Archive for the ‘multi-sport’ 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.

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.

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.

Tour de France and the 3Ls

After a week of racing, the Tour de France has reached the mountains, when huge crowds line the streets to see the cyclists gasp their way along winding lanes. With as many as a million spectators each year, it is sometimes claimed that Le Tour is the world’s third largest sports event.

It is clear that the FIFA World Cup and summer edition of the Olympic Games are the two largest sports events, each involving over 200 countries and attracting a TV audience that is a significant chunk of the world’s population.

Regarding the next in line, however, there is some doubt. It really depends whether you measure participants, crowds, TV audience, economic impact or some more subjective criteria. In addition to the Tour de France, claims have also been made that quite a few other events are the third largest. Here is a list of what might I would like to call the 3Ls:
UEFA EURO – large TV audience and economic impact – next edition Poland/Ukraine 2012
Asian Games – over 30 sports and 6,000 participants - next edition Guangzhou 2010
Commonwealth Games – involves over 50 countries and one third of the world’s population – next edition New Delhi 2010
Maccabiah Games – over 7,000 participants – happening 12-23 July 2009 in Israel
IAAF World Championships in Athletics – large number of participating countries – next edition in August in Berlin
ICC Cricket World Cup – massive interest in India with over 1 billion population - next edition India/Bangladesh/Sri Lanka 2011
IRB Rugby World Cup – ticket sales – perhaps not a very strong case – next edition New Zealand 2011

A case could also be made for the Olympic Winter Games (Vancouver 2010). The fact that ardent sports fans may not have heard of some of the 3Ls, depending on where they live in the world, demonstrates that only football and the Olympic Games are truly universal.

Organisers, rights-holders and sponsors can be forgiven for talking up the significance of their events as nobody particularly wants to be promoting the 8th biggest sports event in the world and it’s difficult to make a fully objective judgement in any case. What is relevant to fans in India is not necessarily of interest in France and vice versa.

The Tour de France has a unique place on the list of 3Ls as the only event which takes place every year – the others are quadrennial - and always predominantly in the same country. Completing the Tour is a great feat of endurance and it is worth bearing in mind that it will only be in two weeks, on Sunday 26 July, when the riders will be greeted by the welcome sight of the finish line in the Champs Elysées in Paris. By that time many other major sporting competitions that are not among the 3Ls will have been and gone.