Archive for the ‘football’ Category

The opportunity of international name recognition

While visiting Argentina it is noticeable that many of the sporting stars who appear daily in the national media are very familiar to a British sports fan. This instant name recognition brings an opportunity which may not be fully recognised.

In the 21 October issue of Olé, the popular national sports newspaper, there were stories about Barcelona icon Lionel Messi, the Argentinian rugby team preparing for their forthcoming tour of the UK, rising tennis star Juan Martín del Potro and numerous pages previewing the weekend’s local derby between Boca Juniors and River Plate.

The focus for sponsors and rights-holders is often the country where a sporting competition is taking place but the media coverage can spread much further, depending on the nationalities of the participants. This has long been appreciated in Formula 1, where the nationality of drivers is a significant factor when teams decide who to hire. Football and basketball clubs are also well aware that a star name from overseas can help the fan base to grow in a new market - consider Beckham at LA Galaxy or Park Ji-Sung at Mancheter United.

However, the potential is much greater. It is perfectly plausible for a sponsor or rights-holder to create an event featuring hand-picked athletes or teams from specific markets. More often it seems to happen the other way around: the fact that a particular athlete or team is involved suddenly makes an event more attractive for a potential sponsor. Purists will understandably be concerned that qualification might be determined by a sponsor’s needs rather than on merit. Clearly there needs to be a balance between open and invitation-only competitions because fans will readily ignore meaningless contests.

At a time when many sporting bodies are under economic pressure, sponsors can be a little bolder in their negotiations. Even if they don’t go as far as creating their own event they may be able to influence  qualification criteria to increase the chances of key athletes or teams participating. 

For governing bodies and other rights-holders, uneasy at the prospect of having sponsors closely involved in their events, it is more important than ever to increase the depth and range of potential winners. If they succeed they will have a much stronger proposition to offer international brands. Unfortunately it’s easier said than done.

Football, rugby, tennis, basketball, volleyball and golf are therefore fortunate that the strength of Argentina’s athletes assures interest in their national media. However that doesn’t stop the Brazilians poking fun at their rivals’ struggle to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.

Confed Cup: testing, in every sense

In the end Brazil won it but there were plenty of surprises in the entertaining FIFA Confederations Cup, which acts as a test event for next year’s World Cup.

The USA defeated Spain, who had been unbeaten in 35 matches, and Egypt knocked Italy out of the competition. Media in South Africa were satisfied that the hosts reached the semi-finals.

The Confederations Cup can feel contrived as an event, featuring the champions of each continental confederation plus the World Cup winners and the host nation. Until this year’s event kicked off, few football fans probably remembered that Brazil also won it last time, in 2005.

In fairness to FIFA, it makes sense to have an international tournament a year ahead of the World Cup in the same country. The challenge for the organisers is to sell tickets and drum up interest in matches between unfamiliar teams. After complaints about slow sales, tickets were given away for some matches. Overall the tournament can be judged a success, particularly the exciting action on the pitch. According to FIFA’s assessment, transport and security issues remain to be resolved for the World Cup.

South Africa has hosted plenty of major international sports events since it returned from sporting isolation in 1992, including the Rugby and Cricket World Cups, this year’s Indian Premier League and the current rugby tour by the British and Irish Lions. However, the FIFA World Cup is on a different scale because of the massive attention it attracts virtually all over the world.

As with the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing last year, the significance of the event will extend far beyond the sporting competition on the pitch. The stakes are very high for South Africa and even Africa as a whole in terms of the impact on international image, business opportunities and tourism.

Through hosting the Confederations Cup, South Africa has had to face tough international scrutiny (see, for example balanced pieces in The Times and the Canadian Press). It may not all make comfortable reading for the World Cup organisers but the thorough test has surely been useful at this stage.

After the positive experience of these last two weeks, most observers would be more confident in predicting that next year’s World Cup will be a success than in predicting who will win it.

French Open Tennis: 1928 – ?

Most sports fans will have shared Roger Federer’s delight when he won his first French Open title today and so became only the sixth male player to win singles titles at all four Grand Slams.

Who might be the next player to achieve such a feat? Actually, there is a chance it will never be repeated in the same way because the French Open itself is said to be under threat.

There has been speculation in Spanish media that the new venue in Madrid could replace Roland-Garros as the venue for the Grand Slam played on clay. It was noticeable that the French organisers rushed to announce plans for developing their venue, including a retractable roof and new show court.

In an interview with Le Monde, the director of the French Open said he didn’t think the Madrid tournament posed a real danger because “what makes the tournament is its history, which cannot be bought”.

