Public sector support boosts Colombia’s profile in international sports

In recent years Colombia has become more competitive in sports, raising the possibility of increased commercial prospects and providing a boost to national pride. For example, at the 2011 Pan American Games, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, Colombia was ranked sixth, and placed second, after Brazil, at the South American Games held in Santiago, Chile, in March 2014.

In 2012 Colombian athletes registered their best year in the history of the country, with the awarding of eight medals at the London Olympic Games and two medals in the Paralympic Games; 12 major world champions; and 27 youth world champions. The attention of the media and the general public remains focused on football, which also tops the rankings in terms of attracting sponsorships and investments. However, other sports have gradually begun increasing their profile within the country. Cycling has become the second-most-popular national sport after football, while motocross, baseball, tennis, powerboat racing and hockey have also grown in popularity.

Football

The premier domestic professional football league, known as First Category A (and commercially as “Liga Postobón” after its main sponsor), has 18 teams, whose top eight finishers in the regular season advance to a playoff to decide who is the champion. The tournament is held twice a year and features historic clubs, such as the CF Millonarios of Bogotá (where Alfredo Di Stefano played before joining Real Madrid) and Nacional of Medellín.

Between 1999 and 2010 the tournament was known as the Mustang Cup, after Mustang cigarettes; however, the league lost its main sponsor after legislation prohibiting the sponsorship of sporting events by cigarette brands was passed. The decision opened the door for local beverage manufacturer Postobón to take over the name of the tournament.

The recent success of the Colombian national football team has increased the interest of the private sector in supporting the sport and the team. Colombia went from having a single sponsor in the late 1980s to becoming financed and promoted by major companies such as Bavaria, Movistar, Avianca and Pacific Rubiales, amongst other multinationals that contribute multimillion-dollar support to the development of football in Colombia (see analysis).

Cycling

The second major national sport in Colombia is cycling. After two decades in the shadows, the Andean country has regained its high-ranking position in the international cycling scene. One event, and perhaps the most decisive, in launching Colombia’s international cycling profile was Nairo Quintana’s second place finish in the Tour de France 2013.

Almost a year later, the cyclist became the first Colombian to win the Giro d'Italia, receiving the champion’s crown on June 1, 2014, while another Colombian rider, Rigoberto Urán, finished second. Urán told local press that “the performance of Colombia is historic and never seen before”.

The momentum is a consequence of the joint commitment the public and private sectors have made with the sport. The Colombian government, through its sports department Coldeportes, partnered with telecommunications giant Claro to form the Coldeportes-Claro Team, also known as “Team Colombia”. The team has worked since its inception in 2011 to position the best cyclists of the country in the international spotlight. Team Colombia’s private sponsors include Hyundai, Punto Blanco and Gatorade, among others.

The creation and promotion of the national cycling team is a strategy that not only aims to boost the success of Colombian cyclists internationally but also to spread the love for the sport in the domestic market and ultimately to attract greater investment through high-profile competitions. “On the domestic front we are aiming to host both professional and amateur events that will help to improve cycling facilities, as well as further popularise the sport in the country, bringing investment to Colombia in the form of new events and races and their respective sponsorships," Andrés Botero Phillipsbourne, director of Coldeportes, told OBG.

Other Sports

In addition to football and cycling, Colombia is a global leader in competitive roller-skating; the country has won 11 world championship titles for speed skating. While this sport has historically suffered from a lack of local funding, for the past two years it has had Postobón as its main sponsor.

While other sports enjoy numerous followers in the country, they normally have very little institutional support. This is the case for tennis, powerboat racing and boxing, among others. Tennis player Mariana Duque, Colombia's best player of the last decade, told OBG, " Private support is very limited. We luckily have Colsanitas as a sponsor, providing us assistance in equipment and training. However, this is very little compared to what top players from other countries have." Duque stressed that the public sector should do more to seek private support. "Sports federations should make greater effort to arouse interest in supporting the sport," she told OBG.

Investment

While the private sector is still relatively shy with regard to the promotion of sport, the government has increased the incentives allocated for sport and competition in recent years. Coldeportes is the body responsible for the promotion and management of sports resources. During the first government of the recently re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos, the budget allocated to the entity was consistently increased. Coldeportes received COP356bn ($178m) in the 2014 budget, compared to COP334bn ($167m) in 2013 and COP248bn ($124m) the previous year.

Public capital allocated to sport comes partly from the telecommunications sector. Colombian law requires mobile operators to invest 4% of their profits in sports. However, there are numerous complaints – mainly from athletes and coaches – against this rule, as the Ministry of Finance retains a 33% tax on that sum.

In order to properly prepare athletes with Olympic aspirations, Coldeportes has laid out a 12-year plan, known as the Olympic cycle, which ends with the 2016 Rio Olympics. The plan includes projects such as " Talents", which provides small grants to up-and-coming athletes. One of the beneficiaries of the Talents programme was Mariana Pajón, who won a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics in BMX racing. Pajón received COP300,000 ($150) monthly from the state, beginning in December 2005. Like Pajón, 82 Colombian athletes from the total of 104 who participated in the last Olympic games, received a subsidy ranging from three to six monthly minimum wage payments.

