Archive for the ‘sports politics’ Category

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.

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.

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.

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.

Misery for Wales; referee’s place in online history assured

It’s unusual in a team sport for one refereeing decision to determine the result of a major match quite as conclusively as happened today when Wales lost to France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Consequently, the referee Alain Rolland can be assured of notoriety online which will last a generation.

In the 18th minute of the first half the Wales captain Sam Warburton tackled French player Vincent Clerc illegally (for the detail of the law see 10.4 (j) here). Rolland immediately showed Warburton the red card, leaving Wales to play a man short for over an hour.

Many observers believe the tackle deserved a penalty and a yellow card at most (see, for example Dylan Cleaver in the New Zealand Herald). As Brendan Gallagher points out in the Daily Telegraph, the International Rugby Board has recently tightened the law on so-called spear tackles.

Curiously, Rolland chose not to consult the assistant referees (linesmen). The laws of rugby make provision for use of video replays for certain decisions but not currently for foul play unless it is in the in-goal area (see 6.A.6 (b) here).

In the end France just made it through to the final, winning 9-8. Wales had a kick which scraped the wrong side of the post and other chances which they weren’t quite able to take.

Alain Rolland’s entry on Wikipedia was rapidly hacked and may end up being locked to prevent further abuse. At the time of writing, the entry questions his neutrality, mentioning the fact that his father is French.

Inevitably, there has been widespread criticism of the referee on Twitter from the likes of former England player Jeremy Guscott and the disparaging remarks of former South African captain Francois Pienaar during the television commentary have also been tweeted.

The first minister of Wales Carwyn Jones said that he believed Rolland’s decision had been wrong and had “wrecked the game”.

Leaving aside the specifics of this incident, what should be done to reduce the risk of an incorrect decision by a referee changing the result of an important match?

The stakes are very high in international sport and there is intense pressure on match officials. Their authority is undermined when fans see in replays that a mistake has been made. It would seem reasonable for rugby referees to be required to use video replays for big decisions, or at the least to consult their assistants. This would reduce the pressure a little. Maybe even football will one day see through the weak arguments (in my opinion) against using video replays.

If today’s events lead to wider consultation by referees when making decisions then the misery felt both by Welsh fans and by Alain Rolland will not have been in vain.

BBC cuts a worrying sign for minor sports after London 2012

The BBC announced on 6 October its plans for delivering programming and content through to 2017 in the context of 20% cuts mandated by the government. The sports budget will be reduced by 15%, which could hit some minor sports particularly hard.

Initial plans to cut some services in their entirety met with fierce opposition so the BBC has opted to make reductions across the board, including a previously announced 25% saving in the budget of BBC Online. Among the BBC’s media rivals in the UK, the plans have generally been accepted as sensible (see, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post).

In order to save money, the BBC will share the rights to Formula One in 2012 and 2013 with BSkyB. There will also be reductions to some unspecified smaller sports events and to sports coverage on the website.

With the start of the Olympic Games in London now less than 300 days away, the race is on for many of the sports involved to stake a claim to continuing BBC coverage after 2012. As Channel 4 has secured the TV rights to the Paralympic Games, Paralympic sports may believe their best option lies there.

Among Olympic sports, the likes of athletics, swimming and cycling must win medals and demonstrate spectator appeal. Other sports ambitious for British success at London 2012, such as rowing, hockey and gymnastics, will be hoping that the Games can help them produce stars that the BBC want to continue to feature.

While there are plenty of other TV broadcasters in the UK that cover sport – BSkyB, ITV, Channel 4, Eurosport, ESPN, newcomer and others – the BBC provides a sizeable audience on free to air TV and by far the most popular sports website (12.5m visitors a week, according to the BBC’s own figures). The BBC also has a heritage of covering Olympic sports which other channels rarely feature.

Even with the advantage of marketable British stars, Olympic sports will still need to offer the right kind of events to attract the interest of broadcasters, which is not straightforward (competition should ideally be live, conveniently packaged for TV, avoiding clashes with other events).

And then there are the issues of rights fees and production costs to consider. Only the most popular sports and events can successfully sell their rights to the highest bidder. In many cases federations or event organisers will have to pay for TV production and offer the feed to broadcasters. With advances in technology it should be possible to produce footage more cheaply than before, increasing the chance that an event will be screened on TV, even if it is not on one of the most popular channels.

It is clear that very few of the Olympic sports can be confident of TV coverage on the most popular channels in the UK after London 2012. The best way to guarantee interest will be to have high profile British stars. The pressure is on.