Archive for the ‘sports politics’ Category

Blatter v Bin Hammam for FIFA Presidency

Mohamed Bin Hammam, President of the Asian Football Confederation, has announced that he will stand against incumbent Sepp Blatter in the election for the FIFA Presidency on 1 June. It promises to be a high profile campaign.

As a long-serving member of the FIFA Executive Committee, Bin Hammam is hardly an outsider but his challenge to Blatter, who has run FIFA since 1998, looks set to drive deep divisions within the organisation in the weeks leading up to the vote. There is also time for further candidates to emerge before the deadline at the end of the month.

The campaign is likely to generate much more attention than the most recent competitive election in 2002 (Blatter was unopposed in 2007), with extensive international media coverage already. See, for example the BBC, Al-Jazeera English, and Xinhua. With 208 Member Associations around the world eligible to vote it is one of the most global elections.

Driving positive PR coverage will be an important objective for the candidates as they seek to generate momentum because many of the member associations will want to be seen to back the winner.  Bin Hammam has set out in his manifesto his ambition to expand the Executive Committee and decentralise FIFA. Blatter may explain his programme at the UEFA Congress in Paris next week.

This is the first major election to lead a sports governing body since the advent of social media so it will be interesting to see to what extent the candidates engage with audiences online. Although it is member associations rather than the public who vote, popular support can only benefit candidates whereas widespread negative comment online could be damaging. You can follow both candidates on Twitter (Bin Hammam /  Sepp Blatter) and Bin Hammam on Facebook.

Commentators such as Andrew Warshaw and Keir Radnedge suggest that Blatter will be difficult to unseat but a lot can happen in 10 weeks. Expect plenty of lively debate before the election.

NFL lockout: what about the fans?

Now that negotiations between the National Football League (NFL) franchise owners and the players’ union in the USA have broken down, resulting in a lockout that threatens the 2011 season, only the lawyers seem sure to win.

In a move which is bewildering to outsiders, the players’ union has disbanded, become a trade association and filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against their employers.  Players are asking for more money, a reduction in training days (to reduce the risk of injury) and more compensation in the event of serious injury.  It is effectively an old-fashioned industrial dispute relating to pay and conditions between employees and management.

In common with other industrial disputes, both sides claim the moral high ground. The NFL claims that “the union left a very good deal on the table”. Meanwhile the players accuse the 32 NFL teams of “a unilaterally imposed set of anticompetitive restrictions on player movement, free agency and competitive market freedom”.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake at the moment but if the 2011 season does not take place the NFL’s $9bn in annual revenue could be lost.

One of the reasons that club owners are willing to risk a cancelled season is because the value of their profitable franchises has been rising year on year. The players stand to lose their season’s wages but they seem prepared to hold out in the hope of a better agreement. The biggest losers would be the fans and the young players who will miss the chance of getting signed. TV broadcasters and the economic activity linked to match days would also be adversely affected.

Considering that about half of the American public watched Super Bowl XLV on 6 February, it is unfortunate that the fans don’t have any direct say in the dispute. ESPN writer Howard Bryant makes the point that the world could carry on without the NFL and “the only message sports leagues understand is the message that the public will pay to watch something else”.

Both sides are willing to gamble that the public will forgive them when the dispute is finally settled. Judging from the evidence of previous lockouts in American sports (including the whole NHL season in 2004-5), fans tend to apportion more blame to players than owners. While the sport involved is damaged, recovery follows fairly quickly afterwards.

It is still possible that the NFL and players will reach a settlement in time for the pre-season preparations to take place. Until that happens it is the lawyers who look best placed to benefit.

Earthquake in New Zealand: how sport responds to tragedy

When tragedy strikes, as it did in Christchurch, New Zealand on 22 February, sports event organisers and athletes have to decide the best way to respond. The response is often dignified and well-judged.

The New Zealand cricket team, which includes several players from Christchurch, faced Australia in the Cricket World Cup just three days after the earthquake. There was a minute of silence before the match and the teams stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle during the break between the innings.

Looking further ahead, the Rugby World Cup will take place in New Zealand in September and October. The Lancaster Park rugby stadium in Christchurch has been closed for two weeks while the damage is assessed. Although forthcoming club matches have been moved to other venues, the early signs are that the stadium will be repaired in time for the Rugby World Cup.

It remains to be seen how the organisers will respond in September – everybody from the government to relatives of the deceased, the players and the International Rugby Board will have a view on what is appropriate. After the earthquake the organising committee quickly published a holding statement reassuring people that the tournament will still take place in New Zealand.

