge we faced is the courage of sports organisations and broadcasters to change. Everyone talks about change, but embracing and doing something innovative is an exception.” Ironically, for an event that purports to be the antidote to football, Bristow adds that he and Joerg took inspiration from Lennart Johansson, the former Uefa president, who stuck by his commitment to the (initially controversial) Champions League concept, “even when all the federations and clubs were against it.”
Aggregation and the 'main eventers'
By aggregating the seven sports, the European Championships hopes to “bring out the main eventers,” Bristow says. These are the fans who might go to a sports event once or twice a year, and who “will watch the World Cup and the Euros but will watch no other football throughout the year. The Commonwealth Games [held earlier this month in Gold Coast, Australia] is a great example. Women’s netball excited the nation [as England’s women’s team won the gold medal]. That’s the power of the multi-sports concept. We’ve seen it with curling, or with archery in Germany. There are always one or two less popular sports that people become aware of, and engage with, because they’re fantastic human sporting stories.”
ECM conducted research at the European Athletics Championships in Zurich in 2014 and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Bristow says, finding that there was “double the audience for athletics in the Commonwealth Games, compared with the European Championships, and twice as many watched on the BBC. I think there is an appetite, an appetite for major events. I went to some of the events at London 2012 [the Olympic Games] and was overwhelmed by seeing 250,000 people in the Olympic Park. They were the main eventers. If we bring the best together, the general public will get enticed and want to be part of it. The opportunity for people in Europe is very limited. Twelve years [between London 2012 and the next European edition of the Olympics, Paris 2024] is a long time. We saw it in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, with the city centre full, and a festival atmosphere.”
Part of the European Championships concept is affordability and sustainability, Bristow says, through the use of existing facilities and infrastructure, “rather than building white elephants” - albeit, he adds, “where there is justification for investment, we want to take advantage of it. In Glasgow, they’re building a new BMX park, which Glasgow wanted to create anyway, but they’ve brought forward the timelines.”
He won’t reveal the overall budget for staging the games, but assuming (based on the budgets for Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020) that staging a summer Olympic Games costs in the region of $13 billion, he says that the budget for all seven sports at the European Championships is in the region of 1 to 2 per cent of that figure – so we can do the maths.
At a time, when the International Olympic Committee is struggling to rein in the costs of bidding for and hosting the Olympics, in the face of increasing scepticism from potential host cities, Joerg says: “We’re trying to build a basis for the future of European sports that communities and normal cities can handle in a responsible way to justify to the taxpayer.”
As for ticket sales, 165,000 have so far been sold for the athletics events in Berlin, with the city targeting eventual sales of over 300,000, while Glasgow has not yet revealed its ticket sales but says it is “on target for full venues,” according to Bristow, who adds: “They’re very happy with progress."
“Sustainability is about the use of existing facilities, but it’s also about a long-term sustainable economic model,” Bristow says. “We don’t want the cost to escalate beyond affordability for broadcasters, sponsors, cities and the public. Glasgow has made a policy of affordability of tickets. Some events are even free access. At a time when there are now 33 sports in the Olympics, very few cities can stage events with that number of athletes’ facilities. For us, the competitors can be accommodated in existing accommodation, such as hotels and student accommodation.”
In 2015, the inaugural edition of the European Games, the brainchild of former European Olympic Committees president Patrick Hickey, was staged in Baku, Azerbaijan, with the second edition due to take place in Minsk, Belarus next year. Unsurprisingly, the multi-sports event, organised by Baku at just two and a half years’ notice and with a reported budget of $10 billion, was regarded by many observers as a direct competitor to the European Championships concept, and the two organisations clashed in 2016 over what EOC regarded as a restrictive clause imposed by the European Championships board over European federations' participation in other multi-sports events. The board responded that the clause was contained in an early draft document which had since been superseded.
Both sides have since played down the perceived rivalry, with Bristow saying: “They’re two very different events. We have aggregated existing events. We believe that if you look at the proliferation of sports events, there’s no need for a new event, we need to enhance the existing event. The European Championships are very authentic. Rowing’s European Championships began in 1893.”
Drawing a further parallel with the Uefa Champions League, on which he worked both as a director of the Team Marketing agency and subsequently as chief operating officer of Deltatre, the sports media technology company, Bristow says: “It’s just like the Champions League was a revamp of the former European Champions Cup. It’s the same competition, not a new competition.”
For the moment, the two events seem set to run in parallel. The European Olympic Committees hopes to name the host city of the 2023 European Games by the end of this year, allowing a longer lead-in than for the first two editions of the event.
In January, the EOC executive committee said it plans to launch the official tendering process in May and unveil the host at the EOC general assembly in Marbella, Spain between 9 and 11 November.
Meanwhile, ECM is already in talks with potential host cities and regions for the 2022 and 2026 editions of the European Championships and has even, Bristow says, discussed the 2030 event. It is on record as saying it would prefer a single city or region for future editions, but Bristow was careful to avoid being prescriptive, saying: “We’re in discussion with several cities and regions, but it’s a long process that requires buy-in from national federations of sports, the city and regional and national governments. We’re not in a rush to appoint before [the end of] 2018.”
Marc Joerg, co-founder and director, European Championships Management
Asked what the chances are of finding a single city to host the 2022 edition, Bristow says: “Some are interested, but there’s also interest from other candidates, where it’s more of a joint hosting between different centres. There are advantages and disadvantages to a single city. We don’t want to make it a precondition because it narrows the options.”
Interest is high, Bristow says, because staging standalone European Championships for a single sport is “a challenge for the cities. It’s good but it doesn’t really move the needle. They’re not big enough to get a return on investment. It’s difficult to generate publicity and promotion to get the best out of it. [The combined event] creates volume - the city can get behind it.”
As for the future sports programme, Bristow says: “We’re going forward on the basis of the same seven sports. They’re all committed to the future. The original vision was six to eight for the first edition and up to 12 to 16 [for future editions], but we realise we need to go slowly. There’s no rush: seven is a great number for a comprehensive programme for 10 days. If we need to adjust for 2022, we will.”
And the athletes? Are they guaranteed to embrace the concept? “There’s no guarantee,” Bristow admits, “but the objective is to have the best athletes. We want to create an event that the best athletes will want to attend. A lot of athletes are increasingly media-savvy. The fact of 1 billion TV viewers will be important.”
“We hope to create stars,” adds Joerg. “If we are able to bring new names up, there is a sustainability. There are two types of events: those that create and those that showcase stars. We want to create stars, we want the event to be bigger than the stars.”