Snooker cues up China opportunity

While none of the four Chinese players in the main draw at the World Snooker Championships has made it through to the quarter-finals, it’s clear that snooker is developing rapidly in the Chinese market. Other sports will want to learn from this success but may find it difficult to replicate the specific attributes which have benefited snooker.

According to a Chinese journalist quoted by the BBC, 15 TV channels are showing the World Championships in China and there are now between 500 and 1,000 clubs in Beijing alone. Increasing numbers of Chinese fans have also been evident in the crowd in Sheffield.

The top-ranked Chinese player is Ding Junhui who is currently tenth but has previously been as high as fourth. He reached the semi-finals last year and had been considered one of the favourites for 2012 until he lost out in the first round. Although he has been based in Sheffield for some years, the younger contingent of Chinese players now making their mark have spent most of their junior years competing in China.

Just a couple of days ago, it was announced that a new tournament would be held later this year in China with the third largest prize money of any snooker event. With several ranking tournaments now scheduled in China, the sport seems to be determined to make the most of local interest.

So why has snooker made such progress when attempts by some other sports to develop in China seem to have faltered?

- Most importantly, snooker had no choice but to embrace the Chinese opportunity. When Barry Hearn took control of the sport in 2010, revenue and interest had been fading for a number of years. The emergence of Ding Junhui and other Chinese players presented a clear opportunity to host more events in China and to offer players wild card entries to tournaments
- Role models count for a lot. Numerous Chinese players and their families have seen Ding on TV and evidently invested significant amounts of time and money to compete on the Asian circuit with a view to reaching the highest level
- Facilities are not too expensive or complex to set up and an indoor sport which takes up limited space is an attractive leisure option in a big city with a harsh climate, such as Beijing
- Snooker provides cheap and (for fans like me) compelling television content enabling World Snooker and regional federations to screen plenty of hours of coverage to TV stations in China as well as numerous other countries, particularly through Eurosport

It would be no surprise to see a Chinese world champion soon but it won’t be in 2012. Belgian teenager Luca Brecel is also a hot prospect for the future. British players such as Judd Trump, losing finalist last year, should take their opportunity while they can.

Summer sport: when pre-season feels like mid-season

April traditionally marks the start of the summer sporting season in the northern hemisphere: cricket in England, the Masters Golf tournament in the US, the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. Now that so many sports operate all year, the excitement of a new season risks being lost.

The burden of constant competition takes its toll on athletes too. Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from a semi-final match in Miami last week due to injury; England cricketer Stuart Broad may miss the next match in Sri Lanka; and Tiger Woods pulled out of a tournament two weeks ago. All of them want to make sure they are fit for high profile events coming up in the next few weeks.

There are significant debates going on in several sports between competing interest groups about how to manage the calendar (see, for example, FIFA trying to force clubs to release footballers for Olympic competitionNadal resigning from the ATP players’ council due to lack of agreement in changing the ranking system to give players more flexibility in their schedules; and proposals to establish a multi-sport European Games). The federations and leagues in each sport all want access to the best players and to stage events in as many markets as possible but the calendar is crowded.

Sports competitions have proved fairly resilient in tough economic times. Although some lower level tournaments disappeared from the calendar in golf, tennis and other sports, the higher profile events have kept going, even if they have had to cut costs. Quite a few world and continental championships rely on a hefty subsidy from host cities but still manage to attract bids from cities hoping to attract other events in future. Commercial considerations therefore have only a limited restraining effect on the ambitions of federations and leagues.

The disputes about competition calendars tend to involve player unions or representatives, leagues and governing bodies. Leagues and governing bodies often have competing interests (such as the “club v country” debate) and resolve their differences through a power struggle. In individual sports, athletes are probably in a stronger bargaining position to determine how often they compete because they are more difficult to replace. In team sports it is of course possible to solve the problem of player burn-out by having bigger squads. The logical consequence of this is that top European football clubs pay some international standard players vast amounts of money to play a handful of games a season.

