Sean O'Grady: Economy won't win even if football does come home

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Would hosting the 2018 World Cup be in the national interest? It is hard to be definitive, but talk of a boost to the economy should be taken with a pinch of salt. There are few, if any, instances of major international sporting events (or celebrations such as royal weddings or jubilees) turning economic tides, either at the time or in the longer term. England's heroic 1966 Wembley win was followed 18 months later by an economic crisis and devaluation of sterling. By contrast, football failure in the 1980s was accompanied by economic revival.

But some events seem to bring benefits. Euro '96, hosted here, brought 280,000 visitors and journalists in, adding £120m to the economy. Other events – notably the Olympics – can have the opposite effect. It took Montreal 20 years to pay off its C$1.6bn "Big O" stadium. But the 1988 Seoul games made $300m for the South Koreans. Beijing was worth perhaps $30m – useful enough but a drop in the ocean in a $9,000,000,000,000 economy.

And that is the point about all such "specials": the numbers sound big, but they pale into insignificance when set against normal economic activity. This is especially true in large economies such as the UK; if the Olympics or the World Cup ever made it to, say, Burkina Faso, they might have a transformative effect. For the UK in 2018, that is not so.

Stefan Szymanski, Professor of economics and director of the Sports Business Network Research Centre at Cass Business School and one of the world's leading experts in "soccernomics", assesses the economic impact of the World Cup coming to the UK as follows: "In a nutshell, as a rough approximation, nothing." Professor Szymanski says as many tourists will be put off visiting the UK as will be attracted by the football. "We won't build much – we already have the stadiums – and we won't generate much extra income from tourists, as England already has large numbers of tourist visitors in the summer. Almost as many will be put off coming to England by the event – overcrowding, high prices, security fears – as would come for it."

London authorities have already warned residents in the capital to avoid using public transport during the 2012 Olympics, implying a loss of billions of pounds, probably far in excess of the games' immediate benefits. Apart from the regenerative effects of new building works and sports facilities, the usual calculus to be applied to royal weddings and other specials applies: extra sales of barbecues, the latest TVs, beer, pizzas and tat are offset by the loss of work done on days off, skiving and from hangovers. And no economist can measure the effect of improved "morale".