Archive for the ‘sports politics’ Category

Rugby World Cup provides lesson in scarcity value

Just over a week into the Rugby World Cup, Ireland beat Australia to provide the first major shock of the tournament. The stakes are particularly high because the Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and only takes place every four years.

There are plenty of international rugby matches – arguably too many – but the primacy of the World Cup is clear to all, whether players, governing bodies, sponsors, media or fans. There are some other sports which would benefit from similar clarity.

Rugby fans will recall that Ireland and Australia have had memorable encounters at previous Rugby World Cups. In two of their four matches, Australia won by a single point (1991 and 2003). Australia and Ireland have played each other once a year on average over the last 15 years, including a notable 20-20 draw in 2009, but it is the World Cup games which stick in the memory.

Similarly, today’s Welsh victory over Samoa has added significance because Samoa have twice beaten Wales at previous World Cups, a fact mentioned in most of the match reports (see, for example the Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald). Actually, Wales and Samoa have played five other matches over the years, the details of which I suspect few people can recall.

The addition of Rugby 7s to the Olympic programme in 2016 will provide a challenge to the Rugby World Cup and some of the top players may be tempted to specialise in 7s but ultimately it is sufficiently different from the 15 a side game not to be a direct threat. It will also provide a higher profile platform for the women’s game.

While other sports, ranging from football to cricket, athletics and tennis have a fairly clear hierarchy of tournaments, the competition between the the biggest events in each sport risks devaluing them all. For example, while the four Grand Slam tournaments are the highlight of the tennis calendar, both men’s and women’s tennis have end of season events for the top eight players in the world with big prize money on offer. The Davis Cup and Fed Cup are also in the mix and then there is the Olympic tournament.

Although it is natural for international federations to want to have a full calendar of major events, there is value in recognising and protecting the real highlights. This becomes more difficult when there are different rightsholders for major tournaments (such as FIFA, UEFA, other continental associations and the big national leagues in football).

Protecting the scarcity value of the top events matters for athletes, who risk burnout, and all of the stakeholders including the sponsors and fans who ultimately foot the bills. Greater focus on existing prime properties may be a better strategy for sports to grow than increasing the number of matches and tournaments. After all, sporting history is worth paying for, meaningless international matches are not.

When the Rugby World Cup final arrives on 23 October everybody from players through to fans will know that this is a genuine piece of sporting history.

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.

England cricket team number 1 in the world: how?

The England cricket team beat India comprehensively on 13 August for the third time in three matches and has now taken over top spot in the official world rankings for the five day format of the game. Long-suffering England fans should rejoice and be thankful for central contracts.

Throughout sporting history, world-leading teams have needed a combination of talented players in form, good leadership and coaching, a harmonious team dynamic and some luck. In more recent years funding and scientific back-up have also become crucial elements. The England team has had all of these but the institution of central contracts for leading players in 2000 arguably made it all possible.

Humiliation has been a fairly regular experience for England cricket fans since 1882, when when Australia beat England at home for the first time and a mock obituary of English cricket was published in a newspaper called The Sporting Times.

Matthew Engel summed it up this weekend in the Financial Times, writing that English cricket has generally been “a standing national joke to rank alongside the weather and the railways”.

One of the low points was 1999 when England was ranked last among the nine test match playing nations. In the following year the newly appointed coach Duncan Fletcher successfully made the case for the governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board to contract a squad of leading players directly. This took power away from the county sides who had previously been the main employers.

It was a vital step because it enabled the ECB much greater control over the development of players. Central contracts are significant for numerous reasons:

- The ECB can decide how often and in what matches cricketers play (important for reducing the risk of injury and ensuring players are ready for big matches)
- Incentive for players (few cricketers are rich by global sporting standards but a central contract is fairly lucrative)
- More training time together as a squad (which also helps attract the best coaches)
- Consistent selection (if you have contracted a group of players who have to be paid then the selectors are inclined to stick with them for longer)
- Sports science and medicine investment (it’s worth keeping centrally contracted players fit rather than just picking the next in line every time there is an injury. There is also now a very scientific approach to video analysis of technique and statistical analysis to determine tactics)
- More control over sponsorship (squad players have contractual commitments to sponsors, which increases the appeal of rights packages)

England’s recent success owes much to a talented crop of players with good management, leadership and coaching but of course the weakness of other teams has contributed: the Indian team had inadequate preparation before this current series and years of Australian dominance came to an end when several all-time greats retired in a short space of time.

The current England squad has strengh in depth and could stay at the top of their game for some time but their competitors will be looking to catch up. It surely won’t be long before the approach to sports science and medicine is adopted by other teams.

As it happens, central contracts in their current form are now under threat due to the success of the Indian Premier League. England fans would be well advised to enjoy the success while it lasts.

Formula 1 deal re-opens old debate: free to air v pay TV

Formula One announced on 29 July that the BBC and Sky Sports will share TV broadcast rights in the UK from 2012 to 2018, leading to howls of protest from fans. In a trade-off between revenue and audience reach, Formula One is trying to get the best of both.

