The European Championships 2018: will new multi-sport event sink or swim?

You could be forgiven for not knowing it, but a major new international multi-sport event featuring some of the stars of the Olympics gets underway in the UK this week.

Its called the European Championships – a title that sums it up accurately while offering few clues as to what it actually is. The European Championships of what, exactly?

Well thats just it, because this is not so much a new event as a coalescing of existing ones under a new umbrella title. The various European Championships of athletics, cycling, aquatics, gymnastics, rowing and triathlon have been brought together to form an 11-day festival of sport.

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So far, so simple. To make it a little more confusing it is being split between two cities – Glasgow, which is hosting the bulk of the action, and Berlin, which had long since secured the track and field – and organisers have pitched a golf tournament into the mix too.

“Because its the first one, all eyes will be on it to see if it actually does work,” says Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, who is upbeat on the concept.

“You can see the method to the madness of bringing those [events] together so that the parts makes something bigger. The simplicity of the thinking behind it is very good.

“It looks like a mini-Olympics, a second layer that they can create every four years between Olympic years which gets momentum and scale and attracts sponsor brands.

“It does give more eyeballs, more potential viewers and much more of an audience for the likes of the gymnastics and other sports that wouldnt get that if they were just doing their own event.

“The whole goal to me seems to be to add scale. And theyre better working together than working against each other.”

Other industry voices are also behind the premise, not least because it attempts to address dwindling interest in many of the sports included in the European Championships.

“All sports governing bodies and rights holders should be in a state of healthy dissatisfaction with their formats and distribution,” says Anthony Scammell, senior associate director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

“Thats not to say change for changes sake is necessarily a good thing or that change equals progress, but I think they do need to be constantly looking at whether their events are delivering against the audience theyre seeking, growing the sport – whether in new markets or new audiences – and exploring new ways of doing things.

“I think only by embracing new formats are you going to achieve those three things: new fans, new markets and new players. It wont always work but unless you have that mindset youll struggle to keep progressing and make sure your sports stay relevant.”

Should eSports have been included?

A mixed-gender field goes some way to justifying the otherwise incongruous golf tournament, but Scammell believes organisers could have been even more radical and cast the net further into leftfield.

“Id have been tempted to explore an e-Sports event in Glasgow,” he adds. “Im assuming the rationale is to take advantage of the different audiences – so why not explore a new and rapidly growing audience in e-Sports as well?”

Incorporating eSports would be one way to address the issue of dwindling interest among millennials and Generation Z in the Championships core offering.

“The biggest challenge is connecting with a youth audience and making it relevant,” adds Martin. “How they connect with the youth to make sure that in four years time, when that audience that is 18-21 [now] is 24-25 will continue watching it. They need to be almost positioning it as a more youthful type of games.”

Co-host Glasgow is staging the non-athletics competitions (Source: Getty)

Concerns include the action being divided between two cities – a scenario that organisers must be pragmatic about for now and hope to remedy in future editions – and a conspicuous shortage of fanfare to the point where Thursdays first events may come as news even to some in the sports industry.

There is just one sponsor, supermarket group Spar, with a commercial deal across the full gamut of events, with others split between the activities in Glasgow and Berlin.

“The one thing Id say is that so far I think its been marketed poorly,” says Martin. “Its just been undercooked and its come about very quickly. I dont think the industry is completely and utterly aware of it.”

Terrestrial TV and Glasgow pedigree are trump cards

The European Championships does have two trump cards, however: a deal with free-to-air broadcasters, including the BBC, and a host city in Glasgow with a track record of staging and attracting big audiences to events of this nature, such as the successful 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Martin adds: “Doing the deal centrally through the European Broadcasting Union is a smart thing, so you get big terrestrial broadcasters behind it. The BBC in particular is throwing their weight behind it, with their A-list talent fronting all the different sports, so obviously that is very strong and theres some sort of belief there.”

Consensus is that the project will ultimately rest on the quality of the sporting action on display, and the presence of household names such as Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Laura Kenny, Max Whitlock and Adam Peaty in the British team bodes well for medal hopes and the overall standard of the competition.

“You can never determine what happens on the field of play but fantastic races, matches, performances in the gymnastics I think will help,” says Scammell.

“As well as a very vociferous and passionate crowd both from Scotland and also from Europe.”

Martin says: “Glasgow will be a very good host, I believe. Therell be the energy and passion there, the audience that turns up to watch the events. It relies on the top talent performing as well. This cant be seen as a B series; its got to be A-list.

"I think its going to be a very good thing and will allow them to go to other markets and pitch to host it.”

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