What sport can do for Wales

Calvin Jones provides an economist’s take on ways to shape our games for the good of the country

Sport has united (and sometimes divided) communities, cultures and nations for millennia. From the original Olympiads of ancient Greece, through perhaps less savoury Roman activities and middle-age melees, to the birth of modern ball sports on the fields of Britain, this more martial and combative cousin of art has become a deep part of what it means to be a modern human.

Like almost everything else in our own, hyper-spread, hyper-speed and relentlessly self-analytic society, the nature of sport is at question. We cannot simply witness or practice sport for its own sake without asking at least two questions: what does it mean, and increasingly, what can it do for us?

This article is guilty of the last of these sins. It asks, specifically, what can sport do for the communities, economy, and people of Wales? It asks this in a context where all of these are increasingly challenged; and with traditional remedies failing or at best providing scant comfort.

Why now? The opportunity is here. National rugby and club football are riding high, bringing increased attention (though yes, the opposites are also true). We face a dose of austerity that should make us think long and hard about what we really value as a community, and how to pay for it. And, more prosaically, it is just a little over two years until it’s out with the old, and in with the new (or not so new) at the Assembly. Two years in which to have a bit of a chat, and a bit of a think, and get some stuff down on paper. About how this sport stuff works or doesn’t, big and small, and how we think it might make our places better.

This article is about gaps – between rhetoric and delivery, expectation and reality, and perhaps between pre-match excitement and post-match disinterest. It is also about the gap between where we are as a nation and where we really ought to be. Or to think of it another way, it is about potential to close these gaps, through good evidence, clear aims, thoughtful policies and just, actually, caring about stuff.

The writing of this piece comes off the back of almost twenty years thinking about sport in Wales. Mostly the big, shiny stuff, but my no means all. And mostly, the economics of sport, but again, by no means all. But this does not mean that what comes next is in any way a ‘grand plan’ for sport in Wales. No one person is capable of writing such a thing. Instead, what comes next is a sketching of some of the issues we might like to consider when we support sport in Wales, through our governments, our clubs, our communities and just as people. It is just the start, hopefully, of a conversation, to establish a set of guiding principles for good sport and good events. Feel free to agree or disagree, but at least do so loudly.

So, what kind of sport do we need, and what kinds of events? What kinds of interventions are good for Wales?

1. Appropriate

There is a concept in economics called Comparative Advantage. It relates to how some places and countries are just better ‘fitted’ for some sorts of activities – wheat in East Anglia, say, or rice in the paddies of east Asia. The concept is rather clunky and out of date, and usually used where it shouldn’t be.

However, it still has some use: for example in considering what sort of sports, events and activities should attract policy support and resource. Wakestock, a music and board festival at Abersoch on the Lleyn? Yep, I can see that. European money to develop a downhill mountain bike track at Merthyr? Count me in (slowly). These things just clearly fit. Comparative advantage, see. Right there. Resting deep in the land and sea. For other activities, the fit is less obvious, or perhaps it is a cultural fit, not a geographic one. Despite some carping and worry, we did the 1999 Rugby World Cup pretty well, in part because we were clearly having such a good time as proud hosts – and, not coincidentally, the stadium the Cup built is the least white-elephantish thing ever.

But where there is less, or questionable ‘rightness’, we should think clearly about whether the activity or event we are promoting is appropriate. We must think about fitness for purpose. If we are looking to increase levels of physical activity, especially amongst challenged, disadvantaged populations, perhaps golf is not the first place we’d look and hence not to the Ryder Cup. But to promote Wales as a golf destination? Hell yes.

Appropriateness will also relate to scale and timing. We might put the Commonwealth Games in this box. Nice to have? Of course. Doable? Probably. Appropriate to bid for right now? A far more open question…

The takeaway here I think is not that you should never promote anything that has limited cultural affinity. At some point the idea of innumerable Asian martial arts clubs becoming valued Valleys institutions would have been laughable, but it is now very much the case. I rather think the lesson should be not to dishonestly (or neglectfully) shoehorn a square sport into a round hole because it suits the purposes of government, sports bodies or rights holders.

2. Locally owned

Part of the reason why Wales has been in a fairly poor state economically for much of its history is to do with ownership. Whether it be ideas, capital or power, ownership has all too often resided outside Wales for goings on that happen inside Wales. The owners get the rent and Wales gets what’s left.

There is something of a parallel here with sport, at least élite sport. Where clubs, events or facilities are owned and controlled from outside Wales there is the opportunity for them to be run and organised for other people. This does not always mean that money leaves Wales, but it does mean it can be difficult to shape élite sport to benefit Wales. For example, the extent to which non-local, often short-staying owners of professional sports clubs can (or want to) develop high-value, trust based relationships with the communities in their hinterland is open to question. Local ownership and control of sports and facilities at least provides the basis for a long term, mutually beneficial dialogue between sport and community.

3. Sustainable and sustained

Embedded, culturally relevant sport might have a better chance of getting a foothold in the society and economy of Wales. This embeddedness might be necessary but it is not sufficient. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to think about the sustainability of new activity, facilities and events.