The BBC will show half of the races live on TV with the corresponding qualifying and practice sessions. It will also keep highlights and radio rights for all of the races. Sky, meanwhile will show all races, qualifying and practice sessions live.

The key issue for British consumers is that the BBC only charges an annual licence fee per household of £145.50 (frozen for six years from 2010) whereas an annual subscription to Sky Sports will cost an additional £487 with future rises all but certain.

There are several million Sky Sports subscribers in the UK but the potential audience is a fraction of that on the BBC.

For the Formula One rightsholder the additional revenue is highly desirable. The racing teams will earn a share of the increased pie but they also need the largest possible audience to maximise their appeal to sponsors.

According to news reports (see for example the Guardian), they will be seeking clarification on the deal.

Sky has been very successful with its sports broadcasting, driving subscriber numbers through live football rights in particular. Formula One has a large, loyal fan base, many of whom are probably not existing Sky Sports subscribers so it seems a good fit. However, the big question is whether hundreds of thousands of additional customers will now sign up for Sky Sports because they want to watch the full season.

Production costs for broadcasters covering the Formula One season are very high due to the constant travelling and technical demands. Without the advantage of exclusive rights and a captive audience, it could be that either the BBC or Sky Sports find the costs too onerous before the end of the contract in 2018.

For the future health of Formula One it is important that new young fans are constantly being recruited. While Formula One earns revenue from many markets, the UK is one of the largest.

Cricket and other sports have debated in the past the rights and wrongs of accepting the highest bid for TV rights (which tends to come from pay TV stations) or the option which will give the broadest audience (usually from free to air TV stations).

After European Union intervention, rights for the UEFA Champions League in the UK have been shared among different TV stations. The outcome is a certain level of confusion among spectators but they do at least have an opportunity to watch a selection of matches on free to air TV. According to the Independent, European law may prevent national TV rights deals in future.

For the moment Formula One’s deal looks a reasonable compromise but it will take time to see whether it is getting the best of both worlds – huge revenue and a broad audience – or an unsustainable mish-mash.

Fans may be unhappy but Formula One is in a strong position – many other sports would be delighted to face the same dilemma.

Is Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius too good?

On 19 July South African athlete Oscar Pistorius achieved the qualifying time for the 400m at the forthcoming World Athletics Championships in Korea and for next year’s Olympic Games using prosthetic legs. His story of personal triumph inspires an unusual mix of emotions.

In running 45.07 in a race in Italy he moved into the top 20 in the 2011 rankings and proved himself a genuine contender against any 400m runner in the world. That makes some people uncomfortable.

When he burst on the scene as a prodigiously talented teenager at the Paralympic Games in 2004 it was a wonderful story: an individual born with a rare disability who had both legs amputated below the knee as a baby proved he could overcome the challenge and run remarkably fast with prosthetic legs.

In 2005 he set a new 400m personal best of 47.24 which took him into international territory among able-bodies athletes but some way off world class.

There was a long legal battle in 2007-8 before the Court of Arbitration for Sport finally ruled that Pistorius did not gain an advantage in comparison to other runners. He narrowly missed out on qualification for the Beijing Olympic Games but won three gold medals in the Paralympic Games.

His recent performance generated a huge amount of media interest around the world with most commentators in favour of him competing (see, for example the London Evening Standard- “Ignore the moral dilemma, let Oscar run in our Games” and Corriere dello Sport – “Blade Runner’s enterprise makes the world more equal and gives inspiration to those who, like him, have never resigned themselves to the limits imposed by their physique or insidious discrimination”). Meanwhile, the BBC presents both sides of the argument - “The debate surrounding Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius”

Public blog comments are more mixed (over 40 comments on this article in the Guardian and sceptical views on athletics blogs).

While everybody admires his performances and wants to watch him run, some people are uncomfortable if he is genuinely challenging for the top places at the Olympic Games. In the opinion of many, finishing 6th in the first round at the Olympic Games would be acceptable but winning the gold medal would not be.

That main concerns expressed are that the artificial legs give Pistorius an advantage (or at least a more advanced version might do so in future) and that a potentially dangerous precedent is being set. Could crazy ambitious parents one day consider amputating the legs of their children to make them run faster?

Sport occasionally throws up these difficult dilemmas but Oscar has overcome every barrier put in his way and thoroughly deserves his chance to compete at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. If he stays fit and gets selected by South Africa he could become a global icon.

The final word on the subject and the best headline accompanies James Corrigan’s article in the Independent: “Puritans are just taking the Pistorius”.

TED conference excludes sport. Why?

The latest TED Global conference has been taking place in Edinburgh this week. As usual, the talks offer fascinating and insightful opinions on some of the big issues facing our world but sport hardly ever features. I think this is a shame.

TED is dedicated to “ideas worth spreading”. The original concept for the conference series involved bringing together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. In recent years the format of short, inspiring presentations has proved ideally suited to YouTube and many of the talks are viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

On the face of it, sport would seem an ideal subject to address: sport is an extraordinary cultural phenomenon which permeates almost every society and has a major role to play in health, community life, the entertainment industry, the news industry, international relations, medical research and more.