It is now a year since the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games where Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili tragically died in a training accident on the day of the opening ceremony. It was a huge shock for everybody at the Games (I was working there) and left very little time for changes to be made to the ceremony. There was a minute of silence in Kumaritashvili’s honour, the Olympic flag was lowered to half-mast, he was remembered in speeches and the Georgian delegation wore black armbands when they marched into the stadium. In what was a nightmare scenario, the organisers managed to respond in a respectful way.

The Vancouver case was particularly difficult because the accident took place at the Games. More often tributes at sports events relate to loss of life elsewhere. Football fans are familiar with the minute of silence before kick-off (sometimes now replaced with a minute of applause) and black arm-bands which may commemorate anything from the loss of a famous former player to a major natural disaster.

Spectator sports events are full of rituals, ranging from national anthems to the toss of a coin to handshakes between players. The audience knows these rituals intimately and so immediately understands the significance when the rituals are changed for some reason. Provided that the individual or people who are being remembered are in some way relevant to the audience, the response is usually heart-felt and genuine.

I am confident that the organisers of the Rugby World Cup will find the right way to remember the terrible loss of the people of Christchurch.

Bahrain Grand Prix: what would you do?

Will the first Formula 1 Grand Prix of the season take place as scheduled or not? The race is planned for 13 March in Bahrain, where there have been violent clashes between protesters and the security forces in recent days, leading to several deaths and many injuries.

While the people of Bahrain may be preoccupied with their wider concerns, the race organisers both internationally and locally face a difficult dilemma just three weeks ahead of the race. There has been extensive media coverage of the story (see for example Reuters and Al-Jazeera English).

There are a number of questions to consider:
- If the race goes ahead, will it be safe for all concerned?
- What is the deadline for making a decision?
- What do the teams and other stakeholders think?
- What are the reputational risks of running the race/cancelling?
- What are the financial implications of going ahead/cancelling?
- If the race goes ahead will everybody participate?
- What kind of precedent is being set?

It will be very hard to know if the right decision has been taken even after the event. The race may pass off without incident but at the cost of reputational damage. Or, if the event is cancelled and the region is peaceful during the competition,  it could still be claimed that the Grand Prix would have provoked trouble.

From time to time team managers and other stakeholders do security assessments ahead of a sports event, as happened before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Although it is entirely responsible to listen to different points of view and survey the evidence, predictions are inherently unreliable – nobody knows what will happen in Bahrain. Whatever procedure is put in place for assessing risk, ultimately the decision will depend on the personal opinion of a small group of people.

When a significant perceived threat emerges in the lead up to a sports event there is a familiar pattern:
- The host country and organisers seek to reassure people
- The governing body or rights-holder will be supportive in public but frantically looking for an alternative in private
- Sponsors and TV broadcasters will wait to see which way the wind blows
- Athletes will look to their management for guidance and then make a decision based on their gut instinct
- Spectators will stay away if in any doubt
- The event will usually go ahead with less disruption than feared

In the specific case of the Bahrain Grand Prix the consequences of cancellation or postponement would be significant but not on a scale that would overwhelm Formula 1 as it begins a long season. In the context of a severe political crisis, an initial postponement seems likely.

What is the right decision? We will never know.

Social media power: Egypt today, sports tomorrow?

The surest sign of the significance of social media in the revolution in Egypt is that the regime moved so quickly to disable it. Could the dramatic impact of social media in world affairs be replicated in some way in the less serious world of sport? I think it could.

Social media activity has caused minor controversies in sporting circles in the last couple of years, such as when junior British tennis players had their funding withdrawn after photos appeared online depicting “unprofessional behaviour”. More recently, any number of athletes have attracted criticism for undiplomatic tweets, such as footballer Jack Wilshere complaining about refereeing earlier this week.

But these are generally trivial. There have been few examples of the kind of mass activism in sport that social media can help to facilitate. I suspect that it may be only a matter of time.

So what sporting issue might inspire a major protest?

Football club ownership and management frequently riles supporters. The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, whose objective is to gain a significant level of ownership of the club, claims over 160,000 members.  They have already made their presence felt through their green and gold scarves and shirts.

Elections for sporting leaders generate interest and controversy but they are unlikely to capture the public imagination. Perhaps a more likely reason for a mass protest is a controversial decision in an important match.

The Cricket World Cup is about to get underway and will stir passions, particularly in the host countries of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Big domestic and international football matches also inspire very strong emotions.

Fans have always vented their anger through whatever means and media are available to them. However, occasional public campaigns to overturn judging decisions taken on the field of play have rarely yielded results.

