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De Vos seduced by Oregon’s sport-centric model for World Athletics Championships

WCH Oregon22 executive director Niels de Vos with World Athletics CEO Jon Ridgeon visit Hayward Field during it's renovation in January 2019. (Photo: WCH Oregon22).

  • Former UK Athletics CEO has taken part-time consultancy role with organising committee
  • Eugene’s Hayward Field one of the smallest venues to host athletics event
  • De Vos wants to implement an ultra-efficient staffing model

It seems astonishing that the World Athletics Championships had never been awarded to the USA until Eugene, Oregon, secured the rights for the 2021 event in 2015. Although World Athletics came in for sustained criticism for selecting the host without an open bidding process, there was an undeniable logic to taking the biennial showpiece to the country. US athletes have topped the medal table in 13 out of the 17 editions since the inaugural competition in 1983, while it wouldn’t take a Mark McCormack to think there would be advantages to working in the world’s most advanced sponsorship market.

Yet for all the country’s athletic and commercial resources, WCH Oregon22 – pushed back a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic – has no particular ambition to be bigger and brasher than previous events. In fact, the city’s public and private backers want a more modest, athlete-centric edition of the games centred around the University of Oregon’s newly renovated Hayward Field arena. Even with the addition of temporary seating for the event, the capacity will hover around 27,000, a figure that wouldn’t have met World Athletics’ minimum stadium requirements had the governing body not lowered its seating threshold in 2009.

Niels de Vos, better known as the former chief executive of UK Athletics and now consultant executive director of WCH Oregon22, is the first to admit that there was initially something counter-intuitive about holding a smaller event in the world’s biggest sports market. Having also served as chief executive of the London 2017 World Championships during his tenure with the national federation, he says he was always accustomed to benchmarking events in terms of ticket sales. But there was something about Eugene’s promise of a more intimate Championships that appealed to him.

After stepping down from the UK national federation in 2018, he had planned to focus on his event consultancy business, the Fabric Group, but a conversation with the organisers persuaded him to take a part-time role that didn’t involve relocating to the States.

“I think everybody recognises [London 2017] was probably the best World Championships there has ever been, certainly in terms of hours of broadcast, numbers of fans,” he says. “Those records won’t be broken, or certainly won’t be broken by Eugene, because we’re in a small stadium and the parabola of TV viewing figures means we probably hit the peak that will be achieved by a Worlds.

“Everything about Eugene will, by necessity, be different to the model followed by traditional global city destinations like London, Beijing or Moscow, and that’s what really attracted me to the project. We will draw on the best bits of all previous events and deliver within a unique new event model that offers the best of all worlds.”

The consultant executive director position, which he describes as being “halfway between a CEO and chairman”, initially consisted of setting up the organising committee, recruiting staff and creating a budget for the event. Now that these are in place, he says he is focused on keeping stakeholders happy and making sure the Championships are on schedule.

The University of Oregon’s Hayward Field has been specifically designed for athletics. (Photo: WCH Oregon22).

Those stakeholders include USA Track & Field (USATF), state tourism organisation Travel Oregon and a selection of private backers who have provided financial support for the event. A look at the Hayward Field website shows that University of Oregon alumnus and Nike founder Phil Knight is one of 50 donors to have helped pay for the renovation of the venue.

De Vos says his ‘clients’ will measure the success of the event according to three criteria. “There’s a sport objective, there’s a state objective, and there’s a university objective, and they’re all based around profile and status,” he says.

“It’s very important to the sport of track and field – and this is in essence why I was so willing to go and help out, having done London – that this is a huge success and it really breaks America for the sport. It’s a very competitive landscape, obviously, the American market, and World Athletics, by definition, wants to make sure it’s a world sport. And we all recognise that for it to genuinely be recognised as a world sport, you need to be big in the States.”

Experience

There are sound reasons for appointing De Vos, who has experience of delivering successful events on a tight budget while marrying business and sporting objectives. A hallmark of his 11-year tenure at UK Athletics was to put the sport above all else, cutting administrative overheads so that more commercial revenues could be directed into athlete programmes. As well as London 2017, he also oversaw the staging of the 2008 World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh and the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham in 2018.

Following a series of high-profile resignations ahead of London 2017, he was brought in as chief executive as the organisers sought to focus on more continuity between day-to-day delivery and creating a legacy for UK Athletics.

“While there were bumps on the road, in the end it worked fantastically well,” he says. “The event had huge plaudits and we’re still, I think, the only event hosted in the UK in recent years that returned money to UK Sport.”

The surplus was all the more remarkable for the fact that the organising committee had limited opportunities to sell sponsorship deals to cover costs. World Athletics’ 10-year media and marketing rights agreement with Dentsu (from 2019-29) precluded a national sales programme and sources say the organisers resisted calls from the agency to buy-out the local rights. Eventually, London 2017 was able to generate around £2m (€2.21m/$2.66m) by signing a series of less heavily ringfenced local supplier deals across the event and the World Para Athletics Championships that went beforehand.

De Vos says a similar model will prevail for Oregon, with the Japanese agency taking the lead on global and local sponsorship sales. “They’re Dentsu’s rights, and Dentsu owns them, so they’ll monetise them as best they can,” he says. “And we have some [rights] that have come to us which tend to be very specific event-related, primarily value-in-kind categories which I’m sure we will use, because every event does.”

