Archive for the ‘football’ Category

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.

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.

FIFA’s huge new TV deals – limited commercial pressure to reform so far

On 27 October FIFA announced new TV deals for 2015-2022 in Australia, Canada and the Caribbean. The way the money is rolling in, FIFA’s leadership must be comforted that the damage to its reputation in recent months seems to be having little financial impact.

Together with the recently concluded USA deal, the combined total for TV contracts so far for the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 plus the other FIFA events is $1.85bn USD. FIFA has also awarded a contract to sell the rights in numerous Asian countries (excluding Japan and Korea) to an agency called Infront Sports and Media. Rights for the still more lucrative European markets have not yet been finalised.

Add in some long-term sponsorship agreements (Heineken has just extended through to 2022) and it is clear that FIFA has already signed contracts which should bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, ten years into the future.

Few organisations of any kind can be so confident about their income for the next ten years, let alone an organisation which has just announced reform plans following serious allegations of corruption.

The plans received a cautious welcome from Transparency International and some other commentators but it will take at least a few months to see how the reforms are progressing. However, the big TV and sponsorship deals followed only days later, no doubt after a lengthy period of negotiation.

There are signs that FIFA is under some pressure from its commercial partners. Several sponsors expressed concern at the allegations involving FIFA in May this year and it’s possible that the private conversations went further than the mild public statements.

In addition, the renewed TV rights contract with Infront Sports and Media has been criticised by Transparency International because the company is headed by the nephew of FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

With the all-important European TV rights for 2018 and 2022 still to be sold and with various sponsorship packages to be negotiated, there is an opportunity for FIFA’s commercial partners to exert some influence.

Understandably, sponsors and broadcasters will be reluctant to do anything which damages their chances of securing a contract because the World Cup draws an enormous audience in many countries around the world.

It will therefore require a careful approach and good leadership but there is a chance for FIFA’s commercial partners to have a positive impact on the governance of football. After all, they pay the bills.

“Winning Grim” – when ugly doesn’t go far enough

“Winning ugly”, the expression coined by former tennis player and leading coach Brad Gilbert is no longer an adequate way to describe how some teams and, less often, individual athletes find their way to victory. I would like to suggest “winning grim” as a term to explain the logical conclusion of this trend.

Brad Gilbert, a player of modest talent but great tactical understanding and mental strength, made himself very difficult to beat by dogged determination. His now famous book “Winning Ugly” is a manual for getting the best out of yourself and for finding a way to win against opponents who are slightly better. It covers match preparation but is primarily concerned with tactics on the field of play.

The term is now widely used in sport, perhaps most often by fans frustrated that a team or player is failing to win ugly. That is to say, they are losing games which they are capable of winning, lacking the killer touch, inconsistent.

“Winning grim” goes further. Winning grim refers to teams and occasionally individual athletes plus their management who take a more holistic view of sport and seek to influence all the factors which can determine the result of a match. The masters of winning grim are often the leading contenders in their sport. Exponents of winning grim will have a strategy for considerations such as these off the field of play:
- The structure of competitions (method of qualification, schedules, the way the draw is done etc.)
- Legal challenges before, during and after competition (on issues such as player eligibility, suspensions etc.)
- The priorities of broadcasters and sponsors (what final they would ideally like to see, style of commentary, length of agreements etc.)
- Pre-match PR (putting psychological pressure on opponents, match officials, spreading rumours)

They will also be expert at the use of specific tactics on the field which go a step beyond the requirements of winning ugly:
- Pressurising match officials for maximum impact
- Time-wasting when in a potentially winning position or to disrupt the opponent’s momentum
- Tactical use of injuries (exaggerating injuries to give team-mates a rest or influence the referee)
- Choosing ultra low-risk tactics when a normal tactic would probably suffice (think of a rugby team repeatedly kicking long when leading or a football team substituting an attacker for a defender when 2-0 up)
- Selecting players who are consistent but limited in place of others who are more talented but unpredictable

Winning grim is the logical end-point when fans, financial backers and political stakeholders demand results. It is a strategy motivated by fear which is perfectly focused on the bigger prize. For this reason winning grim is better suited to league competition and major tournaments rather than to individual matches.

Winning grim should not be equated with cheating. Winning grim is legal and sometimes necessary, especially after a series of disappointments in big events. Eventually, however, winning grim will leave fans joyless and frustrated, alienating federations and other stakeholders along the way. You can’t afford to win grim all the time.

