Monday, October 24, 2005

Equestrian games are a gamble

Posted on Mon, Oct. 24, 2005


By Jim Warren


Officials of the Kentucky Horse Park and the U.S. Equestrian Federation estimate that it would cost about $33 million to put on the World Equestrian Games in 2010, but they expect to make that much and more from ticket sales, TV deals, sponsorships and other revenue generators.

That's based on the expectation that the event would bring about 300,000 people to Lexington from 40 or more countries.

Some experts say it's difficult to predict just how successful the games might be, and previous events have not been without problems.

The 1994 World Equestrian Games in the Netherlands were plagued by organizational snags, and Ireland had to back out of plans to hold the 1998 games when the Irish government elected not to provide funding.

But Kentucky officials say the horse park's worldwide reputation, vast facilities and long track record of holding major equestrian events constitute unique advantages that should make for successful games.

"The games would have the largest economic impact of any event ever brought to Kentucky," said sports marketing executive Jim Host, who has worked on Lexington's bid to host the games and until recently was Kentucky's commerce secretary.

"The international TV exposure alone would be unlike anything that's ever happened in this part of the country," Host said.

That's if the games come to Lexington, and there won't be a decision on that until December.

The Horse Park and the equestrian federation are polishing the joint presentation they will make to the Federation Equestre Internationale at its meeting in Bahrain on Dec. 6.

A group representing the Normandy area of France -- thought to be the only other finalist -- also will present a bid. The FEI is expected to announce a decision that day.

If Lexington is selected, it would be the first city outside Europe ever to host the games.

"I certainly would never declare victory before we've been selected, but I am confident that we've put together the best bid we possibly can," said John Nicholson, executive director of the Kentucky Hose Park. "But I think we have to proceed as if we're going to be awarded the games, because we'll need to get moving just as soon as a decision is made in order to be ready."

With the games five years away, much could change. But Nicholson says the budget for staging the event will be about $33 million, including the cost of security, extra personnel, seating and other items. One big part of that expense would be a temporary 25,000-seat stadium, which would be the site for the games' opening and closing ceremonies, as well as a venue for some of the competitions. The facility would be disassembled afterward.

"It would be a temporary structure, but it wouldn't look temporary," Nicholson said.

The cost of putting on the games would be covered by ticket sales, TV contracts and sponsorships. According to Nicholson, the Lexington games would have seven to 10 major sponsors, plus other sponsorships.

While the FEI would retain television rights to broadcast the Lexington games live in Europe, the Horse Park and the U.S. Equestrian Federation probably would receive North American television rights. Nicholson said he expects that they would contract with some U.S. sports cable channel for live coverage, and possibly with a mainstream network for regular summaries.

Meanwhile, park officials plan millions of dollars of improvements under a separate budget to get the Horse Park ready for the games, which are scheduled for Sept. 20 to Oct. 3, 2010. These include:

? A permanent indoor arena for equestrian events, expected to cost about $35 million.

? Improvements to the roads that run through the 1,200-acre park, which would cost between $4 million and $5 million.

? A 250-room resort hotel near the horse park's entrance on Ironworks Pike.

Nicholson said the hotel is expected to cost nearly $30 million; it is being developed privately. Koll Development Co. of Dallas has been awarded a contract to build it, and construction is planned to start in June.

Both the indoor arena and road resurfacing work will be financed through state bonds. While those projects will provide additional enhancement for the World Equestrian Games, they are necessary to upgrade the Horse Park even if the equestrian games aren't held here, Nicholson said.

The World Equestrian Games have been held four times since being unveiled in Stockholm in 1990. The fifth edition is set for Aachen, Germany, next year. According to FEI's Web site, Aachen officials expect 500,000 visitors -- they say they already have received 200,000 ticket orders -- and the games are predicted to generate an economic benefit of 230 million euros (about $275 million U.S. dollars) for Germany.

But the games have had some rough spots before.

"The 1994 games in the Netherlands were an absolute disaster, with budget difficulties, organizational problems, lack of accommodations for some riders and grooms," said Daniel Bell, research director for the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles and author of the Encyclopedia of International Games.

The 1998 equestrian games, scheduled for Ireland, had to be switched to Rome when the Irish government decided in 1997 not to provide money to help organizers prepare. However, the Rome games reportedly were successful. Although the event was in strong form by 2002, a lack of permanent stabling for the games in Spain that year forced some competitors' horses to be stabled in tents, which flooded when it rained.

The British considered bidding for the 2010 games, but decided not to proceed because of the costs involved and because England already was scheduled to hold some major international events.

"These games are sort of like the Olympics, some do well and some don't, and it's very fluid," Bell said.

The key to pulling off a major international event like the World Equestrian Games is having "an enormously strong personality" to ramrod things, Bell said.

"For Kentucky that would be someone who is really passionate about the state, the horse park, and Lexington, and who has the skills to motive people and work with people from 50 different countries," he said.

Lexington has three leaders on board: Nicholson and U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO John Long (they will jointly present Lexington's bid in Bahrain), plus Host, who says he'll continue working to help the games, even though he no longer works for the state.

Ken Troske, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research, said predicting how successful the games might be in Lexington is difficult because the event has no track record outside Europe.

"Using the experience of cities in Europe to make an estimate of what might happen here is kind of dicey," Troske said. "From London or Paris, it's a fairly short train ride to Aachen. You can rent a car in Cologne and drive to Aachen in an hour. But it's hard to predict how many of those people might come over here. If they'd had the games even once outside Europe, it would give you something to go by."

However, Nicholson said the fact that the games have not been held outside Europe should be a boost if the event comes to Lexington.

"There would be a lot of novelty in them being the first non-European games," he said.

Nicholson added that organizers think the Lexington games also would get strong attendance from Europe, South America and parts of Asia where equestrian sports are highly popular.

Lexington's bid is made stronger by the fact that the Kentucky Horse Park already has enough facilities to stage the event almost entirely on-site, he said.

The endurance riding course would have to extend off horse-park property, he said, but every other event could be held within the park's 1,200 acres. The park also has more than enough stalls to accommodate all the horses that would be coming, he said.

Finally, Nicholson said, the Horse Park has a worldwide reputation for successfully staging major equestrian events, dating back to the World Championship Three-Day Event at the park in 1978 and including the Rolex Three-Day Event held at the park annually.

"No place in the world can do a three-day event as well as we can," he said.

Staff writer Alicia Wincze and news researcher Linda Niemi contributed to this report.

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