Money at Play

NBA All-Star success shows Toronto can go big

Toronto was the talk of the sporting world during NBA all-star weekend. Aside from the cold weather, it was a huge success, and a sign that the city could think even bigger, says Deidra Dionne.

If part of a holistic strategy, marquee events could lead to something even bigger

The 2016 NBA All-Star game brought top celebrities to Toronto, including Chris Tucker and Shaquille O'Neal. (Andrew Bernstein/Getty Images)

If you didn't hear, it was cold for the NBA All-Star weekend in Toronto. Yet in the midst of the events, it seemed as though Toronto had never been this hot.

Toronto was the place to be. From A-list actors to Grammy-winning musicians, the parties were plentiful and the streets abuzz. Other than team defence in the All-Star game, the only things you couldn't find in the city were reservations in restaurants and hotels. Free-spending tourists provided Toronto with what is expected to be over $100-million dollars in economic benefit.

It was everything a city could want from a major sporting event. Unlike hosting an Olympic Games, the fiscal risk was low while the entertainment value was sky high.    

The success of the weekend may suggest Canadian cities like Toronto should keep their focus on welcoming single-sport events backed by private, wealthy teams or leagues. Admittedly, there is far less risk in letting Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) do the work and have the city reap the benefits.

From a profit/risk perspective, events like the NBA All-Star weekend are the low-hanging fruit of sports hosting. The event is assigned by the League. It has an existing crop of sponsors and broadcasters. They utilize infrastructure that is already here. 

Essentially, the city opens its doors to tourists and enjoys the byproduct of the marketing exposure the event has to offer. Not to mention being showcased to a TV audience in more than 200 countries.

As a taxpayer, this is ideal. 

But what if we thought bigger? 

Event-hosting fund

What if Toronto was bold enough to use events like the NBA All-Star weekend as a small piece in a large puzzle. A jumpstart on an event hosting strategy. A hosting strategy that combines low-risk profit driven events with higher risk, higher reward events. 

A strategy that someday would allow Toronto to properly bid and host the Olympic Games.

With more events on the way, the time to implement a long-term event hosting strategy is now. Toronto is scheduled to host a number of major sporting events that are primarily financed by well-heeled organizations: The World Cup of Hockey, the world junior hockey championships, and potentially, an outdoor game in celebration of the Maple Leafs' 100th anniversary.

Mayor John Tory and Premier Kathleen Wynne have both stated their intentions in making Toronto the ultimate destination for events. The provincial and municipal governments have departments specifically focused on event hosting. Anything from music festivals to cultural events to sports, all events hosted in the region are lumped into one event-hosting portfolio. Their goal is to raise the overall reputation of the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario. 

With a little strategy and planning, events could provide enough funding to seed each other. Use the current template of profit-driven events to generate tourism revenue, re-invest that wealth into a fund, and finally, use the fund to implement the event hosting strategy. It would allow events with cultural benefits and less economic certainty to be weighed as part of a larger strategy as opposed to a being debated as a singular event.

In previous debates, the question about Toronto hosting an Olympic Games has always been assessed through a singular lens. A risk/reward assessment of the event on its own.

Perhaps, if debated as part of an overall program and presented as part of a long-term strategy with seed money from lower risk profit driven events, the outcome would garner a different result. It may even provide a sound enough fiscal equation to consider how alive a city could be when the world comes to visit. A result that would have Toronto hosting the Olympic Games without the same level of financial risk.

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