The puzzle of multi-sport cities



Bordeaux of crying football, Bordeaux of laughing rugby. Sport has dominated the Gironde news for days, with on the one hand the semi-final of the European Rugby Cup, this Saturday 1er May, between the Union Bègles-Bordeaux (UBB) and the Toulouse Stadium, and on the other hand the placing under supervision by the commercial court of the football club, after the defection of the American owner. Twelve years ago, the situation was the opposite: the local ovale was at the bottom of the hole, while the navies were crowned champions of France (in 2009) with the money of the audiovisual group M6.

“All the mayors and sports assistants in large cities are paralyzed by what is happening in Bordeaux, at the idea that it could happen to them”, underlines Patrick Appéré, sports assistant in Brest and vice-president of the National Association of elected officials in charge of sport (Andes). Even the champion city of France in all categories, Montpellier, which hosts no less than five high-level professional clubs in football, rugby, handball, basketball, volleyball, looks with concern towards the Gironde.

“In Bordeaux, they took big risks”

“They took big risks by giving the keys to their football club and their stadium to American financiers”, underlines Christian Assaf, vice-president of the Montpellier metropolis in charge of sport. Former first deputy of Georges Frêche, mayor from 1977 to 2004, Christian Assaf had a front row seat to assist in the development, under the leadership of his boss and Louis Nicollin, a local businessman in search of public markets, “What was then a sleeping beauty in terms of sport”. “It was give and take, he recounts. Today we could not do like that legally, but the philosophy remains unchanged: our clubs are in the hands of locally established bosses who will never leave with the fund. “

The example of Lyon, which has a Ligue 1 club, Top 14, but also women’s and men’s Pro A in basketball (in collaboration with Villeurbanne) speaks volumes. In the 2000s, the lawyer Thierry Braillard became deputy for sport (he will be minister under the five-year term of François Hollande) and will influence the rebirth of Olympique Lyonnais which vegetated in Ligue 2 when it was bought in 2004 by Jean-Michel Aulas. Same story with the LOU, a modest university rugby club, acquired by Olivier Ginon, the boss of the Lyon company GL Events. Or for Asvel Lyon-Villeurbanne, a basketball team taken over by Tony Parker.

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“Lyon is by virtue of its size the example which brings France closer to our European neighbors where the cities are larger and more multisport, because there is easier convergence between politics, the economy and a sufficient population base”, underlines Christophe Lepetit, head of studies at the Center for Sports Law and Economics. Beyond the critical size and the economic equation, it urges elected officials to reflect on the social utility of these clubs and their consistency with the local culture and the political project of the moment.

Elf Aquitaine brings football to Pau

“Bordeaux, Toulouse and Montpellier were rugby towns due to the English influence in the South West and the university culture of the sport, which was reserved for the elites in its infancy. Football came later, with industrialization and the need to provide an offer for the workers. In Pau, it was Elf Aquitaine who brought football ”, explains the professor in sports marketing, Michaël Tapiro.

The double, triple or even quadruple sport transplant only works if it clings to a cultural trunk. The so-called BHV sports – basketball, handball, volleyball – have often joined football or rugby towns to set up women’s teams or make young people from the neighborhoods play. This is the case in Patrick Appéré’s Brest where the women’s handball team, leading the French championship, is just as much the pride of the city as the hundred-year-old local football club. “The financial risks are beyond measure but the image benefit is important: a sports city attracts young people, executives and activity”, continues the vice-president of Andes.

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The thorny subject of stadiums

Only two professional clubs are, according to the Center for Sports Law and Economics, 100% owners of their premises: Lyon in football, Clermont in rugby, a third being on his way to Montpellier for football. Elsewhere, different types of contracts bind clubs and municipalities: classic rental, long-term lease called emphyteutic, concession to a manager promoter … But the future of these costly for public finances is to own ownership, at least for powerful clubs. The mayor of Bordeaux will try to sell the stadium to the future buyer of the club, and that of Marseille has announced his desire to sell the Vélodrome stadium.

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