What Taylor Swift can teach us about Olympic stadiums

Taylor Swift Eras - Newsreel
Taylor Swift's Sydney and Melbourne concerts re-wrote the national economic data. | Photo: Promotion poster for Taylor Swift Netflix Eras Tour documentary.

By Shane Rodgers

There was something very curious about two sets of economic data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the past couple of weeks.

They singled out one individual, with enough influence to fundamentally alter the national finance accounts.

Yes, it was Taylor Swift, aka Tay Tay, Miss Americana and T-Swift.

Australia’s February business turnover figures were up a substantial 3.2 percent in an otherwise sluggish economy. Why? According to the ABS a lot of it was due to travel and accommodation in Sydney and Melbourne for Tay Tay’s Eras Tour.

Fast forward a week and the March national retail figures showed a 4.3 percent month-on-month fall in clothing, footwear and personal accessory fall.

Why? It was not so much the sluggish, inflation-ravaged economy. You guessed it, it was all about a big, distorted lift the previous month as a large chunk of the population dressed up for Tay Tay.

So, what does this have to do with the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games? The answer is heaps.

Sitting back and watching the sad and damaging debate about the Olympics infrastructure over the past few weeks, one of the most important elements of the conversation seemed to be largely missing.

You would swear from some of the commentary that the Olympics was about spending lots of public money on a big party at the expense of vital infrastructure.

The reality is nothing of the sort. Cities should only host major events if there is a good business case for doing so. We should only build infrastructure for an Olympic and Paralympic Games if we need it anyway.

Brisbane does. And with the major projects currently happening to transform the city, getting some serious world attention in eight years could not be better timing.

Done well, the Olympics can set Brisbane and Queensland up for a more prosperous future in tourism, major events, talent attraction and the jobs that spin out from that.

Our stadium “system” should not be seen as a passive investment in seats and concrete. As we saw from the Taylor Swift tour, the right stadiums are an economic asset that can bring returns for taxpayers for decades after they are built, and well past the Games.

At the moment, $3 billion-ish for a new stadium to do the Olympics properly might seem like a big investment. When we look back a couple of decades hence, it will look like a very astute, moderate investment that brought huge economic returns to Queensland.

To see that, you only have to go back to the late 1980s and the World Expo site that ultimately became South Bank. The original intention was to flog off most of the Expo land so the State Government at the time could say that the world fair broke even.

Instead, public and media pressure managed to change the plans and it cost about $70 million to keep South Bank as a social and economic asset for the city. At the time, many in government believed $70 million was an outrageous amount for this.

Looking back now, who would think a lousy $70 million wasn’t worth it to retain an asset that will keep giving for centuries.

As we saw with Taylor’s Eras Tour, great infrastructure and the ability to attract major events (of all types) can drive enough economic activity to “raise all the boats” to a point that noticeably moves the economic levers.

Keep in mind, Taylor did not come to Brisbane, so the vast bulk of the economic benefit headed south, so to speak. In fact, we are back to seeing increasing numbers of big acts taking a detour around Queensland.

We had the same issue back in the 1970s. Swedish supergroup ABBA famously bypassed Queensland at the height of their fame (but went to Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. The ABBA biography Bright Lights, Dark Shadows tells the sad tale of State Deputy Premier Sir William Knox writing to the group to beg them to visit the Sunshine State. ABBA politely declined, saying it was “physically impossible”.

In this it is useful to note how State Governments get their money to spend on hospitals, roads and schools. Much of it comes from skimming off the top of economic activity – GST on spending, stamp duty on buildings etc etc.

If we can use infrastructure in Brisbane to leverage events and economic activity, we have “business” assets that can keep providing public funds for much-needed infrastructure – in Brisbane and the regions, year after year well into the future.

Keep in mind half of all airports in regional Queensland only fly to Brisbane. A strong Brisbane is vital to strong regions. More tourists, events and economic activity in Brisbane can create flow-ons all over the state if this is leveraged properly.

Yes, we can do a cheap Olympics with a tarting up and a coat of paint on some tired old assets located in the wrong places. Or we can put on the best Olympics ever, and one that transforms our infrastructure into some of the best in the region, and sets us up for decades of economic returns.

I know which one I would vote for.

It is really starting to feel like we have forgotten our bold and confident aim to be a New World City and a global class region, and we are retreating back to our “big country town” thinking.

Maybe before we slink back down that path, we should learn a bit more from Tay Tay – and shake it off.

The narrative needs to come back to the 50-year business case and whether that adds up – not the worst type of cynical short-termism that we seem to be resorting to.

Ultimately, we have to decide if the Brisbane of the future will be an international miracle that can be “seen from space”, or just a post-Olympics trivia question.

Shane Rodgers is a former Chief Operating Officer of the Brisbane Economic Development Agency and the author of “Worknado – Reimagining the way we work to live”.