In elite sport we watch men and women pushing back the boundaries of human performance; we see global competition in accordance with standardised, objective rules which push standards ever higher.

So why doesn’t sport feature more than very occasionally at TED?

I believe the answer is that sport still lacks intellectual credibility because of attitudes among a particular type of opinion leader. Arts, culture more generally, social sciences, these are acceptable subjects for intellectual debate whereas sport is not.

It’s tempting to generalise that the type of person who writes the agenda or speaks at a conference like TED is the type of person who was engrossed in a book or a computer while their class-mates at school were enjoying sport but that can’t be true in every case.

The sports world has taken a lead in many important battles: challenging prejudices regarding race, gender, disability; bringing people together in the same arena when politics cannot; inspiring disadvantaged young people.

Sport and the issues that surround it have become a field of serious academic study but if sport is to fulfil more of its potential it has to take on the battle for intellectual credibility.

It is perhaps unfair to single out TED for excluding sport as a topic because the absence of sport from intellectual debate is a wider issue.

For those of us who believe in the value of sport, the challenge is to take it out of its allotted place at the back of the newspaper, at the end of the news broadcast, on the dedicated sports shows and at sport specialist conferences. Sport needs to feature more in the comment and lifestyle sections of serious media, in the scientific and economic journals, in political debate.

We will know we have been successful when the first TED Sport conference takes place.

South Sudan: football and Olympic teams coming soon

Now that South Sudan has gained independence from the north and become the world’s newest sovereign state, it is likely that sport will provide one of the earliest and most visible expressions of national identity.

Along with setting up a capital city, a currency, an internet domain and taking up a seat at the United Nations, the creation of new sports teams will be high on the agenda for the new government of South Sudan. According to the BBC, basketball and football squads are already in training for their first international matches, even if the facilities are somewhat basic.

International sports federations and the International Olympic Committee have clearly defined procedures for welcoming new member countries because it happens on a regular basis. In some cases they are established countries which now wish to formalise their participation in a particular sport but there has also been a steady stream of new sovereign states over the last twenty years, including the countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

In some cases new countries can make rapid progress in sport. Montenegro has had a remarkable rise from 199th and last place in the FIFA rankings when they played their first match in 2007 to 16th place today.

For newly independent countries international sport takes on a particular significance: supporting their national teams brings the people together, giving them the chance to wave flags, sing the national anthem and identify with heroes.

The birth of a new country often follows a period of instability and sometimes violence – a brutal and long-running civil war in the case of Sudan. After so much suffering, the appearance of new sports teams seems a positive sign of progress towards stability, as well as confirmation of nationhood.

On the other side of the new border, the split may provoke strong emotions and the relationship between the two countries is likely to be difficult in the early years. Sport in these circumstances can provide an outlet for patriotic fervour. It is no surprise that matches between neighbouring countries are often the hardest fought on the pitch, sometimes involving tension between rival fans.

Faced with daunting challenges, as the New York Times points out, South Sudan is perhaps unlikely to match Montenegro’s record. Nevertheless, now is a time for optimism and sport has an important role to play.

The cheers will be loud and heart-felt when the South Sudan football team plays its first competitive match, and when the Olympic team enters the stadium at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.

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.

High stakes for India v Pakistan in Cricket World Cup

On Wednesday 30 March Pakistan plays India in the Cricket World Cup semi-final in the Indian city of Mohali in a match where more than pride and a place in the final are at stake.

The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to attend and India has issued 5,000 visas for visiting fans. Spectators will face an unprecedented level of security at the ground and a TV audience of 100m or more is possible.

For decades cricket has provided an outlet for the fierce rivalry between India and Pakistan but in the last two years the teams have played each other less frequently than usual as matches have been cancelled due to fears of violence.

A planned tour by the Indian team to Pakistan early in 2009 was cancelled after the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 in which over 170 people were killed.

Pakistan was also due to co-host the Cricket World Cup but following an attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore in 2009 the International Cricket Council took the decision to reallocate their share of matches to the other hosts India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

On the pitch the match is an enticing prospect with the quality and variety of the Pakistan bowling attack (Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, Mohammad Hafeez and others)  up against India’s batting power (Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and more). Both teams suffered defeats earlier in the tournament but looked impressive in their quarter-final victories.

Numerous opinion pieces have already been published about the prospects for cricket diplomacy (see for example Soutik Biswas at the BBC,  Myra MacDonald at Reuters, S. Dinakar in The Hindu, and an editorial piece in Dawn). No doubt media reports of activity on and off the pitch on 30 March will go into exhaustive detail.

Amid all the hype about India v Pakistan it’s easy to forget that the winners will then face Sri Lanka or New Zealand in the final on 2 April.

Let us hope that any controversy is limited to activity on the field. Spare a thought for the umpires Simon Taufel and Ian Gould, whose performance will be scrutinised by tens of millions. This match provides ample justification of the need for video reviews as sanctioned by the Umpire Decision Review System.