As interest in professional sport develops in more and more markets, the pressure on athletes to perform all year round looks set to increase. Clashes between competing competitions (such as the Indian Premier League and English domestic cricket or between Olympic football and pre-season tournaments) will become more common. Unfortunately, athletes will sometimes be forced into making a decision which is not in their best interests: playing when half-fit, or choosing one competition above another due to external pressure. Legal clashes are inevitable.

Athletes in spring training are looking forward to the opportunities of the new season. No doubt the sports lawyers are limbering up too.

Introduction of goal-line technology could have wider implications

Football has made a tentative step towards ending its long-standing resistance to the use of technology in assisting referees. It’s a significant move and I believe that increased use of technology could eventually result in better behaviour by players and managers, as well as more accurate decisions.

On 3 March the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which sets the rules of football worldwide, approved two types of goal-line technology for further testing. The technology determines whether or not the ball has crossed the line into the goal, ending refereeing mistakes which occur several times a season. Trials will take place between now and June with possible implementation to be approved at the start of July, probably too late for the 2012/13 season.

As goals are what really matter in football and because the location of the ball is an objective measurement, it makes sense for this specific technology to be tested before any others. However, once the principle has been accepted, there is scope to do much more.

One of the companies being evaluated, Hawk-Eye, will be familiar to cricket and tennis fans. Only the most staunchly traditional would argue that Hawk-Eye’s introduction has not had a positive effect on the umpiring of those sports. In addition, the technology has opened up various new types of analysis which are interesting for spectators and useful for coaches. In both cricket and tennis Hawk-Eye has reduced the number of disputes between players and umpires. Players are quickly learning when it is worth using one of a limited number of appeals to review an umpire’s call and when to accept the original decision. While video reviews do cause a short delay, they add to the drama. Technology admittedly reduces the role of the on-field referee or umpire but almost everybody accepts that increased accuracy is more important.

In football many of the important refereeing decisions are subjective, such as the awarding of a penalty. There are often claimed to be differences in the interpretation between individual referees and between leagues in different countries. While this may be partially true, with some sensible statistical analysis and sufficient political will it would be possible to use technology to improve the consistency of decisions significantly.

Eventually, players and managers should learn that their repeated and tiresome attempts to influence almost every decision will not work and they should devote their energy to playing more effectively instead.

There are those who argue that goal-line technology is expensive, that it is unproven and that not everybody will be able to use it at first. I remember citing similar reasons for not buying a mobile phone some years ago. I soon changed my mind.

Common theme between Whitney Houston’s sad end and football controversy

The news of the sadly premature passing of singer Whitney Houston and rows about Premier League footballers refusing to shake hands before a match may seem completely unrelated but arguably there is a link: in both cases the agents and managers have failed in their responsibilities.

As USA Today reports, there were rumours about Houston’s drug abuse and other serious personal problems as early as the mid 1990s, although her success continued. In recent years the decline of her health and singing voice were apparent in her public appearances and an attempted comeback in 2009 resulted in disappointment for her fans.

Unfortunately, Whitney Houston joins a lengthy list of entertainers whose excesses have contributed to their own demise. Sportsmen too have suffered the same fate: George Best and Alex Higgins are two examples familiar to British sports fans.

While plenty of people who are not in the public eye also abuse drugs and alcohol or self-destruct in other ways, it does seem to be a more regular occurrence for those whose talent brings stardom and  great wealth at a young age.

The character of young stars is probably the biggest factor determining their level of risk but families and friends can of course play an important role in keeping them under control. However, young stars of sport and entertainment tend to spend a lot of time away from home with their management teams. Sports coaches or managers often become surrogate parents while agents advise on financial matters. Friends are likely to comprise people in the same sport or industry, who are under the same pressures.

