Sport at the service of society | Making the Commonwealth Games relevant for the 21st Century

  • Durban hosting crisis has helped to speed up CGF reforms
  • Joint venture with Lagardère agency will provide more commercial support to host cities
  • New model allows CGF to cross-sell partnerships, media and merchandising deals across different editions of the Games

David Grevemberg could be forgiven for overlooking the latest edition of the Commonwealth Games which starts in the Australian city of Gold Coast on April 4 – or at least not giving it his undivided attention. 

While the local organisers have gone about planning the 2018 event with customary levels of professionalism, uncertainty about the arrangements for the 2022 edition are likely to have occupied far more of the Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive’s brain-space in recent months.

The stripping of hosting rights from Durban triggered a scramble to identify a new host for the 2022 event which was only resolved when Birmingham was ushered in to replace the South African city just three days before Christmas last year. 

The CGF’s travails were further evidence of the difficulties multi-sport events are having in finding hosts for their events and did nothing to disabuse people of the notion that there are only a handful of countries in the Commonwealth that are prepared for or capable of taking on the Games in the present climate.

Grevemberg says that the CGF foresaw sport’s hosting crisis, but reforms the organisation approved as far back as September 2015 in its Transformation 2022 action plan were not implemented in time to prevent the problems that arose in Durban. If nothing else, he says, adversity has helped to speed through the changes that will safeguard the future of the event.

The standout reform is the creation – with the Lagardère Sports agency – of CGF Partnerships, a joint venture designed to provide more commercial support to host cities. Under the new model, the CGF will act as a ‘host city partner’, helping cities to refine their delivery models and produce more sustainable events that are better aligned with their own development goals. 

Gold Coast is the last event under the CGF’s current model and Birmingham 2022 will be the first under the new approach.

“Long gone are the days where you have a transfer of knowledge program where you just say: ‘okay here's a bunch of spreadsheets’ with no context,” says Grevemberg. “We’re actually all in the car together, driving along versus: ‘here's the key to the brand-new car, take it for a spin, we hope you bring it back in one piece’.” 

Where once host cities were left to sell their sponsorship rights alone, the new model shifts the responsibility to the new CGF Partnerships subsidiary. All net revenues from selling the rights will be passed to the host city, after costs. The new model will also see the CGF take more of the burden of event delivery. 

“The CGF will essentially be responsible for delivering the sponsorship, broadcast rights and merchandise and licensing programs and then providing a stream of support in key areas to ensure that the expertise is available, that we are creating more efficient programs and ultimately getting there faster,” Grevemberg explains.

The benefit, he argues, is that the CGF will be able to cross-sell partnerships, media and merchandising deals across different editions of the Games and attract more value-in-kind sponsorship.

“I think it's been maybe a missed opportunity where you're starting over a procurement process again when you know it's the same services and the same process that you're going over,” he says.

 “There's missed opportunities for promoting the movement in between games or finding efficiencies of scale where you may have sponsors that are also interested in the [Commonwealth] Youth Games and future games.”

In an attempt to improve the rationale for hosting the Games in the developing world, and outside of the traditional trio of Australia, Canada and the UK, the CGF has also made it an obligation of each host city contract to contribute to the United Nation’s 17 goals for sustainable development, but always in relation to the specific context of the host city, region and nation.

Grevemberg points out that by enshrining a respect for prosperity, good governance and human rights in its approach, the CGF will more closely align itself with the ideals of the modern Commonwealth, as stipulated in the Commonwealth Charter.

 “Human rights, recognition of marginalised groups, conflict resolution and reconciliatory activities really form the foundation and a base, because if you don't have a strong platform to build on – a peaceful platform – you can't build the pillars of sustainability.”

Although he doesn’t pretend that hosting the Games will represent a panacea for the developing world, he would like to enshrine humanitarian thinking into each edition of the event. His greatest disappointment about the removal of Durban’s hosting rights was the fact that the Games offered an opportunity to test the CGF’s sustainable development objectives.

“If you look at the first two pages in their documents, it was all about how South Africa could use these games to contribute to the 2030 South African sustainable development goals, so it spoke directly to the vision that we had set out,” he says.

The CGF and its membership, he adds, retain the hope that they will host the Games in Africa one day, but not at any cost.  

“We obviously had to ensure that our games were deliverable, that there wasn't going to be risk in relation to that deliverability, and that our Games were not going to be a harm to the local economy, that they were not going to be harmful to people. They didn't withdraw; we took it away.”


It might be a while before the CGF takes the Games back to a less developed economy, as it did with Delhi in 2010, but it can console itself in with the way the event aligns with the objectives of a more developed city in the case of Birmingham. 

The CGF was one of the beneficiaries of Brexit as the British Government put its full weight behind the city’s candidacy to host the 2022 Games in the hope that the event would help to develop trading relationships with countries outside of the European Union post-Brexit.

Grevemberg says the Brexit debate reminds him of the questions around the Scottish referendum which created uncertainty during his previous role as the chief executive officer for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014.

“It’s always great to have a project with a definitive delivery date and timeline that you can work to,” he says. “It plays to all the tiers, so in a microcosm it’s a great project that can, I think, address challenges that may be experienced through Brexit, but also take advantage of opportunities.

“Having worked with running an organising committee with 46,000 people under your duty of care, with 1,700 staff, 15,000 volunteers and 30,000 contractors, one of the things I realised quite early is people are driven by either anxiety or ambition. If you can get people to control their anxieties, and understand and manage risk, and you give people the opportunity to harness ambitions, you really get the best out of people.”

He says the awkward history of the Commonwealth means the CGF is accustomed to having difficult conversations, which makes the Games a good platform to take on difficult social challenges. On this point Grevemberg refers to the Gold Coast Organising Committee’s Reconciliation Action Plan, which aims to deliver legacy outcomes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as an example.

Once again, it’s easy to forget the most imminent edition of the Games in the excitement about the future hosting model. But maybe the Australian city should take that as a compliment.

“I think we’re going from strength to strength from Glasgow to Gold Coast,” says Grevemberg. “It’s a stunning backdrop, there’s great professionalism in the Australian sports industry when it comes to events,” he says.

“The ways Gold Coast has used these Games to future-proof the city environmentally, socially, economically – in terms of some of the capital build projects and the repositioning of the city itself – are really good tell-tale signs that the event and the extraordinary cultural programmes will be fantastic.”

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