Masters of winning grim include José Mourinho and the England football team. It is to the great credit of the All Blacks that it was only in the final against France that they had to resort to winning grim. After a long wait for their second Rugby World Cup victory we should forgive them.

Rugby injuries and the dilemma of tournament preparation

With the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand only a couple of weeks away, teams are playing warm-up matches. This is standard procedure in team sports ahead of major tournaments but the risks of losing top players to injury are high, perhaps too high.

Last week Wales beat England but Morgan Stoddart broke his leg and Gavin Henson suffered an injury that may keep him out of the tournament. On the England side Danny Care has also been ruled out and Lewis Moody limped off but hopes to recover in time. A round of matches yesterday seems to have passed off with fewer injuries but there are more games to follow next weekend.

It seems rational to want to try different combinations of players ahead of a World Cup so that the coach can select the right squad and test borderline players in a match situation. It also suits governing bodies, who earn extra revenue, and the media who have an opportunity to speculate about who will be picked.

What is difficult to prove in any scientific way is the beneficial impact on teams of playing these warm-up matches. International rugby squads spend a fair amount of time together, allowing them to run through different tactical combinations and to work on fitness. Is the match practice really so essential that it’s worth risking losing players through injury? Even though players will feel pressure in the warm-up games, it’s unlikely to replicate the psychological intensity of the World Cup.

Every player is aware of the risk but they all have to prove themselves to get selected so there’s no holding back. In any case, when you are physically and mentally tuned to performing at 100%, trying to hold back a little may even increase the chance of injury.

At the FIFA World Cup, which comes at the end of a long season, the phenomenon of under-performance by leading players has sometimes been attributed by commentators to exhaustion (see, for example 2010 World Cup organiser Danny Jordaan).

In the southern hemisphere the rugby season is coming to an end. A South African sports scientist argued in June that players reach peak condition after 12 weeks of matches and that this year’s Super XV competition is several weeks too long, leading to higher risk of injury and player burnout.

For rugby players competing in northern hemisphere leagues there is arguably more need for match practice as they have recently returned from summer breaks but these days internationals are highly professional and unlikely to report for duty badly out of condition.

Competition at international level in rugby drives interest more than the club game. Every national governing body is measured first and foremost on their performance at the World Cup and fans want to see the star players. To reduce the risk of them missing the tournament it would be worth at least considering a different way to prepare: short format warm-up games or even a period of time without competitive matches mandated for all teams.

As it stands, with the pressure from governing bodies, fans and the media, it would be a brave coach who insisted on doing less preparation for a major tournament rather than more to keep players fresh.

One often quoted example of success by an under-prepared squad is the Denmark football team, who won Euro 1992 after being included in the tournament only 10 days before when the former Yugoslavia was disqualified.

Any players who get injured in next weekend’s warm-up games may well wonder if the Danish way is worth a go.

Sport tackles new frontiers

When FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced in December last year that the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments would be played in Russia and Qatar respectively, it was a surprise to many football fans but not to the bookmakers.

This decision continued a trend: where China led in 2008, the other BRIC countries are following. Between 2014 and 2018 Russia and Brazil will both host the Olympic Games and the World Cup, the two mega-events in sport which reach a TV audience of three or four billion with several hundred million watching the most popular live broadcasts. India has already put on the Commonwealth Games, co-hosted the Cricket World Cup and may submit an Olympic bid. And as Qatar proves, it’s not only the BRIC countries that are getting involved. Formula One has also been making a determined effort to appeal to new markets recently, adding races in Abu Dhabi (2009), Korea (2010) and India (2011). The planned race in Austin, Texas in 2012 can even be classed as expansion into a new market given Formula One’s patchy record in the USA.

However, global expansion also increases risk. The 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled at short notice due to political unrest, and attempts to reschedule it were met with strong opposition. High profile sports events can be disrupted in any country but sponsors and broadcasters will be wary about committing investment if they perceive significant political, economic or reputational risk.

For a growing sponsorship industry and other stakeholders in sport, these new frontiers present both a challenge and an opportunity. New markets are challenging because the global HQ and local managers may be unsure about how to make the most of a major event, especially if the sport is unfamiliar to local consumers. On the other hand, successful sports sponsorship could give a brand a real boost in an important territory.

Sponsorship can help achieve a number of objectives ranging from enhancing the brand or the organisation’s reputation through to business development and building relationships. The internal communications opportunity is often a significant factor too. Although the emphasis and approach will vary by country, the majority of major sport sponsors are mass-market consumer brands.

