Macau: Playing in the big league

When it comes to the business of sports, our neighboring SAR punches way above its weight, writes Mathew Scott.

Veteran American sports promoter Bob Arum likes to tell a story about how in his younger days he was recruited to work as a lawyer under the gaze of none other than former US attorney general Robert Kennedy.

Problem was, the more the young Arum dug into to the world of sports, the more he became convinced that it presented far easier ways to make money and that he was playing for the wrong team. History now shows Arum – as always – was ahead of the game, and he would go on to help chart the careers of the likes of boxing great Muhammad Ali and to promote some of sports’ biggest events. 

“Just give the people what they want,” is how Arum once described the sports and entertainment promotions business, over which he has lorded since the 1960s. 

Little wonder then that when Macau started to invest heavily in those fields, Arum was among the first to sign on. Back in 2013 the American starting bringing boxing cards to the Venetian Macao, showcasing talents such as the great Philippines fighter Manny Pacquiao. 

“I think what the government wants to do is make Macau one of the world’s foremost sports and entertainment destinations, and the facilities are in place to make that happen,” Arum said at the time. 

Over the past decade Macau has been actively diversifying the options available to the 36 million or so visitors who stream into the enclave each year. Gambling – or gaming, if you follow the PR-friendly line – still, and will always be, the city’s main economic driver. But the central government in Beijing wants to spread the wealth, so to speak, and so the city’s main employers, the casinos, have invested heavily in bringing to town the world’s biggest stars, and its biggest shows.  

Soccer superstar David Beckham is now a regular visitor – and brand ambassador for the Sands operation – while likes of Inter Milan and Paris Saint-Germain have visited in 2019. In previous years the city has hosted aging rockers The Rolling Stones and The Police.  

Sands China have been making use of the Venetian’s Cotai Area for major concerts and sporting events, and recently linked up with the nearby Macau Golf & Country Club and Caesars Golf Macau to host a pro-am and training day with former world number one Phil Mickelson and China’s number one Li Haotong. 

Wilfred Wong, president of Sands China Ltd, says it’s all part of the push to make Macau a “global destination.”  

“We’ve had Beyonce, the Rolling Stones and Lady Gaga. We’ve had boxing, basketball and football,” said Wong, from the sidelines of the golf event. “The city is now on top in terms of sports and entertainment and this is in keeping with the city’s role in the development of the Greater Bay Area.”  

Under the central government’s GBA plans, Macau will be continually developed into a “world tourism and leisure center.” But the city already has a rich and established history of hosting major international events, and one in particular – the Macau Formula Three Grand Prix – has over the past 66 years helped Macau promote itself globally. 

Pun Weng Kun, Macau Grand Prix organizing committee coordinator, says that history has revealed Macau to be a “unique and vibrant visitor destination” but it has also showcased the city’s ability to host major events.  

“The wide range of skills required to stage such a high-profile and prestigious international sporting event are vividly showcased during the Grand Prix, demonstrating the high-level of organizational expertise Macau has to offer the world,” Pun said.  

Along with the GP, Macau now hosts annual FIVB volleyball events, an international marathon and is a regular stop on the annual PGA Tour China golf series. 

In recent years, the city has also nurtured a budding art scene, supported by the local government which has branched out from the Macau Museum of Art and now hosts and supports regular exhibitions at newer venues such as the Navy Yard No 1 Contemporary Art Center.  

Just how much impact these initiatives have had on the economy – and on visitor numbers – remains hard to ascertain, given the fact gambling accounts for so much of the city’s GDP (around 80 per cent), and tourists from “Greater China” (China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) account for so many of the city’s guests (91 per cent). 

But promoters are keen to make the most of Macau in terms of venues, of potential audiences, and of government support for their efforts.

Mixed martial arts fight promoters Legend FC were, like Arum, among the first to test the waters in Macau with regular events, and are back on the scene after a relaunch last year.  “Mixed martial arts is an intriguing sport as it evolves the story from history, culture to today. It blends the highest level of athleticism with aspects of pure entertainment, so Macau is a perfect fit for us,” said Matthew Kwok, Legend FC chairman. 

“Legend Fighting Championship has a long history with the city and the promotion’s first incarnation broke new ground in bringing MMA to Macau. Now, we’re back and we’re making use of the fact that the city has evolved. 

There’s more on offer and we think we add to that package. Also, while Chinese fighters and the growth of the sport in China are what Legend FC is all about, the combined history of our management team means we bring an international flavor to what we offer.  

“Again, that’s what Macau is all about these days. The fact the government has shown its intent in terms of the diversification of sport and entertainment options has us full of confidence for the future.”