The trouble is, the top priority for managers and agents may well be keeping themselves in a job rather than considering the long-term interests of the individual they are working for.

As the Huffington Post and others reported, Whitney Houston’s entourage took up “a fair portion” of the large hotel where she was staying. How many make-up artists and bodyguards does one person need?

The physical demands of sport with constant training and competition probably have a moderating effect on athletes during the competitive careers: plenty drink too much and some may abuse recreational drugs but there’s a limit to what you can get away with if you want to continue performing at the top level.

When it comes to behaviour, however, there is little to restrict star footballers. Club managers tend to earn less money than top players and may well stay for a shorter time at a club than many of their team. It is not in their interests to alienate big players, who are much more popular than them, by telling them that their conduct is unacceptable. Agents fear being fired more than the reputational damage to players in their care.

While real talent is a scarce resource which fans will pay for, those same fans are capable of recognising when bad behaviour is spiralling out of control. If public opinion turns, sponsors and promoters pull out and the money dries up.

The really scarce resource seems to be the supply of agents and managers with natural authority who can give good advice and inspire respect. Now that really would be worth paying for.

Carlos Tevez – how did it come to this?

If the proverbial martian landed on earth and flicked through the sports headlines at the moment she/he would be puzzled about what is going on with footballer Carlos Tevez.

Let’s get this straight:
- He is one of the world’s best players who has been instrumental in the success of every club he has represented
- He hasn’t played for his current club Manchester City since the end of September because of a breakdown in relations with the manager
- Manchester City had to wait until the January “transfer window” to try to sell him
- Transfer negotiations with Paris St Germain seem to have fallen through, as they did previously with Brazilian club Corinthians plus AC Milan and Inter Milan
- Manchester City probably don’t want to sell him to one of their rival English clubs
- They are believed to be holding out for a price of about £25m
- Meanwhile, Tevez and his advisers are earning a very large sum of money (£200,000 per week is often quoted)
- That leaves a total of perhaps five clubs in the world who could afford him, all of whom would be wary of ending up in a similar situation to Manchester City

The result is stalemate. Commentators in recent weeks have written stories ruling out potential moves to QPR, Tottenham, Real Madrid, a club in Dubai and probably others. Many believe that a deal will be done in the final hours or minutes of the transfer window on 31 January when Manchester City will have to accept a reduced price in order to avoid being saddled with a very expensive non-playing player for the rest of the season.

Journalists will be camped outside the club’s stadium for at least 48 hours, waiting for an announcement. If the martian happens to turn on Sky Sports News on “Transfer Deadline Day” such will be the sense of impending apocalypse that she/he will probably believe that the countdown clock is tracking the final hours before the end of the world.

Tevez is presumably sitting quietly somewhere, watching and waiting, wondering where he will be moving to in the next few weeks, what it will be like playing there, how the players and fans will react to him.

There have been numerous stories about Tevez being depressed and homesick. Depression is a serious illness whose prevalence among professional athletes has only recently begun to attract attention. Unfortunately, it is difficult for somebody like Tevez to receive proper treatment and support when his every move is tracked by countless journalists and when he makes so much money for other people.

As the martian prepared to return home she/he might conclude that this is an odd state of affairs and wonder why we earthlings don’t manage football in a more sensible way. I might be inclined to agree.

Snowboarder’s “triple rodeo” and the YouTube-ification of sport

British snowboarder Billy Morgan landed what is believed to be the first “triple rodeo” in December while training in Colorado. At the time of writing, different edits of his stunt have attracted close to 1m views on YouTube. It is a reminder for many other sports of what it takes to get attention.

Morgan’s video was picked up initially by the extreme sports community on websites including Onboard but it soon reached the mainstream media via ESPN and, in recent days, The Sun and the BBC. Extreme sports participants have been filming each other doing tricks ever since the bulky camcorder was invented. With the improvements in technology and an awareness of the marketing potential of stunts, it’s highly likely that a spectacular move will be captured on camera. Red Bull is among the sponsors that have moved into this market (see, for example, street trials cyclist Danny MacAskill).

