Six myths about running a successful major event

Paul McNamee has served as tournament director of the Australian Open of Tennis, the Hopman Cup and the Australian Open of Golf. Below he shares some secrets that he learned running Australia’s biggest sporting events.

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The Australian Open is here. It's one of the great events of the global sporting calendar, behind the scenes as well as from the stands. But running a large-scale tournament isn’t easy and there are some popular misconceptions about what it takes to put something the size of the Australian Open together.

"I learned early on in the events business that there’s no such thing as a small thing and adhering to this philosophy served me well."
Paul McNamee, Grand Slam winner and noted sports administrator

If you're in the business of running a tennis tournament (or any event for that matter where you want genuine audience engagement), here are a few things to remember that could save you a lot of time and energy.

Myth #1: it's only part time

"What do you do the rest of the year?"

This may seem pretty harmless but I heard this question a lot. It used to amuse me to no end as it innocently reveals the true nature of the events industry. It is a full-time professional occupation. If you want the event to be successful, anyway

The amount of detail is enormous, beginning with the debriefing and review process immediately post-tournament to the preparation of the marketing, media/PR, hospitality, ticketing, operations and commercial plans, followed by the cut and thrust of the all-important budget.

As any sales person will tell you the process never stops. As for starting an event from scratch, basically that's the end of your life as you know it.

Myth #2: corporate ticket sales and TV ratings are more important than general public (GP) ticket sales

That's where the big bucks are, aren't they? Yes and no. If there's depressed demand for good public seats, why should the top end of town be in any hurry to secure their tickets?

After all, there's plenty of capacity and we don't know who's playing yet, do we? On the other hand, if the GP is selling out, watch the demand for precious corporate seats soar, as they don't want to be fighting the GP for seats or, worse, risk missing out.

As night follows day, a contest is eminently more watchable on TV if its 'rocking' on site. Bottom line: strong GP sales are critical.

Myth #3: Only worry about the big things

I learned early on in the events business that there’s no such thing as a ‘small thing’ and adhering to this philosophy served me well. It's the attention to detail which distinguishes a quality tournament from a so-so one. However, there is a twist in the tale.

When it comes to event week, it's impossible to be on top of everything as event delivery and customer service are paramount.

So my mantra changed to ‘during event week, sometimes 90 per cent is good enough’. The other advantage of cutting some slack is there's already enough pressure on everyone without the unrealistic expectation of perfection.

Myth #4: we need a bigger stadium

This is a favourite on event manager's wish list, and is often used as an excuse for underperforming. The reality is that increasing supply automatically suppresses demand, creating less urgency for customers to buy season's tickets or memberships.

Plus, it makes it far harder to sell out, the driver of the other success factors. Of course, if the demand is still there, that's a different matter, but there's still the issue of managing the increased debt.

The reality is that bigger stadiums normally require strong buy-in by government, perhaps bidding to host a major event. And that same formula of matching supply and demand would I'm sure apply to every event.

Myth #5: the players are spoilt

This label is often thrown at tennis players because it is assumed they are young and rich beyond all measure.

The facts are that is that the wealth is highly disproportionally shared and much of the public only tune in to the business end of Grand Slams.

My golden rule for treating players is to treat every player the same. If you let a star skip a clinic or pro-am, you've created a rod for your back.

You do get some unusual requests though. Anna Kournikova preferred not to be scheduled on Centre Court. Her demographic was young and single so she preferred to play on an unticketed court in front of her adoring fans.

Martina Hingis would ask where she could go horse riding, even on the eve of a big match. Andre Agassi loved the same locker every year, so I won't pretend tennis players aren't a superstitious lot!

The ultimate myth: the secret to running a successful event is measurable and accountable

Employers of course love measurable KPIs, led by profit, TV ratings, sponsorship buy-in and the total attendance for the week. But for me, the secret to success is an intangible – atmosphere.

You go into any event stadium and you can tell right away if there's atmosphere or not. We all love to be there when there's a full house, don't we? It's seductive and provides a highly satisfying experience.

I have an expression - the better the atmosphere, the luckier you get. It is atmosphere that provides the tonic for athletes to perform at their best and, importantly, jumps across to the living room experience for TV viewers.

It's the driver to bigger crowds, customer and player satisfaction, happy sponsors, better TV ratings and, yes, profits.

Hopefully I've helped expose some myths. I was once asked how I described my (part-time!) job as an event CEO/Tournament Director. This was my answer: "My job is to create and manage atmosphere".

And I would argue that's true of any event. People remember atmosphere.

Paul McNamee was the Tournament Director of the Australian Open Tennis Championships from 1995 to 2006, the Hopman Cup from 1989-2012, and Executive Chairman of the Australian Open Men's and Women's Golf Championships in 2006 and 2007

*ANZ is a sponsor of the Shanghai Masters and the Australian Open.

Photo: Gordon Bell / Shutterstock.com

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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