Melbourne: The World’s Ultimate Sport Business City

Melbourne: The World’s Ultimate Sport Business City

Melburnians often boast that their city is the sporting capital of the world. It’s a big call but may not be too far off the mark.

Melbourne has just been shortlisted by Sports Business International as one of thirty cities vying for the Ultimate Sports City Award. Criteria for the award include high standard venues, transport infrastructure, public and government support, security and marketing.

Melbourne’s no certainty to win. London, New York and Paris have been nominated. Like Melbourne they are Grand Slam cities. Unlike Melbourne, they house sporting brands which attract global attention.

Then there’s Dubai and Doha, cities that are reshaping world sport. Qatar’s Doha hosted the 2006 Asian Games and – weather permitting – will hold the 2022 World Cup. Rich and willing to splurge on sport, the state’s national carrier, Qatar Airways, recently signed a 5 year, $US169 million naming rights deal with football giant Barcelona.

The UAE has followed suit. On the back of substantial oil wealth, the onetime pearling ports of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are now global sporting centres, hosting F1, the world’s richest horse race and equestrian event, and the well regarded Dubai Tennis Championship. UAE golf tournaments now form part of the European circuit, while Dubai is home of international cricket’s governing body, the ICC.

Furthermore Dubai’s airline, Emirates, is involved in over 70 sports sponsorships totalling $US275 million. These include football mega-clubs Real Madrid, AC Milan, Arsenal and Paris St Germain, and a five-year F1 branding rights deal.

Along with air transport, high-end tourism and financial services, sport is an important part of the UAE economy. Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds back some of sport’s biggest brands, events and stadia.

Melbourne can’t hope to compete with these Gulf cities for global sporting circuses. It just doesn’t have the cash. Yet it still does extremely well for itself. It was pipped by the Olympic city London for the award in 2012. This year, however, Melbourne is favoured to win when the Award is announced in April.

Since 2005 Melbourne has won the title on three occasions – 2006, 2008 and 2010 – and so can justifiably claim to be the world’s best sports business city of the last decade.

The city has reinvented itself around sport. To the west is the Docklands or Etihad Stadium, while on the east side are the MCG, AAMI Stadium and the Tennis Centre. Three AFL teams are based there and Melbourne Victory. All of these venues are easily accessible from the city centre.

On the south side are Albert Park Lake, home of the Australian Grand Prix, and the Victorian Institute of Sport.

All year round there’s sport that captures local and global attention. The AFL circus is the main one, but once it finishes in September there’s the Melbourne Cup Carnival, golf on the sand-belt courses, Boxing Day at the ‘G, and then the Slam and the Prix.

The Cup, the Slam and Prix in particular package Melbourne for global TV audiences. The city skyline is every bit a feature as the sporting events themselves.

Unlike Dubai and Doha, Melbourne has a long and rich tradition of doing sports business. In 1861, Melbourne restaurant proprietors, Felix William Spiers and Christopher Pond tried to lure the famous novelist Charles Dickens to Australia. They failed and got the next best thing, H H Stephenson’s English cricket team.

1861 also saw the first Melbourne Cup, while in the park surrounding the ‘G, the Melbourne Football Club was going through its paces in preparation for the Caledonian Society Games.

One of the club’s founding members was Jerry Bryant. He owned the pub across the road from the ‘G. It was a watering-hole for Tom Wills and the other founders of the Melbourne Football Club, and one of the birthplaces of sports business in Australia. A former English professional cricketer, Bryant mixed sport with grog and gambling, and promoted both cricket and football through his pub.

This side of Melbourne’s sporting origins is often neglected. Footy has paraded its public school and Indigenous heritages, but all too often the game’s real business foundation has been ignored.

Since Bryant’s day the ‘G has seen some big events: Olympic and Commonwealth games and the first Test match between Australia and England in 1878. Australian players too readily refer to Lord’s as the home of cricket. The MCG is equally important. It is the birthplace of international cricket and home of the National Sport Museum.

This heritage partly explains why Melbourne has been voted the world’s ultimate sports business city. The Wrens, Beaurepaires, Ayletts, Walkers and McNamees – to name but a few – are inheritors of this tradition. So too are the Cain and Kennett governments that transformed the city’s contemporary sportscapes, moving venues from the suburbs to the city centre.

Never mind that they raided the old docklands and parks opportunistically to do it. The Napthine government’s recent decision to upgrade the tennis centre continues this tradition.

In comparison, the Gulf States are cashed-up Johnny-come-latelies to the sports business game. Melbourne, like London and New York, has been doing sports business for a lot longer and it shows. Melbourne’s three gongs in the past decade is a good return on decades of smart investment in sport infrastructure and events.

Sport has been pivotal in the city’s formation and identity, and never more so than during its reinvention during the 1980s and 1990s. Melbourne may not be the world’s greatest sporting capital, but it has a proven track record in doing sports business better than most of the globe’s major cities.

This may be seen again when the Ultimate Sports City Award is announced in April.

Dr Tom Heenan and Dr David Dunstan research and teach in sport studies at Monash University.

This article first appeared in the BackPage Lead.