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Beyond the Spectacle: The FIFA World Cup and Mega Events MOOC

Have you ever wondered about the impact of the World Cup or other mega events like it? How are host countries or cities selected? Does it result in an economic boom?

The 2014 FIFA World Cup has started! Watch the rivalries, cheer for your country’s team, stay up late or wake up early with millions to watch the matches live from Brazil. But beyond the spectacle, the cheering and games, have you ever wondered about the impact of the World Cup or other mega events like it? How are host countries or cities selected? Does it result in an economic boom? How does a city prepare to handle these events? What new infrastructure is needed, and why is construction usually behind schedule?

Prof. Wilson on the true value of mega events

You can learn more about these issues and discuss them with an upcoming MOOC, Mega Events: Inside the FIFA World Cup, which starts June 23, for five weeks, on the Canvas.net platform. It will be taught be Prof. Mark Wilson, who studies mega events at Michigan State University. Charlie Chung of Class Central spoke with Professor Wilson over videochat to discuss the FIFA World Cup and the MOOC further, and below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Charlie:  Let me start with a question that puzzles many Americans: football (or soccer, as we call it) is the most popular sport in the world. Can you explain why?

Mark Wilson:  It is one of the things that you miss when you are living in the United States. You don’t get a sense of the importance of the game.  People in other countries at the moment are being bombarded with far more information, programming, and marketing associated with the World Cup.  I think one of the reasons it is a popular is that it is very simple, and it doesn’t take a lot of equipment. Frequently in many countries, you will see people playing soccer on a field, and young children can start playing the game without much preparation.

Charlie:  I see, that makes sense. What is economic impact on a country or city that hosts a mega event like the World Cup, what do the numbers say?

“Economic benefits of many mega events, especially the World Cup, tend to be overblown”

Mark Wilson:  Generally, the economic benefits of many mega events, especially the World Cup, tend to be overblown.  A study done on Germany’s World Cup, for example, and the World Cups in France showed that the net result was not substantial. But part of the decision is who benefits.  There are always groups that come out of the World Cup who benefit through marketing, through building stadiums, building transit lines, etc.

So we have examples of billions of dollars being spent, lots of new construction, workers are paid, firms make a profit, but it does not mean it brings a huge benefit to the host country. The test really comes when the event is over.  If you built a new airport and it is exactly what you need after the event, that’s great.  If you build a new stadium and you have a team waiting to take it over, that is great.  But if you build these things and no one wants them, then the residents of the city have really ended up inheriting a lot of white elephants.

Charlie:  What about the benefits of the increased visibility of the city and country?

Mark Wilson:  Yes, it does produce a blip for a few years.  But you also have to follow through on the promise of that visibility.  Brazil at the moment has a high profile but by the end of the World Cup will have a higher profile.  Many more people will see positive images of it.  But they may also see protests and poor housing conditions…can the cities follow through on what those games have promised through their marketing?

“If you are going to spend billions of dollars, then it should make the host city a better place to live when its all over” 

Also, sometimes there are useful preparations that bring benefits, especially for cities that do not have a lot of international exposure.  One example was Shanghai for the World’s Fair in 2010, which had over 65 million visitors.  Shanghai spent a lot of time working with restaurants, on translating menus into different languages, working with cab drivers, setting up telephone interpreter services, etc. So Shanghai got this wonderful infrastructure for tourism that came from the World’s Fair.

Charlie:  Can you give me an overview of the how host countries are selected for the World Cup? Is it similar to other mega events like the Olympics?

Mark Wilson:  They are very different. For the Olympics, there is usually a fair amount of competition.  Any city in the world will go through its national body and it will choose from its domestic options cities to take forward to the Olympics. The World’s Fair is the same way.


Until recently, the World Cup selection process is based on a country rather than a city because the World Cup demands that you have a dozen cities that are ready and able to host games.  Also, FIFA in the past has used a continental system where it rotated the rights to the World Cup through continents.

Now, for the upcoming games in 2018 and 2022, there was a lot of competition and the selection of some of those cities has been highly controversial, in particular the selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup.  There were many claims and allegations made of improprieties in the selection process and allegations of the human rights cost of building facilities, using very low-paid international workers.

Charlie: That’s interesting. Okay Professor, let me ask you about the MOOC, what made you decide to host a MOOC?

Mark Wilson:  We have a research cluster at MSU, Michigan State University, and my colleagues and I envisioned holding a series of MOOCs based on mega events. In February, we did one on the Winter Olympics, and now, we are doing one on the World Cup.  Next year, we’ll be doing one on the World’s Fair Expo 2015 in Milan, and then the year after that, the Summer Olympics.

For the MOOCs what we wanted to do is just really make people think a little bit about what they’re seeing, to ask questions about who built the stadium, who paid for it, what happens next, why the game is played that way, why did the referee just do that, the questions that may not get answered through broadcasting or print media, we feel we can answer through the MOOC.

We have experts all over the world who will be joining us.  We have experts on the tax structure of FIFA, experts on being a referee in a FIFA match, experts on the laws of soccer, on transportation.  We have an expert on the use of protest movements and sporting events.  So we are bringing lots of different voices together to try to paint a broader perspective of what the World Cup is all about.

Charlie:  That sounds excellent. Was there anything else that we did not cover that you wanted to point out about mega events or your MOOC?

Mark Wilson:  I think a lot of what I have discussed has been somewhat negative and I also want to point out the positives.  I love the spirit of these events. I’ve been to a number of host cities during these events and they are very exciting places to be.  I think what you are hearing myself and some of my colleagues is a little bit of frustration that these events are seen as an end when we would like to have them seen as a means to an end, the means to a better city.


If this interest you, you can sign up for Prof. Wilson’s MOOC Mega Events: Inside the FIFA World Cup, which starts June 23.

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