Mega Events – balancing risks and rewards


As Communication Director and spokesperson, Pieter was involved in the successful 2010 FIFA World Cup in Cape Town and South Africa over a period of five years. FIFA invited him to present workshops for World Cup host cities in Brazil and Russia.

Rio de Janeiro hosts the Summer Olympics in 2016 and in 2018 Russia stages the next FIFA World Cup. 

Half the world’s population of 7 billion watch a thirty-day World Cup event.  Millions more see media coverage of the preparations and aftermath spanning several years.

Clearly, this is the biggest stage to showcase your city and country.  It presents a marketing opportunity money cannot buy.  If, however, you experience terrorism, crime, strikes, internal dissent, fatalities, construction, time and financial problems expect the world’s news and social media to showcase that too.

Every host city and country has to jump through many hoops to comply with the stringent requirements of governing bodies.  FIFA and the IOC effectively hold a powerful franchise.  Failure is not an option.  Risks have to be limited to the minimum. 

Beyond technical compliance, a safe, enjoyable and memorable event lies something more: a unique, powerful and international opportunity to replace negative perceptions with positive ones. 

Germany did it brilliantly and with significant economic rewards with its “Time to make friends” campaign.  Doubts about Africa’s and South Africa’s ability to host a world-class event were dispelled: “Ke Nako – it is time to celebrate Africa’s humanity.” After their respective World Cup campaigns, Germans were regarded as friendly and South Africans as capable.  Germany enthralled millions in huge public viewing fan areas, South Africa followed suit. What will Russia do?

What made the 2010 World Cup in South Africa a success?

  1. The dream of hosting the world’s biggest sport event after years of exclusion due to apartheid – and the first time in Africa.
  2. The prospect of new and upgraded facilities, public transport systems, roads, airports, public spaces, a global marketing opportunity over six years and a great opportunity for nation building.
  3. The fear of failure.  If FIFA had taken the event away because South Africa was not ready the country would have been shamed.
  4. Politicians continued to fight about many things, but cooperated on the World Cup.
  5. National, provincial and local governments (even under different political control) cooperated and aligned budgets, plans and implementation.  This provided a powerful catalyst for the economy.  The private sector started investing.
  6. South Africans were proud and had a can do attitude.

The recipe is still there.  It needs leadership to implement or apply.

Here are some pointers from the South African World Cup and other case studies:

  • If you decide to host a world sports event, do your homework thoroughly.
  • Understand the huge opportunity, the risks, the resources, the skills and the monumental work it will require.
  • Make sure you can use or leverage the event to attain the development goals of your city or country.
  • Choose the right finance model to avoid onerous debt.
  • Start the event legacy plan upfront to ensure lasting benefits from the infrastructure, upgrades, capabilities and expertise.
  • Have a plan to use, maintain and upgrade your event facilities – and a budget for it.
  • Do not start businesses that rely only on the event for their viability.
  • Be transparent, do not take short cuts with money and tenders.
  • Be realistic.  Manage expectations.  Money will not rain from the sky for housing, hospitals and schools.  A World Cup needs a match and practice stadium, public transport, safety and security, accommodation and tourism services, not much more.
  • Take residents, citizens, business and other stakeholders along on the journey – from the start and throughout.  With good information they can plan, prepare and play their important part in the success of the event.
  • Always be available, accessible and prepared for questions and criticism from the world’s news and social media.  You are unlikely to have another opportunity on this scale to state your case and tell your story.
  • Of the three key elements – people, resources and time – time is the most vital.  You can never regain lost time and mega events have drop-dead deadlines.
  • Can you explain why you are better than and/or different from previous host cities and countries?  Why should people come?
  • Tell the unique, authentic stories of your places and people.
  • The sporting bodies will deliver the action in stadia or venues.  Visitors spend more time outside than inside match venues.  Craft a home grown, authentic experience for them.  That is what they will remember.
  • The visitors, business people and potential investors come long before the event.  Be aware of their presence and interest, offer help.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
  • Remember to have fun amidst all the work pressures and inevitable crises.  Before you can blink it is over.
  • Debrief: What went right? What went wrong?  Why?  What can we learn from this?  How can we apply the knowledge and insights gained?
  • Debrief your team psychologically.  This event has consumed them for years; they were running on adrenaline in the final stages.  When that emotional void hits, their wheels could come off.
  • Ensure that there are other projects running with target dates after the major event.  That sustains the valuable momentum, positive attitude and spirit that you have worked so hard to build up.
  • No matter how successful you were, do not rest on your laurels.  People forget pretty soon.  Remain humble and acknowledge the team.

A mega event host city or country that applies these principles will have a good chance of success, long-term benefits and a positive image.  The reverse is also true.