One notorious example was an Australian rules football match in 1967 known as the Goalpost Final. The crowd invaded the pitch in protest at a crucial refereeing decision right at the end of the game and tore down the goal posts, preventing a kick being taken which could have changed the result. The match was abandoned and a couple of days later the governing body decided the match outcome was “no decision”.

If fans feel strongly enough that they have been wronged, social media provides useful tools for organising a campaign. The other essential ingredient is for fans to believe that their action could change a result. As has been seen in Egypt, once the movement has real momentum, it can be unstoppable.

For sports governing bodies and rights-holders there is now an even greater incentive to ensure that their judging procedure and appeals process stand up to scrutiny.

5 sports predictions for 2011

There’s a large industry devoted to predicting sports results and I don’t intend to compete with it so instead here are 5 predictions for the international sports scene in 2011:

1) The election campaign for the FIFA Presidency attracts unprecedented media and political attention as the pro- and anti-Sepp Blatter camps compete for support ahead of the vote on 1 June

2) Sports event organisers start to offer WiFi access with tickets for spectators so that they can watch instant replays and keep up to date with scores on their mobile devices

3) Video games industry representatives campaign to gain recognition for video games as a sporting discipline now that devices such as the Xbox Kinect make more physically demanding games popular. Leading gamers do battle with sports stars in televised competitions

4) A major European football club goes out of business when their debts are proven to be much larger than previously realised, leading to withdrawal from their league mid-season. A legal battle ensues because it is not clear how the unplayed matches will be accounted for in the league table

5)  A virtually unknown athlete emerges to win a famous victory in one of the world’s great sporting events, causing even the most cynical of sports fans to cheer in appreciation and wonder as a new star is born

Personally, I won’t be putting money on any of these happening but I’m more confident about the last one than the rest.

Happy New Sporting Year.

Filling in the gaps: how sport has become more global in 2010

During 2010, senior political figures in several parts of the world have shown more interest in sport than ever before. The new enthusiasm in countries which have previously been under-represented in international sport will have important implications.

Some of the countries where significant developments have taken place this year are India, Qatar, South Africa, Russia and Georgia:

- India – Indian athletes won 101 medals at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which represents a major advance for a country whose huge population has historically under-achieved at the top level in many Olympic sports
- Qatar – Middle Eastern countries have not featured prominently in the FIFA World Cup in the past. As a future host, Qatar is now under pressure to develop a competitive team
- South Africa –  the country already had a successful record of hosting major cricket and rugby events. Now that the World Cup has been added to the list, South African cities will be competing to join the international circuit for calendar events in a wide range of sports. There will also be an IOC Session in Durban next July
- Russia – with a number of new stadia needed in preparation for the 2018 World Cup, leading Russian football clubs could well feature prominently in the UEFA Champions League in the near future. As the Olympic Winter Games and World Cup will take place in Russia in the space of four years it’s clear that planning will involve the highest levels of government
- Georgia – soon after the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Olympic Winter Games in February, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili himself travelled to Vancouver and gave a press conference about the accident, demonstrating how sports competitions can rapidly escalate into diplomatic incidents

The combination of heightened political interest in sport together with the  contentious World Cup bidding campaign and investigations into match-fixing in several sports is likely to result in increased scrutiny of the governance of sport in 2011 and beyond.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a high profile legal case or government enquiry relating to sport in the near future. Meanwhile, elections for senior positions in sports organisations look set to be more competitive than ever before, with candidates emerging from countries that are newly engaged in sporting politics.

The challenge for major sports organisations and their sponsors is to get themselves ready for this intense scrutiny: better to ask difficult questions now on your own terms rather than waiting to answer questions on somebody else’s terms at a later date.

Sport’s virtuous circle of funding

The governing bodies of six sports in the UK have heard this week that they will receive more funding to support athletes in preparation for London 2012.

The additional resources, which result from better than predicted Lottery sales, will go to hockey, gymnastics, boxing, taekwondo, rowing and canoeing. British athletes in all of these sports have made significant progress in the last two years. There was also a boost for some of the winter sports.

UK Sport, the high performance sports agency which grants Lottery funds to governing bodies, has the objective of maximising British success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The difficulty is that sports which lack resources and profile in the UK are less likely to see good British performances than their better known peers. As a result those who are doing well will have their funding increased while those who really need the help will lose out.

This time round several sports had their grants reduced, including the winter sports of figure skating, skiing and snowboarding.

International sport is a tough, unforgiving environment. With many demands on its resources, UK Sport has to give priority to funding sporting disciplines which offer a realistic chance of medals in the near future. However, the situation is not hopeless: if there are improvements in performance and management the rewards will follow.

