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Giro d’Italia in Ireland latest example of global mobility of events

(Giro d'Italia 2014, RCS Sport)
(Giro d’Italia 2014, RCS Sport)

Just as fans have grown accustomed to the international rosters of top teams and leagues, sport showcase events have begun globetrotting at surprising frequency to far-flung destinations.

The celebration of this year’s premier Italian men’s professional road cycling stage race, the Giro d’Italia, which begins May 9, will kick off with a foreign start, not in Italy, but in Northern Ireland. For an estimated $6.75 million price tag, the first three stages of this year’s big Italian tour will include races in and through Belfast to Dublin before racers are transferred to Italy to complete the remaining 18 stages and days of racing the Giro in Italy.

The Dakar Rally is another interesting case of an increasingly mobile sport-property market: Since 1978 the off-road endurance motor rally raid raced from Dakar, Senegal, to Paris, France, but since 2009, the Dakar Rally now takes places in South America between Argentina and Chile. A race with a geographical indication in its name, Dakar fuels a brand that no longer requires it to take place in its original continent, let alone nation state.

The political economic interests that groom the locations and timing – calendar timing, as well as broadcast timing – of premier sport events such as the Giro d’Italia, F1 Grand Prix, World Cup and Olympics are multiple and inter-connected. The selection of fit hosting partners involves assessments for expanding and diversifying not only participants, but also broadcast audiences.

In the governing ranks of international professional road cycling, this mission takes the form of a catchy credo “new races in new places.” Race name, location and timing are no longer cultural distinctions, but rather a branding and asset feature made flexible according to market demands.

With a sport such as Formula One (F1) – a global sport with an estimated value of $12 billion –  we witness little hesitation or sentimental attachment to a race location when more profitable racetrack hosting bids appear.

After hosting 11 F1 Australian Grand Prix events, in 1995 Adelaide, Australia, lost its F1 race when F1 followed the global market and went elsewhere. Yet, for the International Cycling Union (UCI), F1’s Adelaide exit left a void well matched for professional road cycling to fill.

According Alain Rumpf, Director of the UCI’s private race organizing body Global Cycling Promotion, “When a city or nation loses its F1 or wants to be a global player, cycling is very appealing.”

(Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

In this way, cycling is well positioned to step in when F1 races leave town.

Punctuating cycling’s commercial glean and sell, Rumpf emphasizes, “Cycling shows the country, up close and personal,” without requiring major infrastructural or architectural change.

Whether seeking to stimulate tourism or to rebrand the city image, Belfast and Dublin stand to gain from the positive limelight of exporting Northern Ireland’s picturesque landscape as the terrain of this year’s Giro d’Italia to the estimated 591 million TV viewers the race attracts. Sport’s appeal works indifferently, one and the same, for states and corporations.  The sought product is exposure to global audiences.

In 2005, the UCI acquired a new sport property when it created the Tour Down Under in and around Adelaide.  As nicely as F1’s exit proved for the UCI to pitch cycling in Adelaide, the UCI worries about this sort of global sport market.

The F1 sport model is one to which both the UCI and its stakeholders frequently make comparisons.  On one hand, the UCI distances itself from this F1 model.  The UCI fears this sport model, as Rumpf describes, “F1 can say to even Monaco now. . . ‘You want this sport? You will have to pay, or we go elsewhere.’”  Completely mobile sport markets upset the cultural landscape and attachment of sport traditions.  On the other hand, the UCI strategies suggest a degree of F1 envy and even emulation.

Such threats are not empty.  This is bad for local communities that have invested significantly and/or have deeply identified culturally with a sporting event.  There are many examples of sporting events going mobile, globally uprooting.

The Olympics also exert tremendous economic pressures upon sport governing bodies’ financially driven processes of internationalization.  “New races in new places” makes sense in this context of competing sport disciplines: Cycling must demonstrate its global appeal to stay on the Olympic program.

Following the 2005 review, the IOC decided to remove baseball from the Olympic Program, effective 2012.  Baseball’s exclusion was chalked up to a lack of the sport’s global spread and the level of skill represented among Olympic participants.  Essentially, baseball failed to measure up to standards for diversity, sporting skill and growth.The UCI and other sport disciplines take notice of these Olympic program decisions.

In 2008, the UCI took in $31.8 million in Olympic Revenues. To put this earning in perspective, the figure represents nearly a 100 percent increase over total UCI revenues during recent non-Olympic years. Baseball’s removal from the Olympic program sounded a warning to other sport disciplines. A sport such as cycling cannot afford to lose the Olympic Games.  For sport governing bodies and sport property owners alike, there is an imperative to curry participation, fans and audiences in diverse locations.

Global sport markets create changed financial incentives and pressures that weaken the certainty and longevity of culturally and nationally steeped sport events – even sport properties whose names indicate territorial inscribed brands.

Just as cycling fans line the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland to cheer on their favorite racers and the classic pink jersey leader of the Giro d’Italia, so we may continue to expect sport properties to pursue further international tours and foreign starts.  Sport markets are global markets.  To stay relevant in terms of both financial and governing legitimacy requires competing globally.

***

Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. @cabinet48

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