The FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup games in Moncton played before disappointing crowds. Was it worth $4.3 million in taxpayer money?
by Karen Rawlines
Although no CFL games rolled into town this year, Moncton still found a way to continue its pose as the region’s sports entertainment destination. It took the job by default, it seems, supplanting Halifax by the simple virtue of having an actual sports-ready stadium.
The latest Moncton event was the first of a two-part FIFA deal. This summer the city hosted the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup at the stadium and the Women’s Cup follows in 2015. Halifax was actually in the running to host matches until March 2012, when it withdrew as the city found itself without a venue.
So again Moncton moved in, this August as one of four cities (Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton were the others) and next year as one of six to field games in an effort to make Canada’s hosting of the FIFA events truly coast to coast.
While Moncton won the bid, it didn’t necessarily win over crowds. Attendance was low at Moncton’s Under-20 tournament that happened in August—a sort of test event—despite bringing some of the best young teams in the world.
Now the Moncton host team of the FIFA Women’s World Cup has a lot riding on Atlantic Canadian ticket-buyers heading into June 2015—as do the government funders backing the Moncton events. Especially because organizers projected the two tournaments would bring in millions of dollars.
Heading into the 2015 tournament, organizers are counting on people from across Atlantic Canada—from Halifax to PEI and beyond—to take in games to help meet big economic projections.
“I would say success in Moncton definitely relies on a regional approach,” says Stephane Delisle, Moncton’s venue manager for FIFA.
Tickets went on sale September 10 for the Women’s event, set for June 6 to July 5, 2015. For this round, Canada will host in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, and Moncton.
It’s supposed to be a major economic boost; projections show Moncton alone stands to benefit by up to $27 million on this year’s Under-20 tournament and next year’s Women’s Cup combined. But ticket sales this year were weak and there was no evidence that all of them were even paid stubs. About 4,000 people on average attended the Under-20 event over five days of games in Moncton. Organizers said poor weather played a factor; that people didn’t quite connect with soccer as a spectator sport.
The Canadian Sports Tourism Alliance figured that the Under-20 matches would spur $70 million in economic activity at the four venues, with a net economic activity (GDP) of $37 million.
Delisle said it would take time before the organizing committee had sifted through all the data from the Under-20 event, but they do know the official count was 288,558 spectators at all venues over the course of the tournament, falling short of their goal of 300,000. Delisle says that final reports evaluating this and next year’s tournament probably won’t be available until third or fourth quarter 2015. (FIFA organizers speak of the Under-20 and the Women’s Cup event as two parts of the same whole project.)
Moncton’s share was small: The opening game day drew just 3,587 fans of 8,500 seats. The highest attendance was 4,871 on the last match, a semi-final (Nigeria handily defeated Korea DPR). Delisle wouldn’t reveal how many were paying fans and how many were there on free tickets.
But Delisle says he’s relatively pleased with what 2014 brought. Looking ahead, he says it’s a question of whether the event ramps up or down from this year.
As a venue city, Delisle admits, Moncton has special challenges the other host cities don’t: a small population, a non-turnkey stadium and a notorious late ticket-buying market. Heading into 2015, he’s counting on the rest of the region buying into what FIFA and the city are selling.
“It has to be bigger than Moncton. The population of Greater Moncton alone doesn’t support what we’re looking to accomplish,” he says. “So we have to look at reaching farther and wider and having people really look at this opportunity to have a World Cup in close proximity to their backyard.”
Moncton has hosted big seaters before and City of Moncton spokesperson Isabelle LeBlanc says sports entertainment is a key part of the city’s business plan.
“Whether it’s the world curling championships a few years back, or it’s the Memorial Cup, whether it’s the track and field championships through IAAF in 2010, some of our CFL games… Moncton does position itself as a sports entertainment hub of Atlantic Canada and these events are there to showcase our strengths as a community,” she said. “And certainly it’s a regional approach as well.”
Do the economic impact projections make sense?
According to the Canadian Sports Tourism Alliance, the combined economic output of the U20 and the Women’s World Cup events across the four host provinces could range from $80 million to $256 million total, with a municipal output across seven host cities of between $11 million and $59 million total. FIFA says the projection would be $44 million for the province of New Brunswick, with $27 million of that for Moncton.
The CSTA prepared the report for the Canadian Soccer Association, but neither released the full document with the details, instead issuing a news release highlighting overall numbers.
That means it’s difficult to know exactly what the projected economic pay-off is based on. The CSTA calculates projections using factors such as the projected expenditures of out-of-town visitors attending the competition, capital construction costs and operational expenditures associated with hosting the competitions. Using its STEAM model, the CSTA detailed the economic impact of the competitions across factors such as employment, taxes, GDP and industry output.
These sorts of assessments helped bring in more than $4 million from the province, the city and ACOA to support the tournament.
