Sunday, May 22, 2016

When The Dust Settles: Comparing EQC 2016 and BQC 2016

By Jack Lennard

Editor’s Note:  This article was written in the days following the European Quidditch Cup 2016. In recent weeks, Quidditch Europe have announced many changes to the competition going forward, a lot of which echo suggestions made in this post. We have decided to publish this piece anyway to illustrate the author’s view that these changes are vital for the future of the tournament’s success.
The British Quidditch Cup (BQC) 2016 was the third installment of the event and was held in March. The European Quidditch Cup (EQC) 2016 was the fourth edition of the continental club championship and was held in April.

Whilst BQC 2016 showed marked improvement from the flawed previous year’s tournament and was a success for QuidditchUK (QUK), the organising National Governing Body (NGB), many reviews pouring in of EQC 2016 have been scathing, with the location, organisation, communication, and gameplay management all being criticised. What I intend to do in this report is explore the differences between these two tournaments. Though the premiere European competition was, in 2016, a troubled event, I want to take the issues evident throughout the weekend and produce a comparison that allows our sport to learn lessons from the problems encountered with EQC 2016 and work towards a brighter and more efficient strategy for elite events in the future.

The Location

Though BQC 2016 and EQC 2016 have similarities, which will be outlined as we progress, perhaps the most obvious difference between the two was the strategy used in choosing a location.
BQC 2014/15, the second QUK national championship, opened a bidding system to allow teams to compete to host the event in their cities. No bid was supplied by a city or town; all were spearheaded by teams keen to have the UK season’s annual highlight in a place easily accessible for their players. The UK received bids from the Keele Squirrels, Leeds Griffins, Norwich Nifflers, and Nottingham Nightmares, and a QUK committee visited locations before narrowing the venues down and finally selecting Nottingham. The visits to the venues did not alleviate issues with the pitches; the tournament became infamous for its almost unplayable sloping pitches.
Perhaps in light of this, bidding was not opened the following year, and the UK community was taken somewhat by surprise when QUK announced that BQC 2016 would be hosted in the little-known town of Rugeley. Unlike 2015’s stunning Wollaton Park venue, overlooked by the gorgeous manor that provided an iconic backdrop to the tournament, this year’s event was hosted in a town where the hulking towers of a soon-to-be-demolished power station dominated the skyline.
So, why Rugeley, a town barely worth including on most general UK maps, when the NGB was under more pressure than ever to deliver a tournament worthy of attracting 32 teams from across the country? The answer is simple: QUK were approached not by a team the closest team to Rugeley is the Stoke-based Keele but by the town itself, which offered use of its expansive sports and leisure centre to host the event. Seizing the chance to directly address the pitch quality problems of the previous year, QUK gladly accepted the offer without even opening a bidding process – a remarkably confident decision at a time when the UK community was asking for more democratic input in the running of QUK. Rugeley turned out to be a godsend to QUK. The pitches were high quality and all marked out. The locker room and shower facilities were impressive. The amount of cheap accommodation within a five-minute walk to the pitch was surprisingly abundant, with more than enough to house the 32 teams in attendance. Though the aesthetics of the location left something to be desired, it was accessible to most players being, as it is, around the centre of the UK and had plenty of transport links to convenient central locations.

Pitches at Rugeley towards the end of Day Two | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography
Why is this important? It is vitally important in my mind because one of the biggest criticisms of EQC 2016 was the location, and so it is crucial to compare the success of Rugeley to the failure of Gallipoli if we are to avoid such pitfalls in the future.
Gallipoli is a small town in southern Italy. It has no airport (neither does Rugeley, but hopefully I do not need to explain why that was not a necessary requirement in the UK). Most players needed to fly to Bari or Brindisi and then take a series of trains or coaches to arrive at the town. This, the committee promised, would not be a problem; they had partnered with a group of hotels (Caroli Hotels) that would provide cheap and regular shuttles to the town of Gallipoli. Whilst this was a good attempt to deal with a fairly serious problem, the remote location of EQC 2016 and the associated travel difficulties heightened expectations of the event. However, it must be noted that drawing teams from around one NGB and getting teams to travel from around a whole continent are challenges on somewhat different scales.
According to the EQC Committee, they were promised nine full-sized pitches. This became the major source of disruption over the tournament, as the committee, when they arrived at the site, discovered that they would have to make do with six pitches. The committee had planned a schedule based on eight pitches, with one spare, and so this forced them to compress the schedule slots, accumulating delays throughout the weekend. However, and this is interesting, the actual original bid estimates only four or five full-sized pitches. This raises serious questions over how far the actual nature of the promises made in the bid were communicated to organisers and scrutinised.

