Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The World Cup as Economic Development

By Matt DeVeau, Senior Project Associate.

At approximately 7:48 p.m. on Monday, Evan Robertson and I were soaked in cheap beer and hugging random strangers. A 21-year-old German American named John Anthony Brooks had just scored the winning goal in the dying moments of the United States men’s national soccer team’s 2-1 victory over Ghana in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and all who had gathered to watch the match in an impossibly crowded Atlanta bar were in hysterics. Bud Lights flew through the air. Societal norms about personal space were suspended. It was beautiful.

At home later that night, I relived the moment by watching “reaction” videos that fans from around the country had uploaded to YouTube. On a basic level, each of these clips is exactly the same – shaky cell phone imagery of a bunch of people wearing the American flag in creative ways losing their minds – but I watched about two dozen of them anyway. And that’s when I started to notice something else: a lot of these videos were shot outside in parks and other public spaces – see this item from the Los Angeles Times for the social media evidence. Some quick online digging revealed that at least a few of these events were offered by municipalities and other organizations as free community services. And so it was that I had an excuse to write about soccer on a economic, community, and workforce development blog.

We know from The Knight Foundation’s research that people’s “attachment” to a community is primarily driven by just three things: the community’s beauty, its openness to all types of people, and its social offerings. That last one can be roughly translated as “fun things to do,” and what happened in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on Monday night certainly fits that description. An estimated 8,000 people gathered for a massive watch party at SteelStacks, a former Bethlehem Steel plant and brownfield turned arts and entertainment district. The party was part of a larger, multi-day event, SoccerFest, that is a collaboration between a tourism organization (Discover Lehigh Valley), an arts nonprofit (ArtsQuest), and various other community organizations.

Based on the early returns, it probably couldn’t have gone much better for the organizers. In addition to the USA win, the community received invaluable free publicity, as ESPN elected to show live reaction shots from the party during the game; the images framed against the dramatic backdrop of the former steelworks were among the most memorable of the broadcast. And turnout was so good that ArtsQuest the next day announced that the festival, originally scheduled to wrap up on Sunday, June 22, would run all the way through the World Cup final on July 13.

There could be more benefits yet to come. Economic development is sometimes about wooing manufacturing plants or finding creative ways to re-use old ones. But at its core it is about people, the “talent” that is crucial to maintaining an edge in a fiercely competitive world. It is about making great communities. I can’t help but think that a Bethlehem resident who watched that game in that setting had to come away from the event saying, “I love living here.” Yes, this is economic development: