World Games had high cost, hard to measure returns for Birmingham
How do you measure the intangible effects of the World Games?
How do you apply a cost-benefit ratio to a sporting event that happened in the middle of a war, with Ukraine proudly represented by athletes who won medals and stood on the podium singing their national anthem with emotional gusto less than five months after their nation was invaded by Russia?
People will try to do it, and it will take some time.
“It’s important we know exactly what we got out of this event,” said David Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We had 30,000 international guests. That’s significant. We’re talking millions and millions of dollars.”
Preliminary estimates said it would provide about a $256 million economic impact to Alabama. Galbaugh said officials will be crunching the numbers for months to update that analysis.
Of course, it was costly to host.
Birmingham invested at least $65 million in a public and private partnership to fund the World Games. Private companies paid the bulk of that through corporate sponsorships. The City of Birmingham kicked in $3 million this year and another $2.7 million for police overtime, according to this year’s budget. The Jefferson County Commission committed $5 million and expected to pay $1.2 million in overtime for deputies, Commissioner Joe Knight said. The State of Alabama sent 91 state troopers. Police from 15 other cities sent officers, patrol cars and equipment.
There were likely cost overruns and unexpected expenses. The Birmingham City Council held a special called meeting on July 7, the first day of the games, to authorize emergency spending by the mayor. In the hours leading up to the start of the games, the city asked Gov. Kay Ivey to declare a state of emergency, which would authorize emergency expenditures. The governor’s office declined.
Beyond government support, more than 3,000 volunteers donated their time and energy. About 350,000 tickets were sold, with face value averaging $20 to $40 each.
The World Games provided the officials and set up the venues, including dropping an 8-lane bowling alley in the BJCC north exhibition hall and building a speed roller racing rink next to Powell Steam Plant.
“All of our venues look absolutely amazing,” said Jonathan Porter, senior vice president of Alabama Power and chairman of the Birmingham Organizing Committee.
Birmingham spruced up venues including exterior renovation on Legion Field and updated seating at Boutwell Auditorium. Disability access was enhanced. “The facilities are the best ever,” said Rick Journey, the city’s director of communications. All the facility upgrades were planned and needed, but sped up in time for the World Games, he said.
It will be months before the numbers are in on sales tax and hospitality tax revenues generated by hotel occupancy and other spending that will offer tangible returns on investment.
It will be years before the echoes of the World Games in Birmingham stop ringing out in every corner of the globe.
But people already know how it made them feel.
Out of 74 nations that had athletes take part in the World Games, 73 countries won medals, even countries that sent one athlete. The only country to take part and not win a medal was Namibia, which had one athlete, and she considered the World Games a great success and one of the most memorable moments of her life.
Natascha Rottcher, 27, who grew up in Namibia but got a waterskiing scholarship to Florida-Southern College and now lives in the Orlando area, represented her home country in waterski and wakeboard women’s slalom at Oak Mountain State Park.
The grandstand on the beach at Oak Mountain was full of onlookers having fun watching the skiiers, the biggest crowd she had ever performed in front of.
“Waterskiing doesn’t draw a lot of fans,” Rottcher said. “There were a lot of fans here cheering us on. We were treated like real Olympic athletes.”
Back home in Namibia, people were proud to be represented, she said, even though she did not win a medal. Algeria sent one athlete and won a gold medal, and Tunisia sent one athlete and won a bronze, both in Kumite, a form of Karate.
Birmingham got to watch hometown athletes, including Olivia Mannon, 24, a graduate of The Altamont School, who played for the Israeli women’s lacrosse team. “This is honestly one of the best experiences of my entire life,” said Mannon, who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship based on her Jewish heritage.
It’s also hard to put a price on the return to a sense of sporting normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Summer Olympics for a year, and then saw the Olympics played with no fans allowed to attend in Tokyo.
The World Games had one team forfeit due to positive COVID tests. The German flag football team had several players test positive and had to drop out. Overall, as of Friday, only 22 athletes had tested positive, out of 3,373 athletes in 223 events. There were no hospitalizations related to COVID from the World Games, said Dr. Irfan Asif, head of UAB Sports Medicine.
Birmingham hosted the first Olympic-affiliated international sporting event since the pandemic in which there were no restrictions on fan attendance, unless an event was sold out, as happened with sumo wrestling at Boutwell Auditorium.
Boutwell, built in 1924 as a municipal auditorium and still Birmingham’s oldest entertainment venue, looked sharp with martial arts rings installed on the floor and updated seating.
A new City Walk, a linear park under the new I-20/59 interstate bridges, was funded by the Alabama Department of Transportation and completed in time to serve as home to the World Games Plaza. New LED lighting under the interstate bridges was also ready for the games, all of it planned and funded as part of the interstate bridge demolition and replacement that happened starting in 2019.
The World Games allowed Birmingham to show off its venues to the world, including the new Protective Stadium, which opened last year hosting UAB football and the Birmingham Bowl, and this year hosted most of the USFL season and a Garth Brooks concert.
Protective Stadium hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, which included the first performance by Alabama native Lionel Richie in his home state in decades after he launched his career in 1968 as a singer and saxophone player with the Commodores in Tuskegee.
A war directly impacted the competition in Birmingham and served as a serious backdrop for 105 Ukrainian athletes. They performed well, winning more than a dozen gold medals and several dozen overall.
Russia, which was the medals leader at the last World Games in Poland, and Belarus were banned from this World Games because of the war against Ukraine.
More than 100 countries are eligible, but many did not send any athletes to this competition. The World Games site lists a potential 3,588 athletes from 103 countries. Russia and Belarus likely would have brought an additional 200 or more athletes.
The World Games is a proving ground and demonstration site for sports hoping to be featured in the Olympics or get back there. Tug of War once was an Olympic sport. The World Games gives it a chance to stay in the limelight and perhaps one day return to Olympic glory.
Softball was part of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, with Japan taking the gold medal and USA the silver. It was dropped from the program of the 2024 Olympics in Paris but could be back in 2028 in Los Angeles. The World Games gave it a stage, with the USA avenging its Olympic loss and taking the gold over Japan in a game that drew 8,000 fans to the Hoover Met.
In the end, Birmingham got a jolt of World Games voltage that is impossible to truly measure.
Somewhere in Birmingham, a child watched a game that he or she may one day compete in as an athlete in the World Games or the Olympics, based on past experience, said Joachim Gossow, CEO of the International World Games Association.
“That will pay off years from now,” Gossow said. “How do you measure that?”
The athletes traveled with an entourage of support staff and officials that added up to about 4,500, plus thousands of family and friends who traveled to the event. That will have repercussions from around the world for years, he said.
“Birmingham, Alabama is well-known in Europe,” said Gossow, who is from Germany. “How does that pay off in the long run? I can’t tell you right now.”
Galbaugh said the World Games gave Birmingham and nearby cities a chance to showcase venues for future events. That could lead to sports federations for lacrosse or other sports booking future competitions in the city.
It will affect future tourism and convention business, showcasing Birmingham’s experience handling a large international event, Galbaugh said.
“That is going to pay dividends,” said Andi Martin of the Alabama Tourism Department. “We know that.”
More than that, the event brought unity and confidence to Birmingham, officials said. “The past 11 days have brought us all a little closer,” Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said at the closing ceremony. “You are now family.”
World Games CEO Nick Sellers said it’s hard to measure the many different ways Birmingham, and the state, benefited.
“It’s going to change our city forever, for the good,” Sellers said. “That was the heart of what we were trying to achieve.”
See more World Games coverage here.