Spectacular moments or passages of play occur in virtually all sports but there will generally only be a couple of incidents in dozens of hours of competition that can generate significant interest on YouTube and its rivals. In the last couple of weeks clips doing the rounds have included Tim Howard’s goal for Everton from his own penalty box and Jerome Simpson’s front flip to score a touchdown for the Cincinnati Bengals.

While these types of incidents during competition are rare, there is no reason why athletes from individual or team sports can’t have a go at some types of tricks during training – not everything that succeeds on YouTube involves risking your life. Teams and sponsors have been in on the act for some time (see, for example, the All Blacks showing off their skills and quarterback Johnny McEntee of the University of Connecticut).

There is scope to do more, particularly among lower profile sports whose major competitions may not generate much TV coverage. Demonstrations of endurance, strength or flexibility can impress viewers in sports that don’t easily lend themselves to stunts. Video training diaries are now commonplace but it’s a bigger project to produce a high quality film with the potential to attract a sizeable internet audience, requiring a fair amount of planning and investment.

Coaches, athletes and fans who value tradition in sport sometimes feel that such stunts are trivial or a distraction from the main priority of preparing for competition, which is true. We might prefer it if all fans would watch the finals of the national champinoships live. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of 30 second clips available to watch which compete for our attention. For an audience used to dogs on skateboards, a “triple rodeo” is the least they expect.

On-demand TV is mainstream. What does it mean for sport?

There was a time when Christmas TV brought the whole of the UK together: 30 million viewers watched EastEnders on Christmas Day in 1986. 25 years later the top-rated Christmas show was again EastEnders but the audience was just under 10 million. There are significant consequences of this audience fragmentation, not least for sport.

From the early 1990s until a couple of years ago the declining audiences could be attributed to the huge increase in the number of TV channels available. Since 2008, however, the launch of on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer and equivalents on other channels has added a new range of competition to network TV. The UK scene has become particularly complicated in the last few months with the arrival of Amazon company Lovefilm, the relaunch of YouTube, Sky Go, the availability of on-demand TV channels via Microsoft’s Xbox, and the imminent arrival of Netflix, which has been a huge success in North and South America.

The outcome for consumers (apart from total confusion) is that they can watch more or less anything at any time on any device with a screen.

So what does this mean for sport?

1) Sport can provide a larger proportion of “shared national moments” than in the past

There are few network TV shows that can now reach a huge audience with a single broadcast. A handful of reality programmes and major news items (covered on multiple channels) manage to do so. Sports events such as Wimbledon, the Grand National and England football matches in the World Cup and EURO also provide these “national moments”. A fair number of sports have occasional opportunities to join this list, when they have a popular British star or team who is expected to perform well in a major tournament. The reward for sports that get it right is significant – cyclist Mark Cavendish won the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, which would have seemed implausible a few years ago.

2) Premium sports events become ever more attractive because of their ability to draw a live audience

It’s a familiar story: the sports events which command large rights fees already tend to increase in value because they guarantee eyeballs across various platforms for live broadcasts. However, regulatory changes could have a big impact over a period of time as governments and the EU adjust to advancing technology.

3) It’s more difficult than before to draw an audience to watch a sport or event which is unfamiliar

The chance of consumers stumbling across a sports event on TV by chance and watching it is presumably declining all the time. If you don’t actively select sports channels on the various TV platforms and you don’t flick through network channels, you’ll miss the event. Unfortunately, the probable consequence is that all sports apart from the most premium properties will be restricted to channels with low audiences or pay-per-view systems which only existing fans will watch.