The province’s Regional Development Corporation pledged $2.75 million to the city to “get the bid, organize it, and host the event,” said RDC spokesman Bruce McFarlane. The money was to be rolled out over three years, with $750,000 earmarked for the Under-20 event.
“The province invests in these sports tourism events as they spur economic activity during the events and attract attention to Greater Moncton and New Brunswick,” McFarlane says. “During the 2007 World Cup Under-20 event [in Canada], an impact assessment study shows between $5 million to over $10 million was spent in each of those host cities.”
Among its investments, for instance, the province put $800,000 toward two fields at local high schools to be used as practice space in 2015 and intended to be “legacy” pieces beyond the FIFA tournament.
Isabelle LeBlanc, a spokesperson for the city of Moncton, says the city has put in somewhere “around the $400,000 mark for both events.”
“Certainly, dollars are required to be invested in order for us to attract these events,” she said. “And as far as we know, the Canadian cities who are hosting both the 2014 and the 2015 events were certainly asked to invest some money. And for the city of Moncton, certainly the economic impact and the return and the legacy pieces far outweigh the initial investment that was adopted by council.”
Economist David Campbell says a big challenge with tourism economic impact analysis is what he calls the “net impact” effect.
“When they talk about economic impact, the implication is that it wouldn’t exist without the FIFA event,” he says. “In other words, we are meant to believe the $44 million is ‘net’ new economic activity. In reality, a big chunk of the $44 million comes from New Brunswickers spending money to buy tickets and make purchases associated with the FIFA event. If they didn’t spend the money on FIFA they would have likely spent it elsewhere in New Brunswick (i.e. no FIFA so I went to the movies or a restaurant).”
Campbell says “with all tourism-related impact modelling they should try and decouple the spending by local people and those coming into the region and bringing their dollars into the region. The former are just moving their dollars around, the latter represents a net new economic impact.”
Moreover, Campbell says that when government invests in something that it isn’t a public service, “it should expect to see a return on the tax dollars put in.”
“They might argue strategic value from such an investment (even at a loss) but in general if government is paying a part of the costs for a concert or sporting event, it should look to break even on the money it invests.”
Marijke Taks studies the soci-economic impacts of sports and leisure at the University of Windsor and is critical of the economic impact analyses. She puts it plainly:
Standard economic impact analyses, like the STEAM model, are always positive because they only take in to account the new and additional money flowing into the city or region. The problem is that these types of analyses do not consider the costs, and particularly the opportunity costs, of hosting events. To get an accurate picture of the net benefits of hosting sport event, you need to perform a cost benefit analysis.”
There was no disputing that people did get something out of the matches. The people who went enjoyed them. Reviews posted to the online ticketing service boasted high level play, exciting moments, and a great atmosphere in the stands.
It just keeps comes back to filling those stands.
Scott MacMillan, a former coach with Team NB and a director with Codiac Soccer in Moncton, didn’t miss a game. He says the fact Canada didn’t play in Moncton may have been a role in low attendance, but there’s also the idea that many in the community are less comfortable with soccer as a spectator sport.
Delisle says part of the organizing team’s debrief process as it moves ahead to 2015 will be to look at how to “properly communicate the opportunity of being involved in a World Cup as a spectator and how do we better communicate that over the following winter.”
“It’s one of those challenging pieces,” Delisle said. “In Canada, soccer is very much practiced and people participate in soccer, but there’s no culture of spectating like there is in other parts of the world.”
Full steam ahead
Until now, Delisle says, organizers had been talking a 20,000-seat stadium for the Women’s 2015 tournament in Moncton, adding temporary seating as is the practice with CFL games at the stadium. (By contrast, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is the largest venue and even it struggled with attendance, filling only 4,812 of an overall capacity of 32,792 during one game.)
But because the full details involved in making the the projections haven’t been released, it’s unclear exactly how many tickets Moncton needs to sell to hit them. It’s also unclear how and when “legacy” can be measured, apart from two high schools enjoying $400,000 fields.
Yet Moncton is determined to make its stadium a business anchor with events like this. And maybe they’re not off-base: In December, the CFL murmured it might expand to a 10th host city, again looking east to Moncton or Halifax, claiming “the biggest hurdle to expansion right now seems to be finding a large enough stadium to accommodate a CFL team.”
Delisle said Moncton’s size actually helped create atmosphere for the FIFA Under-20: “I think what the physical structure of the environment in Moncton creates is intimacy.
“It’s a small, tight venue,” he said. “And if you add to the physical structure, the feeling and the atmosphere of the community, what you get is a welcoming environment where it’s fun to participate and … we had this atmosphere that was created. That was really, really neat because it was a surprise. We did not expect that for Moncton. And it was special. It was really, really special.”
There’s no doubt there will be special moments in the Women’s tournament in 2015. It’s just a question of whether Atlantic Canada will fill the stadium. Whether the region will get into the FIFA spirit. Whether they will spend enough to meet the ambiguous economic projections attached to the beautiful game.