Tradition is immensely valuable for a sports venue because fans and athletes remember great encounters from their childhood. The dreams fostered by those experiences linger for many years so that the idea of moving an event can seem like sacrilege.

Traditional calendar events comprise part of the core script of sport: showpiece tournaments and finals which are held at the same venue or venues at the same time each year. Examples include national football cup finals, Formula 1 Grand Prix, cricket test matches and Grand Slam tennis tournaments. With interest from top athletes, fans and broadcasters virtually guaranteed, these are some of the most economically successful events in sport.

A separate category of sports competition is the franchise event, which is allocated by rightsholders to a venue and organising team based on a bidding process. Among these are the FIFA World Cup and many other individual sport world championships.

Nowadays the organisers of calendar events are increasingly facing bidding competitions. Formula 1 rightsholders, buoyed by the financial success of the series, have encouraged ambitious new entrants to build venues and challenge the incumbent hosts. For this reason the long-established Grand Prix in Britain and France have been threatened, among others. Similarly, the England and Wales Cricket Board instituted a bidding process for hosting financially lucrative test matches, resulting in a recent match against the West Indes being held at a new ground in Durham. When ticket sales were poor the choice of venue was criticised.

Although abandoning established venues for new markets is sometimes essential – no Arsenal supporter would now question the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium - nevertheless there are significant risks. Owners of sports events can ill-afford to alienate their core market.

There is little hard evidence that the International Tennis Federation is about to abandon the French Open in favour of Madrid but managers of all established sports venues would be well-advised to make sure that the memory of a capacity crowd rising to acclaim the great Roger Federer is not the only reason to maintain the status quo.

Match postponed: frozen pitch

Much of Europe has experienced freezing temperatures since late December, leading to the postponement of dozens of football and rugby matches and many other sports events (even as far south as Madrid). It’s inconvenient and disappointing for television and radio fans but even more so for ticket holders, who may not find out about the postponement until they reach the venue.

To avoid the worst of the weather, several countries in northern Europe have a short winter break and extend the competitive seasons slightly at either end. Sport in Britain, in contrast, has always taken advantage of the fact that much of the population is off work from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day, scheduling a large range of fixtures right across the country. It can pay dividends. Harlequins rugby union club attracted a record crowd of 50,000 to Twickenham for their Guinness Premiership encounter with Leicester on 27 December and 21,000 spectators saw the popular horse Kauto Star win the big race at Kempton Park at the traditional Boxing Day races. 

These loyal fans braved cold weather and often difficult travelling conditions to follow their sport but the key factor is television demand. It would be unthinkable for the stations who have paid vast sums for the rights not to have live competitions to show when millions of people are at home and available to watch. In fact, the worse the weather, the higher the viewing figures are likely to be. Ultimately the loyal club fan with a season ticket is the one who suffers: either shiver in the stand or skip the match.  

The Scottish Premier League last had a winter break in 2002/3, despite the fact that postponements are a regular occurrence from December to February. As the BBC explains, the timetable of matches to be played before the finishing date prescribed by FIFA makes it very difficult to fit in a break next season.
For the same reason the Bundesliga in Germany is shortening its six week winter break to three weeks in 2009/10.

Naturally, postponements give rise to conspiracy theories, particularly at the lower levels: when the home club has lots of injuries there may be only three people half-heartedly sweeping snow off the pitch; sure enough, when they are in good form and looking for a win, dozens of volunteers appear and the pitch is miraculously cleared.

In contrast to Scandinavia and the more mountainous countries, there isn’t enough snow in Britain to rule out grass sport in the coldest weeks of the year. For the stoical British sports fan and amateur participant, enduring a few bitter, wintry days remains an essential demonstration of commitment to the cause. For the uninitiated, it’s madness. Don’t expect to see a winter break in the British sporting calendar any time soon. 

Big Test for South Africa

As 2009 begins, South African sport is looking in better shape than ever before, 18 months ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup . In the last days of 2008 the South African cricket team achieved their first ever test series victory over Australia away from home. It was a considerable achievement because Australia had not lost a series on home soil for 17 years. Even TIME Magazine noticed and the news made the front page of the Melbourne Sun and other Australian media, who paid generous tributes to the South African team.

In June and July this year the South Africa rugby union team (the reigning world champions) will host the British and Irish Lions rugby tour, which is likely to attract tens of thousands of fans from the UK and Ireland. At the same time the FIFA Confederations Cup will also take place in South Africa, involving eight national teams from around the world. It serves as a vital test of venues and systems a year before the FIFA World Cup.