The original bid also suggests that the pitches would be surrounded by stands. The pitches were, in fact, not marked out, and were based in a glorified crop field – there were certainly no stands around them, and the quality of the ground was what one might expect from southern Italy as summer approaches (dry, dusty, and rough).

Pitches at Gallipoli on Day One | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography
On the plus side, the promised swimming pool and beaches were spectacular and hugely popular. Gallipoli has no shortage of restaurants or supermarkets (though many visitors were shocked to discover the traditional Mediterranean reduced opening hours during the afternoon). The accommodation was excellent, relatively cheap, and, theoretically, close together (if not directly by the pitches themselves, as two of the three Caroli hotels with which the tournament was partnered were in the town and only one was by the pitches). Unfortunately, the shuttles were cut back and many players found themselves having to take taxis, particularly to and from the Sunday night social and back from the pitches each evening.
What have we discerned so far? We have identified one key flaw of the location that casts BQC 2016 and EQC 2016 into vastly different lights. The different approaches to external bids is a theme that will continue to characterise these two tournaments, and this is the root of the trouble within the location of the tournament. With a reliance on the inflated promises of the Caroli Hotels group, the EQC Committee inherited a veritable encyclopaedia of insurmountable challenges, the largest of these being rooted in the location. Though some elements that attracted Quidditch Europe to the bid in the first place, such as the accommodation and swimming facilities, were up to scratch, the crucial basics of the pitches were not, and this was the foundation of the major flaws with EQC 2016.

Quidditch Europe hits the beach at Gallipoli before EQC | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography
We will return to what this might suggest for future bid decisions at the end of this report. However, it is near certain that a lack of suitable bids submitted to Quidditch Europe, and a lack of scrutiny when selecting Gallipoli, combined with a dropped ball between Quidditch Europe and the appointed EQC Committee to pressure Caroli Hotels into fulfilling promises made in the bid, set in motion the issues that plagued EQC 2016.
Tournament Management

This is probably the element that is at risk of receiving the most direct criticism at any tournament, yet it is incredibly important to realise that a vast majority of problems do not occur on the day of the tournament, but are rooted in decisions made months beforehand. Despite the fact that it is often tempting to take out frustration on Tournament Directors and committees who are managing the events over the weekend, they are ultimately the pilots of the event, and their contributions must be respected and encouraged.
However, that is not to say they are beyond criticism. Some very basic differences between BQC 2016 and EQC 2016 shows that minor decisions had significant impacts. Most notable, perhaps, is the notion of the non-playing Tournament Director. QUK were adamant that the most important roles of their BQC Committee would be non-playing – a tough ask, given that almost all of the teams in the UK would be competing at the event in 2016. In the end, Tom Challinor did play, but his co-organiser, Priya Shah, did not. This was an incredibly effective compromise. An interesting trend has emerged here. Looking further back, Luke Twist played EQC 2015, but his Assistant Tournament Director, Rebecca Alley, did not. Both EQC 2015 and BQC 2016 tournaments ran incredibly smoothly, and so perhaps it was a forgivable assumption that a similar arrangement would be enough for EQC 2016. It was not.

