The countdown to the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games has begun in earnest. Its official website shows how many days, hours, minutes and seconds remain before Tony Blair’s “tremendous showcase for Britain” launches in July 2002.
But instead of being a countdown to glory, it is serving as a salutary reminder that time is running out for the organisers to raise the cash to cover the huge costs of the event.
The &£145.8m capital cost of building the City of Manchester Stadium is just about covered, mostly by the former Sports Council, now called Sport England, with the rest coming from Manchester City Council. But &£70m-&£90m is needed for operating and running costs and, with less than two years to go, the organisers have secured less than a third of that figure through sponsorship deals with the likes of United Utilities, Manchester City Airport and Atlantic Telecom.
What’s more, the past two Commonwealth Games, in 1998 and 1994, had most of the TV and sponsorship deals sewn up by this stage.
The pressure is starting to tell. Last week, it emerged that International Management Group (IMG), the global sports marketing agency run by Mark McCormack, has been axed from the contract to sell TV rights (MW last week).
IMG, which was appointed three years ago to secure sponsorship and broadcast deals, lost the sponsor contract six months ago. Now its TV arm, TWI, has been fired after failing to secure broadcast deals from the major Commonwealth countries.
The task has been handed to Sports Marketing & Management (SMAM), the agency responsible for the British Olympic Association’s sponsorship programme.
In an official statement, Sir David Leather, deputy chief executive of Manchester 2002, says: “We have decided that our interests would be best served by having one organisation representing both our sponsorship and TV interests.”
But SMAM is likely to have its work cut out. The BBC, which paid about &£12m for the TV deal, is so far the sole broadcaster to have signed up, meaning the UK would be the only country to screen the event. And there are still many sponsorship deals to complete.
SMAM has strong links in Australia which, as the next-largest market for the Commonwealth Games’ TV coverage, will be at the top of the list of countries it needs to sign.
In July, the Government pledged a further &£10m to pay for the opening and closing ceremonies, but there are already rumblings that the event will need a fresh injection of cash from government – concerns which have drawn parallels with the much-derided Millennium Dome.
One source close to the talks says: “Manchester 2002 has all the makings of being the next Dome. People are questioning how much the Government will have to pump in.”
Manchester City Council, which is underwriting the event, is adamant it will not cut services or pass on costs to those living in the area. Meanwhile, culture secretary Chris Smith, who last year faced a barrage of criticism from an All-Party Select Committee over the funding crisis, has stopped short of committing extra government cash.
Will Manchester 2002 end up being another financial black hole for Labour? One sponsorship director says: “The big problem is the Commonwealth. Is it relevant any more? What does it represent, and who cares? There is also the question of time-zones: how many people in Australia and New Zealand will wait up all night to watch the Commonwealth Games? It doesn’t have the same appeal as the Olympics. The Government has made a big song and dance about this event, and it could return to haunt it.”
But Andrew Cole-Bulgin, a founder and director of sponsorship agency Connexus, argues: “The Dome is a completely different proposition. I believe Manchester 2002 will be a huge success – it can ride on the back of this year’s Olympics. I have no doubt it will be a celebration of sport and of the emerging countries that take part.
“Look at cricket: the critics have been queuing up to bash it, but when England won the last Test series against the West Indies, we saw one of the biggest celebrations the sport has ever witnessed.”
No one from the Manchester 2002 organising committee was available for comment, because they have all gone to the Sydney Olympic Games – along with SMAM’s directors – on a fact-finding mission.
Cole-Bulgin adds: “Everyone is quick to pick up on the negative image of the Commonwealth Games, but we should be concentrating on the spirit of sport.”
SMAM’s directors – and Chris Smith – are no doubt hoping they can convince potential sponsors and broadcasters that the Commonwealth Games’ spirit is still alive. l