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At Large: What do Qatar’s sporting ambition and WeWork have in common?

As both World Athletics and SoftBank are rapidly discovering, big ideas can be inspirational but small details matter.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: What do Qatar’s sporting ambition and WeWork have in common?

It has not been a great run for the grand vision. 

About a decade or so back, somewhere in Qatar, someone among the powers that be noticed that the country was very rich but very tiny and not very well known. Would it be a good idea, they thought, to pour abundant state resources into an effort to bring the biggest sporting events to its shores? The eyes of the world would fall on the peninsula, shoals of visitors would follow, and attendant investment opportunities would yield Qatari influence and a connection with an important part of millions of people’s lives.

That was the theory, anyway. Do not judge it until it is done and that – the project culminates, after all, with the Fifa World Cup in 2022 – but the results to this point have been a bit on the patchy side. Years of investigations into allegations of corruption and a worrying record on workers’ rights and safety in a period of accelerated development have made Qatar a byword for something other than sporting excellence.

BeIN Sports, the nationally backed state broadcaster, has been ripped off by pirates in Saudi Arabia amidst a regional diplomatic blockade. Paris Saint-Germain, the French soccer club bought by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), have become synonymous with underachievement and excess.

Suspicions that this soft power strategy has a soft underbelly have been given a neat visual shorthand at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. Derisory attendances at the luxuriously appointed Khalifa International Stadium have created the unmistakable impression that under all that sheen and ambition, the whole enterprise might be a bit, well, empty.

It is of a piece with other single-sport events that have posted similarly underwhelming gates, despite a considerable financial commitment. Ironically, as the BBC’s Dan Roan noted this week, none of this was meant to be a problem – the pitch for Doha’s first bid for these championships, in 2017, suggested that the target of no empty seats was ‘an (easily) achievable one’. It lost that race to London, where 705,000 tickets were sold across the event – one presumes not all that easily.

It has all been framed as a disaster for world athletics’ governing body – recently rebranded, helpfully enough, as World Athletics – and it does indicate a lapse in judgement. Yet it is hardly the only body to fail to look beyond the bombast.

We are all guilty of being seduced by magical thinking from time to time, and it’s in bountiful supply in times of such rapid change. Qatar’s sports strategy is not the only high concept that looks in recent weeks to have been built on sand. Led by the conglomerate’s billionaire chairman and chief executive, Masayoshi Son, and backed by sovereign wealth pots from countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the SoftBank Vision Fund has committed huge sums to aggressively expanding startups across tech and new commercial sectors.

Among the US$100 billion Vision Fund’s investments are several related to the sports industry, including a US$250 million injection into Endeavor and a US$1 billion spend on merchandising giant Fanatics. Yet as companies like Uber have struggled to move past initial phases of explosive yet loss-making growth to something more sustainable, there are indications that Masayoshi Son has been thinking too big, and too little, in terms of how the fund’s money has been spent.

All of that has come to a head, of course, in the case of WeWork – heavily backed by SoftBank, and just now in a spiral triggered by an absurdly generous US$47 billion valuation and an abandoned IPO. The contagion wrought by its difficulties looks sure to hamper SoftBank’s attempts to raise more cash for future investments. It could even spread to global property markets.

WeWork is a decent example of the difference between a good idea and a big idea. Its easy-going co-working spaces have broken out across the world’s major cities, first bringing in startups and the self-employed and then bigger organisations – including, here’s a twist, SportsPro Media. And there’s definitely something in the concept. Companies are growing quicker, changing quicker, and being composed of more disparate collections of freelancers and remote operatives. Flexible, friendly spaces with free coffee and beer suit that kind of workforce pretty well.

But WeWork’s founder, Adam Neumann, is more of a big idea kind of guy. A raucous Wall Street Journal profile in September – sample detail: a 2016 all-hands meeting involving a round of mass firings, trays of tequila, and a performance by Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniels – outlined ambitions like being president of the world, the first trillionaire, and solving world hunger and “the problem of children without parents”.

Startup culture tends to incubate that kind of limitless thinking. Years ago, an old friend introduced me to a guy who had created an app that found opponents and spare players for five-a-side football teams. It seemed useful, so I said something vaguely complimentary to that effect. He said he was proud to have created something that could change the world. It was hard to know where to take the conversation after that.

Furnishing that mindset with huge amounts of capital can make amazing things possible, but it can also create errors on a monumental scale. Sport has had its share of big ideas and good ideas. It’s how fun and games can unite the planet, and how the world’s best athletes end up giving their all in front of near enough nobody. Details matter and reality will only stretch so far.

There’s nothing wrong with seeing the big picture, but there’s a lot to be said for a little perspective.