Government relations objectives tend to be a higher priority for sponsorship in those emerging markets where strong political connections are essential for business success.

The fundamental appeal of sport sponsorship is that major events provide an effective way to reach a large audience at the moment when they are pursuing one of their own interests through media channels (or actually at an event). Naturally, sponsorship innovates in step with the media industry – mobile apps are in vogue this year as sponsors seek new channels to counter the decline in audiences for individual TV stations.

A few global brands with sponsorship experience, such as Coca-Cola (an Olympic partner since 1928, believe it or not) will have significant local market presence and expertise virtually everywhere. However, the same may not be true for other brands of Western origin which are still feeling their way in emerging markets. Even if they are familiar with sponsorship, they may need local expertise to make it relevant. By contrast, ambitious local market brands may be looking at sponsorship for the first time, eyeing the potential for international promotion.

Sponsorship activity which works in one part of the world may not be right in another. In its marketing campaign for the Beijing 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games, McDonald’s changed its well-known slogan to “I’m lovin’ it when China wins”, in an appeal to Chinese national pride. Adopting a similar strategy, the Canadian elite athlete training programme before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games was called “Own The Podium” but it faced criticism from some commentators who took offence at the name.

In summary, the fact that major sports events are gravitating to emerging markets presents new opportunities for brands. Successful sponsorship programmes in the countries where the major events will take place in the coming years will combine international best practice and local market understanding to create a carefully tailored approach.

So, what should brands be doing now to prepare to take advantage?

1) Look at your brand’s objectives in emerging markets and consider whether sponsorship could help, especially if countries such as Brazil and Russia are relevant to you

2) Put together a team that combines sponsorship expertise and in-depth market knowledge to research the options

3) Consider whether your brand could provide an important value-in-kind product or service to a sports event. If so, the organisers will welcome you and there will be a logical way to promote the association

4) Recognise that Olympic and World Cup organisers restrict sponsors to a very specific exclusive category. If you need more freedom another sports property may be a better option

5) Think about your competitors’ objectives – would it worry you if they sign the deal?

Co-ordination needed to tackle corruption in sport

The consequences of alleged corruption in sport can sometimes seem trivial compared to the serious issues of “real” politics but in fact lives are at stake.

A professional footballer from South Korea called Jeong Jong-Kwan died in an apparent suicide in late May while under investigation for match-fixing in the K-league, where criminal gangs involved in illegal gambling have sought to influence players. It is too early to know whether any blame can be apportioned to the footballing authorities concerned.

Match-fixing has been identified as a major issue facing sports around the world and sports federations are now taking positive steps to counter the threat. International cricket, for example, has established its own an Anti-Corruption and Security Unit where any information regarding corruption in cricket can be reported anonymously.

In March there was a meeting involving the International Olympic Committee, government ministers from several countries plus various international organisations at which it was agreed to form a task force to help protect sport from illegal gambling.

But match-fixing is only one aspect of corruption in sport. Doping continues to damage the reputation of  cycling, athletics and others despite increasingly rigorous testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency, international federations and national anti-doping organisations.

In the cases of match-fixing and doping, there is a concerted effort by the leaders of sports organisations to solve the problem.

However, there are other types of corruption afflicting sport that are further removed from the field of play where evidence of progress is less clear-cut. Examples include the payment of bribes in return for awarding business contracts, and improper inducements to vote either for bidding cities/countries or for individuals standing for election. These illicit activities are often only uncovered when an insider speaks out or fails to cover their tracks.

Sports organisations generally lack adequate tools and resources to investigate and take action in response to allegations of corruption. Ethics committees in international federations have limited powers – of course they cannot act like a police force.

Since many international sports organisations are accountable only to their members (some of which probably have a disincentive to blow the whistle) and commercial sponsors (which are focused on their own businesses),  the protection against corruption is weak.

With lives at stake, not to mention billions in hard currency, it is time for a co-ordinated international approach to tackle corruption in sport. It will require further discussion to determine the right structure for the new international body or system which should be adopted but there may be a role for Interpol and perhaps also for the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The Chairman of the Danish Football Association Allan Hansen advocates the creation of an international investigation unit into sports fraud and corruption.

The experience of recent days, months and years shows that the “family” of sport cannot be left to tackle corruption on its own and that the consequences are too serious to be ignored.