“Colombian athletes typically come from the lowest two socio-economic strata (from a total of six) and therefore need support for transport, housing and food,” Botero said. Despite the subsidies, public sector investment in the development of athletes is still considered to be limited. In 2012, the sum allocated for this type of assistance was COP90bn ($45m), including housing and education subsidies of about COP8bn ($4m). While state support is narrow, the participation of the private sector is even lower.

José Ovidio González, president the Colombian Cycling Federation, highlighted to reporters how little the support from private companies is, as well as its impact on the development and advancement of disciplines. " Private companies leave a huge burden to the government, which cannot cover all the needs that leagues and federations have,” González told local press. Along the same lines, Duque told OBG, "A large number of athletes cannot leverage their high potential due to lack of support from the public and private sectors.”

Events For The Regions

The decentralisation of resources is one of Coldeportes’ first priorities. The objective is to support the regional development of various sports through events. "The goal is to organise national and international competitions in secondary cities to boost investment in infrastructure in those areas,” Botero told OBG. The public entity showed its commitment to the regions with the organisation of the 2013 World Games (the largest non-Olympic sports event in the world), which was held in Cali from July 25 to August 4, 2013 and which included competitions in 31 sports and nearly 100 countries taking part.

One example of the support provided to regional sporting events is the nomination of Barranquilla as a potential host for the Central American Games in 2018. This effort received the backing of the president’s office and in June 2014, President Santos told reporters, " Barranquilla’s candidature will have all the budgetary resources needed, so we can prepare the best Central American and Caribbean Games of all time.”

Additional private investment is necessary to maintain the growth rates of the sports sector in Colombia and particularly to allow Colombian regions to achieve their ambition of hosting targeted events. According to Botero, the upcoming events offer opportunities, which can be developed through public-private partnerships, to both foreign and local investors.

The Junior World Athletic Championship is being planned for 2015, and the preparations for such an event, which expects to receive athletes from 200 countries, will involve an investment of more than $7m. Furthermore, in 2016, Colombia will host the World Futsal Championship, which is to be played in Bogotá and seven other cities. “The planned investment for this tournament is around $300m,” Botero told OBG.

The same year, Medellín will be hosting a world BMX tournament, for which the construction of a biking track (representing an investment of $300,000) will be needed. In terms of other planned sporting events, Colombia is set to host the Bolivarian Games – which will require investments of about $150m – and the road cycling world championship in the region of Boyacá – which is set to require $5m worth of investments for the preparation of hotels and road infrastructure.

Sports For All

Coldeportes has launched the "Excel Yourself" programme ( Supérate), a yearly competition aimed at teaching children healthy habits and lifestyles, while also helping to locate and encourage future sports stars. The programme, backed by the Ministry of Education, seeks to identify talented athletes in various sporting disciplines. The most recent programme registered 1.8m participants between 7 and 17 years old, with around half a million of them taking part in a final phase at the inter-municipal level.

In addition to promoting participation in sports and identifying talent, Supérate has an incentive programme to motivate and encourage the involvement of young people, teachers, coaches, educational institutions, municipalities and departments.

Although the Supérate programme is growing every year in both participation and results, Botero told OBG of his concern about the lack of support from tertiary education institutions for sports. "In regards to tertiary education, Colombia still has a long way to go,” he said. “We are far from the levels seen in the US and Europe, and even behind some of our neighbours," he told OBG. "We aim to organise the first National University Sport Games in Cali in October 2014 to help change the conception that universities in Colombia have of sport programmes," he added.

In addition to investments in infrastructure for professional competitions, the country needs to enhance its training and recreation facilities. Not only are the training facilities available for athletes in Colombia limited, but those that are available are underused. "We have the high performance centre of Bogotá, which is one of the best in Latin America, but we are not giving it all the use it should receive," Botero told OBG.

Outlook

The challenges that sport faces in Colombia are clear for Coldeportes. The country needs to keep strengthening its Olympic cycling programmes to improve the chances are increasing the number of medals achieved. Meanwhile, the government will continue to develop sport within the country more widely, particularly through the Supérate programme and by bringing the National Games (a yearly competition where all regions of the country compete in numerous sports) to marginal areas such as Tolima and Chocó.

The public sector will have to intensify its work on campaigns that promote and incentivise investments in sport to further engage the private sector. Part of these efforts could also work on encouraging investment in minority sports, which currently have limited budgets. Provided the private sector investment increases, public funding could be freed up and instead focused on subsidising young people with athletic talent but scant economic opportunities.

The domestic football league will try to benefit from the success of the national team, especially in the Brazil World Cup where it outperformed many established European soccer nations such as Spain, Italy and England. With the proper incentives, the country hopes to keep its local football stars in the domestic tournament instead of departing to leagues with superior prestige and resources, as has typically been the norm.

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The Report: Colombia 2014

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