4) Magazine sports shows may be worth another go

Magazine-style sports shows still exist but they tend to be cult or niche programmes (such as Soccer Saturday and World Olympic Dreams)  rather than the mass-market Grandstand of years gone by. With the right approach and access to highlights clips (regulatory changes may help here) there could be a decent audience for a magazine sports show which can be watched as it is broadcast or on demand in the following days. To be successful such programmes would need to provide content across a range of digital channels, not just a TV show.

In conclusion, sport provides exciting live content which will always appeal to TV viewers but sports rights-holders face an increasingly difficult challenge to devise and implement a broadcast strategy.

UEFA EURO 2012 draw extravaganza – please, just get on with it

One of the more eccentric rituals of sport took place live on television screens across Europe yesterday: the tournament draw for UEFA EURO 2012. After seeing a number of these types of events I have concluded that the best way to watch them is on the radio.

Draw veterans will have recognised a series of now familiar elements: pre-draw speculation from studio experts (“they’ll want to avoid Spain”); the compulsory “indigenous dance segment”; speeches; retired players coming onto the stage; tourism videos; clips of former tournaments and, finally, after an interminable delay, the drawing of small plastic balls out of goldfish bowls according to a system so complicated that it reinforces suspicions that the whole thing is fixed. Once the draw is done we get more expert comments offering such startling insights as:
- There are no easy games at this level
- After a disappointing World Cup they’ll be looking to do better this time
- They have some good young players

The draw is a fundamental element of a large number of sports tournaments designed to ensure fairness by adding a random and uncontrollable aspect to the event. However, the draw is very often seeded with the aim of easing the path of the highest ranked teams or athletes to later rounds. Perhaps curiously, the rationale for seeding rarely seems to be questioned, although there are often fierce arguments about how seeding should work. It seems there is general acceptance that fans want to see the best teams get through to the final stages of tournaments. The incentive (or consolation) for the weaker teams is that one day they may be higher ranked and therefore face an easier draw.

The news appetite for the outcome of the draw is not in doubt – the UEFA EURO is a great tournament which will be followed closely by tens or even hundreds of millions of fans across Europe in June 2012. There is extensive coverage in all of the sixteen countries which have qualified for the event and no doubt also in many others. For example, see the Daily Telegraph focusing on England, Le Figaro (France), Marca (Spain), Gazzetta dello Sport (Italy) and Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland, joint host of the tournament alongside Ukraine). Fans will enjoy speculating endlessly about the prospects for their team in the tournament in the months ahead.

The point is that a straightforward procedure, which could easily be done in a split second on a computer, is turned into a vast jamboree involving hundreds of people. It happens because there is sufficient demand from broadcasters and other media to make it worthwhile. Yet I suspect there wasn’t a single fan watching yesterday who wasn’t impatiently wishing they would just get on with the draw.

It’s clear that host countries want an opportunity to promote themselves ahead of a tournament and I fully appreciate that a draw conducted by famous retired players is more appealing than one done by computer, but the draw as an event has got out of hand.

The pompous and overblown nature of the ceremony (and UEFA is one of several sports organisations which go over the top with these things) demonstrates a disconnect with the interests and needs of the fans they serve. Next time, I’ll listen on the radio. And I’m pleased about England’s draw, by the way – it could have been much worse.

Basil d’Oliveira – a life to prove the absurdity of racism in sport

Cricketer Basil d’Oliveira, who had a significant impact on the modern history of South Africa, has died in his 80s. Through his achievements he single-handedly demonstrated the absurdity of racist beliefs, particularly in relation to sport.

The dramatic story of his career is covered in numerous obituaries (see for example the BBC and Daily Telegraph online) but it’s worth a short summary here:

Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era, d’Oliveira was denied the opportunity to play cricket at the top level due to the colour of his skin. Determined and ambitious to prove his ability, he managed to move to England in 1960 where he progressed through club cricket to the professional game. In 1968, two years after his England debut, he scored 158 in a famous victory against Australia. He should have been a natural choice for selection in the England team to tour South Africa shortly afterwards.

