Sport and Culture

Sport and culture have intrinsic value to people and places, promoting health and well-being. However, their economic impacts are limited.

Why sport and culture?

In recent decades a great deal of attention has been paid to cities’ sport and cultural offerings. The prestige of hosting an international sporting event or building an architecturally stunning art gallery is naturally attractive to city leaders. Great public spectacles like the 2012 Olympics are often hugely popular – at the time.

On the other hand, the cost and delivery challenges for such mega-events and major facilities often make these projects complex, expensive and controversial. For example, London 2012’s budget famously doubled from the initial bid.

A variety of economic and social gains are claimed by proponents of sports and culture. For example, The British Olympic Association’s evidence to Parliament supporting London’s 2012 Olympics set out a huge range of potential benefits:

“…a feel good factor across the nation as a whole; increased elite sporting performance, grassroots participation and facilities; the reduction of youth crime; the promotion of education; a new culture of volunteerism [sic]; social inclusion; regeneration in the form of new housing and better transport infrastructure; employment (with about 9,000 new jobs, of which 3,000 would be in the local economy); tourism and the convention industry; UK investment and exports; and all British cities through the preparation and training camps for overseas teams as well as the football and sailing competitions.”

Some of these claims (such as the ‘feel good factor’) are beyond the advisory remit of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth. We have, however, been able to find evidence to address some of the more tangible claims made for major sporting and cultural interventions, such as for job creation and for regeneration. Such ‘legacy’ arguments are frequently an important part of the case for such events and facilities.

Many local decision makers will be faced with a campaign to host a special event or open a crowd-drawing facility during their career. Although it may not be of the scale of the Olympics, the World Cup or the Sydney Opera House, organising a music festival, building a new museum or an arts centre can be expensive and disruptive to ‘business as usual’. In economic terms, what can a locality reasonably expect to see in return for the investment?

Almost all of the evaluations that we found to be rigorous are focused on projects at the grand end of the scale. Unfortunately, there is very little robust impact evaluation information about the impact of smaller events and facilities on their host economies – we found a large number of studies but almost none passed our quality thresholds.

However, we are confident that there are lessons for everyone facing this type of spending decision from the evidence we have looked at regarding very large projects. Their size means that impact should be easier to identify. Also, in many cases substantial resources have been committed to rigorous impact evaluation before, during, and after the event. We also believe that local and national policymakers can learn valuable lessons about how to evaluate the economic impacts of sports and culture from the studies we review here.

Definition of Sport and Culture

We initially focused the review on evaluations of any sporting or cultural events (arts, music or heritage). However, we found no evaluations of small-scale local events that met our minimum evidence standards. As a result, in practice, the evidence we consider largely covers ‘major’ events and facilities.

‘Major events’ tend to meet two of the three following criteria:

  • resulting from a national and/or international competition.
  • operating over at least 1 week, or shorter events on a frequently recurring basis.
  • targeted at a national and/or international audience.

‘Major facilities’ meet the following criteria:

  • permanent facility of regional or national scale.
  • targeted at a regional, national or international clientele.

We excluded:

  • Conferences and conference centres.
  • Trade events.
  • Expos.

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