The perfect host

When Nick Forbes became leader of Newcastle City Council in 2011, he made it part of his mission to bring major sporting events to the city. So far, he has welcomed Olympic Football, the Rugby World Cup and three Dacia Magic Weekends – with the Challenger Cup and the World Transplant Games on the horizon. He speaks to Alison Cowie about bidding for such events, the practical considerations of hosting large numbers of people and how the economic impact spreads beyond the city boundaries

How important is it for Newcastle to attract major sporting events such as the Dacia Magic Weekend, the Rugby World Cup and the World Transplant Games?

I’ve made it part of my leadership of the city to bring big events to Newcastle because it’s the kind of thing that makes a city a vibrant, exciting and thriving place. They also help to put Newcastle on the map by bringing people to the city – often for the first time – from elsewhere in the UK and from overseas. One of the challenges we’ve faced in Newcastle is getting people to come here in the first place. Sporting events give us a great hook to get people in to experience what we have to offer.

What are the major sporting events that are being planned in Newcastle over the next few years?

Newcastle is the only city to have hosted the Magic Weekend three times and we’re working to bring it back for a fourth time in 2018. We also have the annual Great North Run as well as three Ed Sheeran concerts at St James’ Park and the Great Exhibition of the North next year. In 2019, we’ll have the European Professional Rugby Final, which is the most prestigious club rugby final in Europe, and the Challenge Cup final and the World Transplant Games, too. We’ve got a busy programme of events over the next couple of years and we’re already starting to scope out further events for 2020 onwards to keep up the profile of the city.

Have you received much resistance to hosting such events?

I became leader in 2011 and one of the first things that I did was to bid for the Olympic Football Games that we held here in 2012. At the time, there was a bit of concern about whether we should bid for major sporting events, which take time and money. The council was facing big cuts and there were questions about whether we could justify that level of support at a time when we were seeing other services being reduced. In my view, though, holding these big sporting events is really good for the pride of the city and helping people feel as though they live in an exciting place. We started with Olympic football in 2012, then we had the Rugby World Cup in 2015, followed by three Magic Weekends. Each event has given us greater confidence about bidding for more and bigger events. They’ve also helped us to make sure we have the right partnerships and infrastructure in place to handle large numbers of people in the city.

Many of the past and future sporting events revolve around rugby. Has it been a conscious decision to target this sport?

I didn’t know anything about rugby when I became leader. In fact, someone texted me to say: ‘You do realise rugby is the one with the pointy ball…’ My interest started after being invited to go and watch a Falcons game. It got me hooked on rugby and helped me understand how powerful it could be to put on rugby events for the wider city. There is an assumption that Newcastle is a one-sport city and of course our love of football is pretty legendary. But it’s also important to develop other sport, too. By hosting sporting tournaments, we’re not only focusing the world on Newcastle, but virtually all of these events have wider community outreach programmes. We can see with the rugby stuff we’ve done that there’s been an uptake in people playing rugby at all ages and all abilities.

What’s involved in bidding for major sporting events?

Each event is different and has its own criteria. Usually there’s some sort of bidding fee and one of the initial challenges is raising the money for this. The council always tries to match funding from the private sector where possible. Organisers will often look to see what local partnerships you have in place and we’ve got very good working relationships with Newcastle Gateshead Initiative and NE1, as well as with neighbouring authorities, particularly Gateshead Council, and major sporting arenas such as Kingston Park and St James’ Park. They also look for evidence that a place can handle large numbers of people, so, for example, if we have the right number of hotel beds in a range of a ordability, and the right transport access. They will also look at the nighttime infrastructure, so bars and restaurants and the social spaces.

What do you think makes Newcastle an attractive host of major events?

One of the assets that makes Newcastle pretty unique is that St James’ Park – where so many of these major sport events take place – is located in the middle of the city centre. This makes us very different from a campus stadium such as Murray Field or The City of Manchester Stadium, where people have to travel to and from events. Here, even if people aren’t inside St James’ Park, we can create an atmosphere through fan zones and community activities that build a sense of excitement and show off the city centre to best effect.

Something we get very good feedback on is the strength of our Geordie welcome. People love coming to Newcastle; they feel that this is a warm, friendly, welcoming city where people can feel safe, and that’s largely down to our residents and our businesses. The other advantage is that we have World Heritage Sites on our doorstep. People can visit Hadrian’s Wall, Durham Cathedral, the Northumberland coastline or Alnwick Castle all in around 30 minutes of Newcastle. It makes the city a fantastic hub where people come for a sporting event but also explore other parts of the North East while they’re here.

What are the city’s disadvantages and how are these overcome?

Any major event causes a level of disruption and I’m very grateful that we have so many positive and supportive residents, particularly in the city centre. They understand that it’s part of the nature of living in a great city that there will occasionally be road closures and disruptions of that nature. The other challenges are around handling large numbers of people, so the practicalities of managing the movement of people safely.

The health and safety of those attending events is obviously always important but recent terrorist attacks have highlighted this even more. How does the council keep people safe at these events?

For every major event that we do, we have joint planning arrangements in place between the council, police, other emergency services and the event organiser to ensure we’ve covered all the risks. Sadly – and it’s an indictment of the times we live in – this includes the kind of recent attacks made on large groups of people. We look to mitigate any opportunities as far as we can and have created safe zones to move people around the city safely and securely. We also work closely with the police with effective CCTV coverage to target any known individuals who may cause trouble. Fortunately, we’ve never had any major incidents at our sporting events.

Could Newcastle host the Commonwealth Games in the future?

I’m ambitious that the Commonwealth Games is something Newcastle could bid for. It’s something that could bring our region together, not just by using facilities in Newcastle, but ones in the surrounding areas. For me, it’s an event that we should be aiming for in the next 15 to 20 years. Until then, we should continue to create a profile of sporting activities and build credibility through them. It’s a personal ambition of mine that we can bid for an event as big as the Commonwealth Games; it could be a game changer for our city and our region.

What is the economic impact of Newcastle hosting major events?

The economic impact of major sporting events is pretty significant. We know that each of the Magic Weekends that we’ve held has had an economic impact of between £8-10 million for our local economy. We also know that the Rugby World Cup games that Newcastle hosted in 2015 had an economic impact of around £43 million. These are very significant sums of money and they don’t include the impact from return trade. For me, it’s part of the justification for hosting major events – although there might be some upfront costs, the economic benefits to our local businesses are huge.

Does the impact reach beyond the city?

For big events, such as the Rugby World Cup and the Great North Run, for example, people have stayed as far away as York and Berwick and then travelled into Newcastle, so we know that the whole region and beyond benefit from the city hosting major events. Part of what makes Newcastle the regional capital is that we’ve got the transport links, the number of hotels and the ability to handle large numbers of people but the benefits are region-wide.

Of all the major sporting events that Newcastle has hosted, do you have a favourite?

I’ve sat through every game of each of the Magic Weekends and have really enjoyed those but, for me, the highlight was watching the All Blacks play in the Rugby World Cup at St James’ Park. The fact we had probably the best-known rugby team in the world playing here still sends a shiver down my spine.

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