This means there will be little room for the organisers to capitalise on the strong sportswear market in Portland, a city that also goes by the unofficial name of ‘TrackTown USA’. Nike’s global headquarters is a 15-minute drive away in Beaverton while Adidas’ North America office is on the other side of Portland’s Willamette River.

Some of the controversy around the awarding of the event centred on World Athletics’ president Sebastian Coe’s ties to Nike as a brand ambassador – a position that he has now relinquished –  but the only presence the company is likely to have at the event is on the team apparel of the national federations it sponsors, including USATF. It will be interesting to see how the global governing body manages to protect Asics’s global sponsorship rights when the venue is so steeped in the history of Nike founders Knight and his University of Oregon athletics coach Bill Bowerman.

Niels de Vos, speaking as the CEO of UK Athletics at a Sport Industry Breakfast Club event in 2017. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images).

Cost control 

One area where De Vos will be freer to bring his influence to bear is on controlling the cost of the Championships. He says he wants to use the event as a proving ground for a more efficient organising committee model. Considering staff wages are one of the biggest expenses for any Championships, he plans to keep the headcount for Eugene small for as long as possible and use lower numbers of ‘Games-experienced leads’ to cover multiple functional areas in the early stages.

“The approach is based on cross-departmental or horizontal planning rather than traditional single-department or vertical planning,” he says. “This enables not only better integrated planning by fewer people with whole-event responsibility but means recruitment of specialist delivery roles can be delayed until later in the process.”

Another plank of his philosophy is to make maximum use of secondments, especially from stakeholders with a vested interest in the success of the event.

“Every host city or state has a huge talent pool but not everyone wants to leave a full-time role to work on a one to two-year contract with a local organising committee, meaning the best talent is sometimes left on the outside. Our model enables that talent to be accessed and engaged.”

Only at the latter stages during the delivery phase does he recommend employing experienced local, global and national specialists that are already known to the international federation to avoid steep learning curves and expensive missteps.

Postponement

De Vos is speaking to SportBusiness shortly after the Championships marked 600 days to go. The timeframe would have been much shorter had the Championships not been put back from August 2021 until July 2022 in the game of musical chairs that followed the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. Oregon will now be the first part of an athletics triple-header in 2022 that then takes in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and finally the multi-sport European Championships, where athletics forms part of the programme.

Having worked hard to ensure the delay doesn’t increase the event budget, De Vos is happy with the new schedule. Even with positive news about a Covid-19 vaccine, he says he prefers the position to the one faced by the Tokyo organisers of trying to sell tickets for an event next summer with continued uncertainty about travel restrictions.

“We had our objectives as to where we wanted to be in the calendar; we wanted to be the first because we see ourselves as the first and most important track and field event of the year. We certainly didn’t want to be coming after the Commonwealth Games or Europeans,” he says.

“We’ve got broadcast partners to work with, particularly in the States, and NBC were critical to that whole debate. We needed to make sure we fitted in with what else they had on their books, from golf to tennis to you name it. And, yes, we got where we wanted to be, which is first out of the blocks in a great window; there’s no real rival things going on in the NBC market in the school holidays for that part of the States. But that’s to simplify a very complex process that a lot of people were involved in.”

A Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championship at Hayward Field in June 2018, prior to its renovation. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images).

Hayward Field

Even within the tight event budget, De Vos believes one of the ways Eugene can set new benchmarks is in the level of athlete and fan experience. Although Hayward Field might be one of the smaller arenas to host the event, he says he likes the fact it was specifically designed for athletics.

“As a track and field fan, I was completely blown away, because people don’t build track-and field-specific stadia, as a general rule. They tend to build big, multi-purpose venues like the one in London, which are absolutely amazing but you’re not as close to the action as you might be,” he says.

“At Hayward Field, the furthest seat away from the track on the home straight is nearer to lane nine, than the closest seat in the London Stadium. This is because all the jumps runways and pits are inside the track, meaning the front row of seats is literally in touching distance of the track, creating a really intense cauldron.”

The size of the venue and the fact Oregon is the spiritual home of the sport in the USA means there is unlikely to be a repeat of the 2019 Championships in Doha, when athletes performed in front of empty seats and the local organisers were forced to offer tickets for free to dress the product for television.

The disappointment of the occasion was cited as one of the reasons why athletes formed an independent union to defend their interests and create a forum to question some of World Athletics’ long-term strategic thinking.

But with the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics and other showpiece athletics events on the horizon, De Vos believes there is a chance for the sport to put itself back on track. Speaking with his Fabric Group consultancy hat on, he says WCH Oregon22 is an opportunity for World Athletics to embrace a more innovative hosting model.

“I have a view that some international federations and rights-holders may be missing out on some potentially fabulous host cities or venues because their bidding models have restrictive criteria that dissuade bids from visionary or innovative new models.

“World Athletics deserve great credit for recognising that they would have to do things in a different way if they wanted to host their most prestigious event in the USA, and they have been fabulously flexible partners to the Oregon organising committee.

“I can see the Oregon model enabling future Championships in cities like Kingston, Jamaica, or somewhere where you’re really playing to the strengths of your sport. You’re going to where the heart of your sport is, as opposed to perhaps having to go to somewhere where the money is, but the passion and the empathy is not.”

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