Target web shop contributions for Relays funding


Tribune Business Editor

An ex-tourism minister has blasted the decision to stop hosting the IAAF World Relays as "short-sighted", and urged that funding be raised from web shops and private sponsors.

Obie Wilchcombe, pictured, told Tribune Business that the government should use the two percent contribution to community causes from the domestic gaming industry, and target public-private partnerships (PPPs), if The Bahamas' dire fiscal situation meant nothing was available from the Public Treasury.

He added that the TV exposure and associated publicity generated by the Relays outweighed "by far" the government's estimated $5m contribution to staging the 2019 event, placing its value at "hundreds of millions of dollars that you can't buy".

Warning the Minnis administration that it was "destroying the reputation of the country", Mr Wilchcombe said the decision to drop the track and field event could risk The Bahamas "never getting anything like this again".

He added that withdrawing from hosting in 2019, following the three inaugural events, was especially ill-timed given that next year's World Relays will act as a qualifier for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo - an incentive that would likely have drawn more elite athletes to The Bahamas.

Mr Wilchcombe said the Relays had been central to the former government's strategy to develop a sports tourism niche for The Bahamas, giving it something beyond sun, sand and sea to promote and differentiating the nation from Caribbean rivals.

That could now be lost, with Jamaican media coverage yesterday saying The Bahamas' southern neighbour was now eager to replace it as the IAAF World Relays host for 2019.

The former tourism minister, meanwhile, said the decision not to host would also cost the Bahamian hotel industry a valuable 'bulk' booking that traditionally comes just after its peak Easter season.

The Prime Minister, following his return from the CARICOM summit at the weekend, suggested that fiscal cutbacks were responsible for the Government's decision to withdraw, and called on the private sector to fill the gap by providing sponsorship money.

However, Mr Wilchcombe countered: "I think they're not taking into account all the total success of the event." He added that staging the IAAF World Relays had placed the Bahamas "on the world stage" and "reach tens of million of households", something that it needed to continue doing.

The ex-tourism minister said that, together with the Beach Soccer World Cup and various professional golf tournaments, the Relays had enabled the Bahamas to position itself as a sports tourism destination that stood out from Caribbean rivals.

Now, with the Government deciding to pull out, the Bahamas risked having a Thomas A. Robinson Stadium that is "sitting idle, doing nothing and we'll have to pay maintenance".

"I think the other mistake we're making is that we have the premier athlete in women's track and field (Shaunae Miller-Uibo), and next year is going to be the World Championships and the Relays will be used as the qualifier for the Olympics," Mr Wilchcombe added.

"Here we are, missing the opportunity. It's short-sighted. They should revisit this. They're not thinking about it. You're destroying the reputation of the country. You've agreed to something and, 10 months out, get rid of it. Why give this up when you may not get something like it again? It's a bad deal."

Mr Wilchcombe urged the Government to use the web shops' annual commitment to community causes, now almost $4 million per annum, to finance hosting the World Relays. He said some $2-$3 million had been "sitting there waiting to be used" at the Gaming Board when he was minister, with the sum having likely grown since then. "That could fund half of it," he added.

The former Christie administration engaged the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm to conduct an economic impact study of the World Relays' benefits, including TV viewership and publicity value.

Mr Wilchcombe was unable to recall the study's findings, but added that TV exposure alone - with various locations, scenes and highlights of the Bahamas featured in the commercial breaks - was worth "hundreds of millions of dollars".

"You cannot buy that. You cannot buy that. That is so important," he told Tribune Business. "Many hotels will also have been hoping to act as the host hotel. That's going to be big business, especially as they're going through the transition period in the Spring.

"It gets you ready for the summer. Then there's transportation. All these things are linked to it. The event itself causes a lot of linkages."

The decision to drop the IAAF World Relays fits into a government strategy unveiled by Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism, who earlier this year told Tribune Business the Government wanted to graduate sporting and other events from taxpayer support to a position where they can "stand on their own two feet" with private funding.

Some, though, will question the decision to carry on funding the Bahamas Bowl football game given the dropping of the Relays. Mr Wilchcombe, while backing Mr D'Aguilar, said the Government should not exit its support before ensuring such events have the necessary infrastructure to attract private sponsorship.