Priya Shah (centre) with playing tournament committee members Phil Sam and Hannah Dignum | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography
By contrast, Quidditch Europe allowed their EQC Committee to play in the tournament. Perhaps this was based in a concern that nobody would volunteer and give up the chance to play though with just a fraction of all European teams represented at the tournament, one would imagine that this was an unfounded concern or perhaps it was a confidence based in last year’s Tournament Director, Luke Twist, ably managing to both compete with the Radcliffe Chimeras and produce an exemplary feat of organisation. This year, Jacopo Sartori, the Tournament Director of EQC 2016, played for Warwick Quidditch Club, and his Assistant Tournament Director, Giorgia Quinti, played for Virtute Romana. Whatever the reason, it was a grave error. The fact remains that at a tournament on the scale of EQC 2016, with 40 international teams in attendance, the Tournament Director, or at least their assistant or co-Tournament Director, absolutely must be a non-playing volunteer. Sartori inherited, as we have explored, a difficult situation, with a bid that was too bound up in exaggerated promises and no effective communication strategy to enforce the fulfilment of those pledges. However, a difficult job was made near impossible by the fact that he also had to represent Warwick Quidditch Club at the event as a player while his Assistant Tournament Director was also busy playing. Though each pitch had dedicated pitch managers and there was no real shortage of volunteers at the event, the absence of Sartori and his deputy acting as a physical leader to crack the whip and move the tournament along compounded the issues that already existed. It is near certain that this laissez-faire approach contributed to the delays of several hours.
There were several key areas of controversy at EQC 2016. Let us begin with the Division 2 issues. By the time the Saturday was over, and it was clear that several extra timetable slots would need to be played on Sunday morning, it was inevitable that one round of Division 2 would be cancelled. The EQC Committee certainly made the correct call in cancelling the play-in round and automatically eliminating the fifth-placed teams in each group. Though it certainly must have been disappointing for those teams that placed bottom of their group, there is much to be said for sacrificing lower-level games so that the upper levels of the tournament may continue smoothly, at least in an event of the importance of EQC 2016. The tournament committee should be lauded for decisive action at the end of the Saturday.

The near complete darkness being played in at the end of Saturday at EQC | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography
However, it is my belief that these measures did not go far enough. The facts alone point to this, with the Division 2 final, semifinals, and a couple of the quarterfinals all being called off on Sunday – with a couple of the games called off, remarkably, as the players were crouched and on the ‘ready’ for the brooms up (though it should be noted that these quarterfinal games were later played more informally). QUK’s Southern Cup 2015 was plagued with similar issues: with increasing delays and fading light, Division 2 matches were called off around halfway through the Sunday of the tournament, much to the frustration of teams who would now have travelled to Oxford for a limited number of games. This frustration was increased at EQC 2016, with many players and teams having spent significant sums of money to attend, only to have their games called off due to delays that were not their fault.
Such frustration is natural, but it is interesting to note that this reaction was far more limited when the intention to not proceed with Division 2 matches was announced beforehand. The reactions were multiplied, I believe, by a feeling that the tournament committee had underestimated the pressures that it was under, and so had called off matches haphazardly and inconsistently, without any real sense of control. This sense only increased when it was announced that the Division 2 winners would be decided based on their QPD over the entire tournament only after matches had been played, infuriating some teams that would have drastically altered their strategies had they known in advance the metric by which their success would be measured. I strongly believe that the EQC Committee made the right decision in calling off Division 2 matches in favour of Division 1 games. However, it is clear that a greater decisiveness and realism when facing the pressures at the end of the Saturday would have saved much frustration and diminished the sense that the tournament committee was rapidly losing control of the tournament.
There were other instances that amplified this sentiment. A confusion in calculating the brackets on Sunday gave Keele false hope of having made the top 16, before being reassigned to Division 2. With Keele’s game against Nantes Quidditch among those called off as the players crouched on the starting line later that day, one Keele player, Ollie Hymers, was only half-laughing when they commented that, “It feels as though EQC 2016 is designed to raise Keele’s hopes and then dash them.” Meanwhile, the hard-line on the Division 1 third-place-playoff has endured significant debate online. Now is not the time to explore the intricacies of whether the EQC Committee was right to force Nottingham and METU Unicorns to play or surrender their rights to joint third-place medals. However, it is clear that the policy of forcing them to play for the medals and the third-place finish in rapidly falling dark after already having played two matches back-to-back was a frustrating one for both teams, especially as they saw the delays in the tournament as the direct consequence of the actions of the very committee denying them the medals.

