Playing in the Land of Fire

I recently hosted an interesting SportBusiness Intelligence webinar on the marketing and branding of sports cities. One of the countries that was discussed was gas-rich Azerbaijan, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and in particular its €12m shirt sponsorship of Spanish football team Atlético Madrid. My webinar panellists debated whether their own countries or cities would ever undertake a sports sponsorship in this way (their verdict being “possibly” - and certainly there have been other examples in the past where cities have put their names to sports events, usually on behalf of a tourist board), but everyone agreed that Azerbaijan and its capital city Baku certainly seem to be ramping up their efforts to shine in the sports event spotlight.

The slogan ‘Land of Fire’ that is emblazoned on the front of the shirts sported by Atlético Madrid is part of a wider push by Azerbaijan to raise its profile internationally and to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy, focusing on education, sport, science and technology. Its drive to be a major player in the major events world has taken in the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and has been behind two failed Olympic bids (in 2016 and 2020) and preparations to host the inaugural European Games in June 2015. Further displaying both its hunger for success and deep pockets, the country will also host Formula One’s European Grand Prix from 2016 onwards, taking over from Valencia that exited the calendar in 2012 due to escalating costs.

Baku certainly can’t be accused of cutting corners when it comes to putting on a great show. Its official price-tag for staging the European Song Contest was $76m, nearly twice the cost of the previous most expensive Eurovision, in Moscow; but the real cost, factoring in various related projects including the building of the space-age concert venue where the event was held, the Crystal Hall, was reported to have cost somewhere between $277m and $721m.

Meanwhile, the cost of staging the first European Olympic Games next year has more than doubled from AZN1bn (£0.79bn) to AZN2.3bn (£1.83bn). The event will see more than 5,400 athletes from all of the 49 Olympic nations of Europe compete in 18 sports, including new formats and disciplines featuring for the first time at a major European sports event, such as basketball 3x3.

Baku 2015 is keen to use the event to refresh its city’s brand by unveiling a new look "proudly combining Azerbaijan's history, heritage and culture with elite European sport". Inspired by the "natural beauty" of the capital city (on a fine summer day, visitors and residents of Baku can swim in the warm waters of the Caspian Sea, go for a run along the Boulevard or enjoy sports in several newly constructed, state-of-the-art facilities), the event branding will feature on venues, tickets, uniforms and all official merchandising.

Central to the new brand is the pomegranate tree, a symbol of unity in Azerbaijani folklore, with historical symbols of the country's heritage and culture woven into the branches, along with pictograms of the sports and disciplines due to be showcased at the Games. A vibrant palette of Baku purple, red, blue, yellow and green hues features heavily to capture the spirit and energy of the setting and sports, say the event organisers.

Baku’s previous major tagline was 'Together we can', used as part of its hapless 2020 Olympic Games bid. Baku 2020 had stressed that it was not simply about what the Olympic Games could do for Baku and Azerbaijan, but what the city and country could offer back to the Olympic Movement. The city and country wanted to prove that an Olympic Games would not only be a sound investment in the nation's sport, health and qualify of life, but that it could be hosted in a responsible manner, which, in turn, would provide a sustainable Games hosting model for the future. Unfortunately for Baku, the IOC deemed that the city was not developed enough to be considered at that stage in terms of experience and infrastructure. In the meantime however, Baku has the European Games in 2015 and European Grand Prix in 2016 to showcase to the world that it is now well and truly open for major events.

Baku of course is not the only city that has emerged over the last few years as a new player on the major events stage and I am delighted to have covered such developments in my six years as Editorial Director at MEI. However, other work commitments mean I am now stepping down from the role and therefore would like to end my final column by wishing everyone at MEI and in the MEI community all the very best wishes for the future. It has been a blast and I leave you all in the knowledge that there are exciting times ahead!

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