Olympics: Whither the Great Venues

In the Hutong

Productivity = no TV in office

1917 hrs

We are still over a month away from the opening ceremonies, and I am already hearing of reporters filing stories on the “Olympic Legacy.” Yeah, I know, it seems a bit early for that kind of speculation, but especially for those of us who will remain behind when all of the athletes, officials, and visitors have left, it is a matter of real concern.

From the point of view of the people here in the Hutong, the infrastructure improvements alone are worth the hassle of the games coming to town. We are being left with: a beautiful (huge) new airport terminal with an extra runway on the side; the beginnings of a rapid transit system worthy of the name; a whole lot of new buildings; wider streets; and vast belts of green where once was concrete.

Quiet Giants

Oh, yes – we’re also getting some brand new sports venues, and all the rest are getting facelifts.

It does not take a futurist to know what will happen to these magnificent venues after the Paralympics closes in September. Some, like the beach volleyball arena, will come down instantly. Others will see their seating removed. A few – most notably Arup’s iconic National Aquatics Center, or The Water Cube (that’s [H20]^3 for my fellow geeks) have been designed with a post-Games life in mind.

But many, I’m afraid, will stand silent for much of every year.

There are two issues, separate but somewhat related.

Promoters must Promote

First is the dismal state of the live events business here in China. I do not put myself out as an expert in this field, but I’ve been working along the edges of the business for long enough to know that the problem here is neither the number of people who would attend a concert, nor the cost of a ticket, nor of a lack of bands, symphonies, stage plays, artists and the like who would be willing to come to Beijing.

The problem is with the promotions side of the business. Live event promotion is for all intents and purposes a state monopoly. With all due respect to the hard-working people in that monopoly, it is too often fair to say that events are poorly promoted, badly managed, and sometimes not fun at all. And that’s just from the consumer point of view. I can only imagine how it must drive sponsors and tour managers nuts to deal with promotors who do not appear to be interested in helping to put on a killer event.

Just to take promotions: I read the weekly entertainment giveaways as closely as the next guy, and I find myself learning about events, plays, concerts, and the like either the day of or a week after the fact so regularly that it is infuriating. I can more readily find out about who is playing the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles next season than I can find out about a concert in Beijing a month from now. Frankly, unless I see an ad two weeks in advance in The Beijinger or I’m regularly checking the Emma website, I may never find out.

Unfortunately, I doubt major improvement – a stage where tour organizers and event sponsors are all talking about how easy and enjoyable it is to take a show through China – is in the offing anytime soon. That would require genuine competition in the live events promotion space, maybe opening it up to other state-owned media organizations like China International Television Corporation, Shanghai Media Group, China Radio International, or even the Phoenix Satellite folks. That is just not in the cards right now.

We need a new ball game

The second issue is the state of professional sports in China. There is more to creating a successful (dare I say “world-class”) sports league that slapping some spiffy kit on a bunch of healthy young males.

If you want an idea of how far professional sports have progressed in China, take a look at professional soccer. There is a league. It has its hard-core of followers. But it is by no means the popular sensation here that it is even in Japan, much less anywhere in Europe.

I once had a long, drink-sodden discussion in a karaoke bar with one of China’s senior soccer coaches. He blamed China’s lack of soccer prowess on a whole range of issues: lack of endurance, lack of speed, inadequate diets as children, whatever. And he may have been right.

When you look around the world at some of the leading sports leagues, though, you start to see a pattern emerge. When a country is a global leader in a given sport – any sport – it is because of a system.

Take English soccer. Sure, there are plenty of foreign players in the Premier League. But English soccer got where it was because of the Football Association. With clubs in nearly every city, suburb, village, and hamlet across England, all ranked in over a dozen tiered leagues based on performance, you have a system designed to screen, identify, and develop talent from the largest possible pool over the longest possible time.

Take American baseball. The kids start with t-ball, then move on to little league, then high school, then college. At each level, only the best stay with it as they grow. Then there are seven levels of professional minor-leagues as development programs for the major leagues – last time I counted, there were over 329 teams in five countries all developing professional baseball players for the 30 major league teams.

American basketball and football rely much more heavily on high schools and universities to develop players, but given that these two sports are arguably the most successful and lucrative sports at the collegiate level, they do a fine job screening, recruiting, training, and preparing athletes. (I’m not in favor of this approach, personally. The Village Grouch and I both advocate either a minor-league system like baseball or an association system like English soccer. But that’s not happening anytime soon.)

Japanese baseball, Canadian hockey, and Australian rugby all follow similar systems.

The formula for developing exciting professional team sports, therefore, is simple: create a system that by enabling broad participation at the earliest practical age ends up casting the widest possible net talent, opening the door for each player to get the the best opportunity for development, and you wind up with a huge pool of talented team players rather than a few stars surrounded by second- and third-rate players who are just no fun to watch.

China needs to find a way to duplicate the essence of systems like those of the Football Association and Major League Baseball in a way that is locally appropriate. Of course, the scale of such an undertaking means that it will take at least a generation to produce professional sports of a high caliber. But now is as good a time as any to start.

Wanted: motivated bureaucrats

If any of the above is to change, it will require some severe motivation from someplace very high in the government. More than just about creating sports leagues, holding concerts, or filling expensive venues, this is about creating industries of entertainment, ways to identify, nurture, showcase, and reward talented Chinese people as well as bring them the greatest talent from around the world.

If the hearts of the nation’s policymakers are not stirred into passionate pursuit of robust live entertainment and sports industries by the prospect of the economic development and opportunities they would bring, perhaps the sight of these giant venues – national treasures – sitting empty and quiet will do the trick.

I think it will happen. China’s leaders detest waste and love an opportunity.

Now if someone would just make the suggestion.