Nottingham Nightmares and METU Unicorns decide for themselves that they were equal third at EQC | Photo Credit: Helen Freeman
However, other than those instances, the vast majority of decisions made over the weekend those made directly by the appointed committee were thoroughly sound ones. Officials and volunteers never seemed lacking in a particularly dire sense (there are always one or two scrambles for a missing snitch referee or timekeeper), much aided, of course, by the walkie-talkies that by now should be a standard at any major event. Payment rates incentivised people to volunteer as referees and snitches and allowed several new faces to shine. Meanwhile, first aid was a strong element of the tournament, as right it should be, and in these senses many of the strong aspects of EQC 2016 reflected the positives of BQC 2016.
Where there were volunteer shortages, perhaps a more nuanced ‘mandated volunteer’ policy would have alleviated the situation. All teams were required to provide an assistant referee, a snitch referee, two goal referees, a scorekeeper, and a timekeeper. For many teams this posed very little concern, but for others it was a serious hurdle. A mandated volunteer policy can work; the evidence is there from BQC 2016, which ran smoothly largely because of the record number of volunteers. But it needs to be nuanced and take into account that different regions can provide different amounts. This works both ways, of course; teams from more developed areas would hardly blink at being requested to provide more officials than the levels they were mandated to for EQC 2016.

Team quotas saw record numbers of volunteers at BQC | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography
The point here is that whilst it is easy enough to blame poor on-the-day management for the issues plaguing a major tournament, it is far more likely the case, as with EQC 2016, that institutional decisions, such as the bid that the appointed committee inherited, were to blame, and were then amplified by a few poor minor decisions or instances of short-sightedness over the weekend.

We return, finally, to the crux of the matter. We can ask why the location put the committee under pressure, but the real problem is why more suitable locations were not made options for Quidditch Europe to consider. Why the dearth of decent bids?
Perhaps there is a misconception about the organisation of the tournament, with teams feeling they will be forced to run EQC should it be hosted in their city. This is not the case, though, as a separate committee is appointed by Quidditch Europe to run the event. Perhaps there is a lack of centralised marketing and PR strategy on the parts of two fairly nebulous organisations, the International Quidditch Association (IQA) and Quidditch Europe, when contrasted with the increasingly professional communications departments of individual NGBs. Locations were possibly more attracted to making a bid for World Cup 2016 this summer, though that seems doubtful since many touted bid locations did not end up bidding for the national team championship. Perhaps Europe simply isn’t ready for a massive scale tournament that is smoothly run.
Whatever the case, it is a serious problem. Quidditch Europe received a paltry two bids for EQC 2016, and both were from Italy. EQC 2015 only had three bids, from Oxford, Paris, and Rome. European Games 2015 had a similarly small number of bids. It is especially concerning, as a comparison between the sports facilities on offer at BQC 2016 and EQC 2016 show that simply finding a big, open, and relatively flat space won’t cut it anymore. If quidditch is to develop, we are not only going to need more bids; we are going to need bids from higher-quality locations and facilities than we have ever had before, from sites that mirror the sports centres at which US Quidditch Cup has regularly been held and where Global Games 2014 was held in Vancouver.

This, perhaps, is the most important lesson that must be taken from this comparison. A long-term and focused strategy that is consistent with the development aims of the IQA and Quidditch Europe must be developed, lest more tournament committees be held hostage by the poor conditions they inherit. There are already encouraging signs, with Quidditch Europe opening bidding for the 2017 event earlier than ever this year (bidding has since opened since time of writing). This strategy will not be an easy one to form it must balance potential exposure with the amount of accommodation and space, it must balance aesthetics with functionality, and it must balance pledged funding and support with realism and individual development – but it is vital if the IQA and Quidditch Europe are to truly restore the potential of international competitions in our sport.

Jack Lennard is COO of the Quidditch Post, and was Publicity Director for EQC 2015. They were instrumental in the livetweeting of EQC 2016 for the Quidditch Post.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to METU as METÜ. We apologize for this error

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