Moving back a few months, few could have imagined that the commercial growth of mega sporting events (MSEs) was to cool down. In January 2020, sport fans all across the globe were planning for a summer including the Euro 2020 football championships and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the postponement of MSEs, large endurance races (e.g. Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon and London Marathon), major elite sports championships including the NHL, NBA, and the Champions League (BBC, 2020). These cancellations have led to huge economic losses for the sport event sector. The costs of postponing the Olympic Games alone is calculated at 6 billion dollars (Al Jazeera, 2020).

At the Centre for Tourism, Gothenburg University, we have devoted special interest to researching large sport events, such as Göteborgsvarvet (the world’s largest half marathon). Moreover, we have recently looked at the multifaceted process, and consequences, of sports commercialization. We have seen how endurance races such as Göteborgsvarvet generate much-needed incomes to youths sports and to local business, but also how commercialization of elite sports can produce negative consequences including alienation of sport consumers or neglected interests of local citizens.

Despite evidence suggesting that MSEs can yield positive social impacts (McGillivray et al, 2019; UN 2020), they have faced increased levels of criticism and condemnatory headlines in recent years due to worsening conditions for human rights, including the exclusion of social groups (Gaffney, 2010) and problems with labour rights (Millward, 2017). Critics suggest the focus of organisers has been on incomes from tourists, sponsors, and broadcasters, to create a commercial spectacle when the global floodlights are on (Gaffney, 2010) instead of respecting human rights. As COVID-19 and its global economic impact spreads from country to country, city to city, it is important to consider the landscape for issues of human rights post-pandemic. What will happen with investments in, and organization of, MSEs in the future when until recently they have been associated with commercial growth and grand sport festivals?

In terms of Göteborgsvarvet, we have seen creative solutions to the problems associated with COVID-19 disruptions, including virtual running races and collaboration with sponsors, generating at least some of the much needed income for grassroots sports activities. Could an increased use of digital technology and virtual experiences be a route to follow for increased sustainability in terms of MSEs?

Toshiro Muto, Chief Executive of the Local Organizing Committee for Tokyo 2020, has suggested: “its time for all of us to review what are the essential things for those Games and what are the must-have items” (Futterman & Rich, New York Times, 2020). Applying that logic to issues associated with human rights perhaps post-COVID-19 MSEs will operate more “rights-based MSE governance” (McGillivray et al; 2019), given greater consideration to respecting, protecting and promoting these rights in the organization of their events. In restructuring MSEs, like the Olympic Games and football World Cup post-COVID-19, they could learn from major annual sport events, such as Göteborgsvarvet, trying to manage and recover from the pandemic, ensuring commercial success while respecting human rights issues.

// Erik Winell

PhD Student at The School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg University

Special interest: Sport, Marketing and Commercialization.


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