Shamefully, he was omitted from the squad because the South African government had warned that he was not welcome. Following injuries, however, he was later called up as a replacement, which led to the cancellation of the tour. This was one of the key incidents that led to the sporting isolation of South Africa which lasted until 1991.

D’Oliveira had a distinguished cricketing career, despite the late start, and coached successfully for many years afterwards. By all accounts he seems to have been a remarkable man who made a great impact on everybody he met.

At a time when several unpleasant stories about racism in sport are circulating, d’Oliveira’s death is a reminder that pioneers in a number of sports battled against great odds to overcome discrimination at different times over the last century. Sports fans and the current generation of athletes owe much to their achievements for the opportunities that exist today.

While progress towards genuine equality in sport is not always visible from year to year, over decades the pattern is clear. The simple truth of sport is that world-class talent is unambiguous, wherever it comes from. The fact that fans want to see the best athletes and coaches want to win is a powerful incentive to challenge discrimination.

With courage, dignity and determination, Basil d’Oliveira created a chance for himself then seized it, inspiring millions in the process. If you want a demonstration of the power of sport, look no further.

Diversity of cities bidding for events makes comparisons tricky

On 11 November the host cities for the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Athletics and for the 2018 Commonwealth Games will be elected. In both cases the cities competing could scarcely be more different, making direct comparisons very difficult.

For the IAAF the choice is between Doha in Qatar and London. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games Federation will vote for their event to be hosted either in the Sri Lankan city of Hambantota or in Brisbane, Australia (in fact the bid is formally from the Gold Coast). The fact that both elections are on the same day seems to be pure coincidence.

In the contest between Doha and London, both candidates have websites, athlete ambassadors (such as Yelena Isinbayeva for Doha and Ed Moses for London) and plans for ambitious development programmes. But the two cities themselves are dramatically different in almost every way: culture, geography, size, climate, history, political system, economy, sporting habits and so on.

Commonwealth Games candidates Hambantota and Brisbane are also radically different. Apart from the fact that they are both on the coast and looking to boost their tourism credentials, it’s hard to see what else they might have in common.

The 71 Commonwealth Games Associations with a vote have a 144 page evaluation commission report at their disposal which concludes, with various qualifications, that the Brisbane bid presents a “low risk” whereas the Hambantota bid presents a “medium to high risk”. The report gives a steer on technical aspects such as venues, transport and accommodation but the comparison for voters is not really between the spectator capacities of venues, it is a choice between an established sporting destination and one which is entirely new.

If the voters decide on the new option, Brisbane backers will justifiably feel that their lower risk bid has not been fairly recognised. On the other hand, if Brisbane prevails, Hambantota supporters will question why their bid wasn’t stopped at an early stage, saving the Sri Lankan government a lot of time and money: it’s clear to any observer that much more new construction would be needed to host the Games there.

One possible solution to this issue would be a rotation policy but as the Commonwealth Games Federation possesses the rights to one high profile event every four years, it would be a tough political challenge to develop and implement such a policy.

As the IAAF owns rights to a number of events varying in scale, there is an opportunity to “try out” a new market with a smaller championship but the real interest is in the biennial World Championships. The bid committee from the city which loses out for 2017 will very likely feel that the quality of their bid was a less significant factor in the decision than political considerations.

There is no easy answer for the leaders of the event owning bodies. Limit the bidding process solely to technical criteria and it will be the “usual suspects” among cities and countries which generally host the big events; make an arbitrary decision solely on political criteria and watch the number of bids dwindle next time.

If rights-holders want to maximise the number of bids and to increase the number of countries capable of putting major events, reducing the cost and complexity of hosting should be a priority. In setting up the Youth Olympic Games the International Olympic Committee has made innovations intended to keep down the cost of organisation and others would do well to follow suit.

I make no predictions for the IAAF World Championships and Commonwealth Games host city elections, except that the losers will argue they have been hard done by.