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Owen: Alexa, How do I Get More People to Bid on My Sports Events?

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International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, center, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in Lima, Peru. Photo: Luis Camacho / Xinhua / Sipa USA / TNS

By David Owen |

Imagine this: you launch a bidding contest to select a host-city and over 200 candidates throw their hats into the ring.

Impossible, right? Even in the golden age of bid battles 15 or 20 years ago, you would never approach that sort of number.

Nor would you really want to; think of the task that would await your bid inspectors.

Today, of course, with a portfolio of shining international sports events no longer indispensable for any thrusting, status-conscious metropolis, a field of that magnitude appears even more of a pipe dream.

And yet, a “request for proposal” launched last September, about a week before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) concluded another accident-prone Olympic race by awarding the 2024 Summer Games to Paris and the 2028 event to the French capital’s former rival, Los Angeles, did indeed attract well over 200 applicants – from just two countries, the US and Canada.

The catch? The prize on offer was not a sports event, but a corporate headquarters – the second corporate headquarters, or “HQ2”, of Amazon, the e-commerce giant.

I thought it might be worth devoting a little attention to this Amazon process to gauge similarities and differences vis à vis sports bidding, and to ask whether there is anything sports bodies might learn from an organisation which, while it has its critics, has quickly transformed the face of retailing.

The first and most obvious point to make is that there is a big difference between harboring a corporate headquarters, even one that could stretch eventually to eight million sq ft and house as many as 50,000 employees, and signing up to stage something of the magnitude of a Summer Olympic Games.

Amazon is not asking cities to lay on tip-top venues for sports, some of which, almost inevitably, are little practiced in the local region.

And while it does have demanding requirements in areas such as transportation and fiber connectivity, these relate to a facility that would be located in one specific part of the city, rather than spread around and about, and would fulfill one particular mission for decades, rather than being all over in a matter of weeks.

The prospective economic benefits for the chosen city would accrue steadily over decades as well, rather than being geared heavily to the quickfire, if all-consuming, burst of global publicity that accompanies an event such as an Olympic Games.

And, while the extent of these benefits is not guaranteed, Amazon can point persuasively to the impact its existing headquarters has had on Seattle: the company estimates its investments there between 2010 and 2016 “resulted in an additional $38 billion to the city’s economy,” claiming every dollar it invested “generated an additional $1.4 for the city’s economy overall.”

The campaign is relatively short and snappy: the field has already been cut to 20 and the “request for proposal” document talks of final site selection and announcement in 2018.

Moreover, because there are many more large corporations than major sports events of international interest, it is easier to understand how cities may profit from losing pitches by taking on board lessons that might help them attract other companies in the near future.

Partly because of this, it seems unlikely that cities will experience the trauma that can come with losing a high-profile, meticulously-plotted sporting campaign.

Given that the winner can look forward to a burst of global, Olympic-style publicity, with a potentially long-lasting impact – imagine being the city selected by this new-age corporate titan from among so many others! – there seems little downside for cities in entering the race.

I am not surprised, in short, that Amazon’s request should have triggered such an avalanche of responses, even in a period when sports event bidding is in the doldrums.

Nor am I aware of calls for a referendum from among those cities remaining in the race to assess whether inhabitants really want HQ2.

There are ways too in which it seems to me this sort of bidding competition is actually better-suited to a private entity such as Amazon than a representative body such as an international sports federation (IF).

The dynamic of the contest all but ensures that cities will rack their brains to propose as many incentives – such as tax credits and exemptions, relocation and workforce grants, and fee reductions – as they possibly can.

Amazon emphasizes that the “initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers.”

While, for all I know, Amazon may be extremely transparent as to how it makes its final decision I doubt it will do so under anything like the glare of publicity that has come to accompany an Olympic host-selection process.

I also doubt it will feel the need to engage in a formal devil-take-the-hindmost voting process to whittle its shortlist down to one.

And while it will have a schedule in mind for getting HQ2 built and operational, Amazon is not hemmed in by the fixed, immovable deadline confronting any Olympic/Paralympic project.

The “request for proposal” concludes with a sentence making clear that the company “may select one or more proposals and negotiate with the parties submitting such proposals before making an award decision, or it may select no proposals and enter into no agreement.”

I have to say, given the magnitude of the response, it seems highly unlikely that this “no agreement” scenario will actually now materialize.

The processes, then, while similar, are not directly comparable.

If there is one lesson that I think some sports bodies could usefully draw from the fulsome response to Amazon’s initiative, it lies in the tone and simplicity of the company’s initial request.

It runs to just eight pages, is written in plain English, with a minimum of jargon, and while it is clear and candid regarding the company’s requirements, it addresses prospective partners with positivity and respect, urging them, for example, to “tell us what is unique about your community.”

Particularly striking is that the concise, nine-point “information requested” section uses the word “please” no fewer than 21 times.

There is no doubt who holds the whip-hand in this situation, but the company still feels, plainly, there is everything to be gained by punctiliously observing the basic courtesies.

It might seem a small thing, but the deluge of responses suggests Amazon are getting most things about this right.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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