By Nancy Jaffer
Aug. 7, 2016
While I realize the Olympics are the main focus for the next couple of weeks (who could miss that?), it’s past time to discuss what’s happening with the FEI World Equestrian Games, scheduled to be held somewhere on the planet a short two years from now.
The sparkling new $125 million Tryon, N.C., equestrian complex put itself forward last week as a possible candidate for WEG 2018, following the decision that the original bid winner, Bromont, Quebec, wasn’t going to work due to a lack of government financing.
Tryon, set on 1,500 acres, has it all–12 arenas (the main arena seats 6,000 and can expand to 12,000); a 5,000 seat covered arena, 1,200 permanent stalls, a new cross-country course that could also host driving, hundreds of miles of trails in the area (for endurance) and several VIP areas.
It also enjoys the support of the governors of North Carolina and nearby South Carolina. Just as important, it has the backing of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, which of course would like to keep the WEG in North America for 2018.
USEF CEO Bill Moroney said the organization has sent a letter to the FEI requesting its consideration of Tryon.
“We think it’s a strong proposal,” he said of Tryon’s case.
The idea is in play with the FEI. Given the short time frame before the WEG, the FEI Bureau has decided not to re-open the bid process for the 2018 Games and has mandated President Ingmar De Vos to work on an alternative.
“The FEI is already in contact with two National Federations/OCs (Samorin in Slovakia, and Tryon, USA),” Ingmar said in response to my questions.
“If other organizers contact the FEI to express an interest in hosting the Games, they will be asked to provide the information through their National Federation. The FEI will be in a position to provide more details shortly.”
In case you’re wondering why the WEG is so important, it goes beyond the fact that it’s a compilation of eight world championships. Equestrian sport is not confident of continued inclusion in the Olympics. Those Games are always changing, trying to get a new and wider audience. That means, for instance, you’ll be seeing skateboarding in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Equestrian competition is expensive to put on and Olympic leaders aren’t necessarily convinced that it has enough of a following to serve the purposes of the Games. So there’s a feeling that equestrian must insure it has a big stage of its own in case it is dropped from the Olympics, even though it is bending over backwards to stay within the five rings (to the point of major revisions such as making eventing a CIC.)
The WEG, however, too often has been a black hole financially for its organizers (one example is the 2010 Kentucky WEG, which lost more than $1 million). There are several reasons why this happens: A lack of sponsors, a lack of sufficient government support and a lack of facilities, which requires expensive infrastructure work to get it to the point where a WEG can be hosted.
Tryon seems to hit all the bases, but there is a big wrinkle. Rolex, a former FEI sponsor, is a Tryon sponsor, while Longines, another watch company, is the FEI sponsor. How do you solve that one?
Mark Bellissimo, the managing partner of Tryon Equestrian Partners which owns the facility, is hoping something can be worked out.
“The bottom line is that Rolex is focusing on what is in the best interests for the sport…they encouraged the dialogue with FEI and we’re going to work it out once we understand the level of interest,” he told me in an interview.
When I asked the FEI whether it would be in a position to mediate between Rolex and Longines if necessary, I was told, “We are at a very early stage of the review process so it is premature to be looking at these kind of details at this point.”
I get that, since the FEI hasn’t even done a site visit of Tryon at this point.
As Mark pointed out, however, the Tryon option is “a great opportunity to keep the sport global vs the tendency to think of the sport as Eurocentric. I think it would be a shame if it weren’t back here (North America) again.”
The WEG, which has been held every four years since 1990, has been in Europe for each renewal except 2010.
“We have a unique opportunity,” commented Mark, who is also the managing partner for Wellington Equestrian Partners, which presents the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida. He works with Michael Stone, former secretary general of the FEI and the Irish equestrian federation. Michael is the president of Equestrian Sport Productions and in his governance days, was involved in the planning process for several WEGs.
“The problem with this event,” Mark said, referring to the WEG, “is you have to get a team of people five years in advance to do a one-time event and you burn through millions (of dollars) each year in preparation. You’re creating stuff you’re going to use once. (However, for the record, both Kentucky and Aachen 2006, the most successful WEG, have continued to use what was created for their WEGs.)
Mark noted that not only is a lot of the infrastructure in place in Tryon, but “We’ve also got two state leaders very excited about it,” and there is local support as well.
“It’s been tough in the past (for previous WEGs) because everyone is so focused in getting the venue done or figuring out how to work the venue,” he pointed out.
Another advantage of Tryon is that all the activities will be on the venue’s property (except for some of the endurance trails), which is similar to the situation at Stockholm for the first WEG, Aachen and Kentucky. That plays to the concept of giving people a chance to take in competitions they wouldn’t normally see otherwise without having to travel for the driving marathon or eventing cross-country. Mark also sees WEG as an opportunity to package the sport so it is aimed at people who just like horses, and presenting it as a festival, rather than just pure sport. Interest in horses in general can translate into an interest in horse sport, he contended.
“We’d like to think that we would try to operate in a way that would be successful across many dimensions,” he commented.
“I’m hoping the FEI embraces our venue and we bring the WEG back to America,” Mark said.
“Let’s talk about how we grow the sport, vs the `watch wars’. How do we make the sport great? That’s what the goal here is and there’s at least one group that’s willing to have a conversation and figure out how to make it work.”
I asked the USEF’s Bill Moroney whether his organization will get involved in the negotiations between the watchmakers, if there is any.
“I think it’s somethng that will happen mainly between the organizers and the different sponsors and the USEF will provide any support and advisement that is necessary to help those discussions go smoothly,” he commented.
“I’m sure the FEI will as well. I think everybody understands the challenge there, but I do think in the end that everyone across the board will do what’s best for the sport.”
Some have wondered whether it would be better to break up the WEG and instead go back to individual world championships (the way it was done before the first WEG) or groups of championships.
In answer to my inquiry on that, Ingmar responded, “The FEI World Equestrian Games™ are the FEI’s flagship event and they are a commercial operation, with benefits for both the local organizing committee and the regional economy. The economic impact study conducted at Normandy (home of the last WEG) in 2014 showed that the Games had a massively beneficial impact on the region and on France overall.”
The equestrian center at Samorin is part of a multi-sport and leisure complex, close to airports in neighboring Vienna, Austria, and Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. It is hosting the endurance world championships next month, so you know it’s familiar territory for the FEI.