Of course sporting success boosts the potential value of sponsorship for athletes and their governing bodies. Unfortunately, quite a few Olympic and Paralympic sports struggle to attract sufficient sponsorship income to make a real difference to their elite training programmes.

Other types of commercial income, such as membership fees, potentially offer a more reliable revenue stream. Dave Edwards from British Ski and Snowboard, speaking to BBC Sport, urged British recreational skiers to sign up for £3 to become members to help replace the Lottery funding that has been lost.

Online tools and payment systems make it easier than before to collect modest sums of money from larger numbers of people. The great marketing challenge for governing bodies is to provide a service which casual fans will pay for, not just the active participants in the sport.

If any of the smaller governing bodies can find a way to earn a few hundred thousand pounds extra to fund elite training, they might just be able to enter the virtuous circle post 2012.

Long march to Olympic qualification

At the European Track Cycling Championships next week and a number of other forthcoming sporting events, Olympic qualification will be on the minds of athletes and media.

Now that the mid-point of the cycle between Beijing 2008 and London 2012 has passed, competitions in many sports take on another dimension because results count towards Olympic qualifying.

Next week’s track cycling event in Poland is the first of 12 in the qualification process. British Cycling makes a commendable but ultimately baffling attempt to explain how the system works – see the full rules here.

It really isn’t as simple as you might think to determine the best athletes in a given sport, not once you take into account continental allocations, male and female athlete quotas and the opportunity for riders to double up in multiple events. Beyond that there is the distinct whiff of political meddling in several sports, as international federation officials look to serve the interests of the members they represent.

With limited financial resources and injury-prone athletes to consider, coaches and management teams (that’s “dad” in quite a few cases) spend hours studying rules, competition schedules and recent results trying to work out which events athletes should enter.

Journalists who dip in and out of different Olympic sports could be forgiven for getting confused from time to time. What chance then for the fans following competitions on television or reading about them?

The complexity of the Olympic qualification system hinders the promotion of some of the less commercial sports. World rankings in tennis or golf are imperfect and occasionally produce odd outcomes but they do at least provide a straightforward guide.

In a complicated world there is little prospect of qualification processes becoming less convoluted. International federations and sponsors would do well to consider how they communicate what is happening. A simple ranking list or well-designed graphic would be much appreciated. Not least by dad.

Commonwealth Games: differentiate to survive

Looking beyond the construction delays in Delhi as the city prepares  for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, there are some useful lessons for the future of major multi-sport events.

The Times of India is one of many news outlets that has covered in detail the scramble to finish preparations in time for the opening of the Games on 3 October. It has featured a number of stories about athletes withdrawing, sometimes blaming minor injuries, sometimes explicitly citing potential risks to their health.

The first and perhaps biggest name to withdraw was sprinter Usain Bolt (focusing on 2011). He has been followed by numerous elite competitors including  British cyclists such as Chris Hoy (clash with European Championships), Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels (concerns about health and safety), tennis player Elena Baltacha (health worries), and many others.

The clue is in the sports of the high profile absentees:
- Athletics – this is the only year in a four year cycle without either a World Championships or Olympic Games (and there were European Championships this year) so athletes want to have a rest
- Cycling – the European Championships clashes with the Commonwealth Games and has become an important event for Olympic qualification
- Tennis – with the focus on the four Grand Slam events, players have often appeared indifferent to the Olympic Games and other multi-sport events featuring tennis

It is noticeable that there are far fewer absentees in sports such as rugby 7s, netball, hockey, swimming and indeed the para-sport events on the Commonwealth Games programme in athletics, swimming, table tennis and power lifting.

These are all sports which have room in their calendar for the Commonwealth Games and which draw many of their top athletes from the eligible countries. From a British perspective there is also the interest of seeing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man compete in separate teams.

While athletics and tennis draw big television audiences for their biggest events, they will not do so in the absence of their star performers. I would argue that multi-sport competitions such as the Asian Games, Pan-American Games and others would benefit from differentiating more in their sports programmes and schedules.

Attempts to cut sports from major events will always be met with resistance – few stakeholders will vote for their own abolition – but innovation can bring success. The Commonwealth Games was the first to introduce rugby 7s to a multi-sport event and it is now on the Olympic programme. Similarly, the recent Youth Olympic Games in Singapore trialled new formats such as combined male/female relay events, which were well-received.

It is inevitable that hard-pressed athletes will pick and choose major championships in an over-crowded calendar. For event owners it is better to acknowledge that fact and to look for ways to differentiate than to imitate the Olympic Games and fall short.