In contrast to the success of the rugby and cricket teams, the South African football team, known as Bafana Bafana, is currently languishing in 75th place in the world rankings. No doubt the football authorities in South Africa will be urgently looking for improvements in the coming months.

It was only in 1992 that South Africa was readmitted to international sport after the end of the Apartheid era. The country still faces huge challenges and sport is frequently entangled in racial politics (for example racial quotas and the badges on the South African rugby team jersey).

In a country with such a strong sporting culture, the successful hosting of sports events over the next 18 months could provide a stimulus for further economic and social progress. But the biggest boost of all would come if the South African football team could sneak through to the knock-out stages of the World Cup. The pressure is on for Bafana Bafana.

No more Earthdreams

News of Honda’s imminent withdrawal from Formula One motor racing made the front page of the Financial Times on 6 December.

Formula One teams come and go. In fact, Honda itself first withdrew from competition in 1968, re-emerging in the 1980s. However, since 2006 they had been one of the highest spending teams (an estimated £300m per season) and had also supplied engines for others. This year Honda promoted environmental projects through their Earthdreams programme rather than raising large amounts through sponsorship. As a company deeply involved in racing, their departure is a major blow for motor sport.

Funding a Formula One outfit, a Barclays Premier League football team or an Indian Premier League cricket team is only possible for those with very deep pockets. The highly competitive nature of top level commercial sport leads owners and sponsors to spend extravagantly in the hope of gaining that crucial edge which can make the difference between winning and losing.

Unfortunately the law of diminishing returns applies: a player or driver costing £5m per season in wages is not necessarily five times more effective than one costing £1m. Despite generous funding and undoubted expertise, Honda had disappointing seasons in 2007 and 2008.

Even if Honda finds a buyer for their team Formula One’s governing body, the FIA, seems committed to trying to reduce costs by changing the regulations.

Meanwhile, the recent unsuccessful attempt by the French government to move the financial regulation of sport (mainly football) from national to European institutions was also aimed at curbing expenditure. 

A certain amount of tension between regulatory bodies and the funders of professional sports teams is probably inevitable because of their differing objectives. The regulators should be focused on the overall health of the competition, including financial sustainability, whereas the owners and sponsors of teams want to win at all costs and make money. 

The unavoidable truth in commercial sport is that in every league, in every race, someone has to finish last. And whoever is last is likely to lose a lot of money.

It is the big American sports who have come closest to solving this problem with their closed franchise system, selling broadcast rights collectively and giving weaker teams the first pick of talented young athletes each year.

In difficult economic times it will be interesting to see how effectively governing bodies, teams and sponsors manage to work together. Honda is unlikely to be the last big brand to exit in a hurry from an expensive, unsuccessful sporting partnership. 

Quantum of Bond for 2018

The latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace has proved a highly successful vehicle for sponsorship and product placement with no fewer than 12 partners from Sony to Aston Martin.

Over the years, James Bond has often demonstrated an interest in sport – skiing, speed boat racing, sky diving – even if the rules of the competitions haven’t always been as strictly enforced as us sports purists would like. Given the size of the global sports industry and the complex politics involved, perhaps it’s time for a Bond baddie from the sporting world. It could be a wealthy football club owner with ambitions for world domination or a sports politician with evil intent. A plot revolving around sport could easily incorporate the necessary range of exotic locations, expensive hotels and glamorous women.

Which brings me to the FIFA World Cup. The Football Association in England is submitting a bid for the 2018 World Cup. Competition will be tough with rival bids expected from the USA, China, Australia, Holland/Belgium, Russia, Spain/Portugal and possibly others. The English bid team is being assembled and the names of several high-profile ambassadors have already been mooted, including former United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan, politician Baroness Amos, and footballers David Beckham and John Barnes. I would like to see James Bond as a bid ambassador. Actor Daniel Craig would certainly help the FA claim their share of the media spotlight at the various FIFA events during the bidding competition. His presence might also reduce the need for bodyguards for the other famous people…

I believe there is plenty of potential for a film tie-in. It would admittedly be counter-productive to base a plot on Bond rescuing the English World Cup bid from the clutches of dastardly rivals but there is surely scope for a throwaway line or a cheeky shot of a Sepp Blatter lookalike.

Andy Anson, the incoming chief executive of the England 2018 bid, will have a lot to do when he starts the new role in January. I hope he’ll consider putting in a call to 007.