This time the ‘S-word’ relates not just to ecology (though that remains important) but also the economic viability or supportability of activity. There is a temptation on the part of some bodies – governing and government – to get capital spend out the door with somewhat less thought to revenue spending five or ten years hence. This is particularly worrisome when there may be split responsibility – for example with Welsh Government perhaps leading or helping on capital spend, but with partners (sporting or local government) left to manage infrastructure, activities or expectations that are too stretching. Legacy and exit strategies need to be clearly and proactively developed early on in new projects.

4. Apolitical

The above hints that there is little point engaging in activities that are short term, and with no impact on the underlying structure of Welsh life. There is copious evidence from physical activity, through drug dependency and to economic dysfunction, that short ‘single hit’ interventions (a sport taster lesson, a week in rehab, a mega event) very rarely have an impact on long term outcomes or behaviour change. The couch potato goes back to the couch, the junkie back to the needle. Sustained, high resourced and embedded interventions are what usually works.

If we are hoping that sport will help at all with Wales’ health and economic issues, we can expect results only over generational timescales. The electoral cycle, with new elections bringing different approaches, priorities and toolkits simply will not do. And there is no need. Sport is not education or health, where deep, often ideological differences split parties in Wales (and worse elsewhere). There is no reason why the governance of sport in Wales could not be essentially technocratic, with common understanding reached between the parties on what Wales wants from sport, and policy development and administration left, if not outside the Assembly, at least the government. The Richard and Silk Commissions show that politicians in Wales can actually be quite grown up, if only given the chance.

5. Inclusive and balanced

Perhaps the most notable thing about the Welsh Government’s Major Events Strategy of 2010 was the notion of balance: between cultural and sports events; between economy and society; between large and small; and between east and west. That notion of balance, and a related one of inclusiveness, is worth developing.

Sport is an incredibly broad church, (even if perhaps darts and snooker are only in the vestibule). Sport encompasses the first, faltering steps of a primary school long jumper and the purposeful strides of the Olympian with a decade or more’s all-consuming work driving each step. It covers 700kg of cutting edge Formula 1 Ferrari, and the click of wood-on-wood; Sunday mornings at Darren Park bowling green.

The more our understanding of sport enfolds this inclusivity and diversity, the better off we will be – and perhaps with the added benefit that sport in Wales will not be equated, inside and out, solely with élite professional sports and events, and hence with their problems and issues.

6. Evidenced and reasonable

Finally, but not least, any policy for sport in Wales has to be evidenced with high quality research and analysis, and evaluated, honestly and transparently. Because sport is so attractive, emotive and iconic the potential for poor strategy, for policy on the hoof, and for capture by special interests is serious. The issue is perhaps most clear in the case of mega events – the current mess in Sochi is a good example, and there are others closer to home – but by no means limited to these.

And the strategy – the SMART objectives, targets, aims – have to be reasonable. Once, Rhodri Morgan worried that failure to prepare for the Rugby World Cup would leave us with egg on our face for a generation. Instead, we’ve over egged the pudding, hoping that sport can make us notably healthier and wealthier, if not necessarily wiser. This might just not be possible in any aggregate, significant sense – at least not without a raft of complementary policy and behavioral change. We must only expect from sport what it can reasonably be expected to deliver.

Sport has the ability to move many people beyond the mundane. Whether doing or watching, we can forget the rest of life for a while and get lost in the moment. Whether sport can make a difference beyond that moment, and beyond the field of play is an open question. What is clear though, is that even if sport can help deliver public policy – in health, inclusion, or the economy – it will not be a quick fix. Of course, this is true of all public policy. Wales’ problems have arisen over generations, and will take generations to fix.

The test, then, is whether we as a nation can move beyond the here and now to plan and scheme over such long time frames, to use sport to help Wales move to a better place. Helping us here is the fact that sport is relatively insignificant in terms of our community life – certainly compared to education and health. This means it is less contested, giving us more room for manoeuvre. And the costs of getting it wrong through trying innovative things is also perhaps lower.

In some ways sport is a barometer for society. The best and worst of us – the greed and cheating, the self-sacrifice and nobility – are all there writ plain. Perhaps sport can also say something about how we manage and organize our little country. If we can do sport well, and thoughtfully, with constancy and care, perhaps we can do other things too.

And if we can’t even do sport. Well, can we do anything?

Calvin Jones is Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School.

3 thoughts on “What sport can do for Wales

  1. I’ve always thought we could use comparative advantage to encourage inward investment from sport businesses into the areas mentioned eg attracting the head office or, perhaps more realistically, the R&D function of a mountain bike manufacturer into a site on or near the Bike park Wales facility. Chances are these businesses employ fanatics who will like the idea of being able to indulge in their hobby in their lunch break as well as test out their kit. And if it’s combined with financial or other support, we’ve got a chance of persuading the hard nose business people too.

  2. The interesting question is would there even be a ‘Wales ‘ if the Victorians had not invented team sports such as rugby and soccer?

  3. This is one of the most thoughtful articles I have seen on sport on this site -and certainly the best written. I started it sceptically then was soon gripped by its scope and sensitivity. It is also full of possibilities for the govt, other authorities and communities. These are all presented with great good sense. Sport is not that significant but it features a lot in daily conduct and life: sport is not really contestable, and my favourite; sport is no health panacea. Such an outbreak of common sense backed by stylishly fluent erudition is an exception on this website.

    Prof Jones, will be looking out for your stuff in the future. Just a final (set of) question(s); any research exist on how sports-mad countries are? Is Wales over-obsessed with it? And how has devolution changed sport?

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