Archive for the ‘winter sport’ Category

Snowboarder’s “triple rodeo” and the YouTube-ification of sport

British snowboarder Billy Morgan landed what is believed to be the first “triple rodeo” in December while training in Colorado. At the time of writing, different edits of his stunt have attracted close to 1m views on YouTube. It is a reminder for many other sports of what it takes to get attention.

Morgan’s video was picked up initially by the extreme sports community on websites including Onboard but it soon reached the mainstream media via ESPN and, in recent days, The Sun and the BBC. Extreme sports participants have been filming each other doing tricks ever since the bulky camcorder was invented. With the improvements in technology and an awareness of the marketing potential of stunts, it’s highly likely that a spectacular move will be captured on camera. Red Bull is among the sponsors that have moved into this market (see, for example, street trials cyclist Danny MacAskill).

Spectacular moments or passages of play occur in virtually all sports but there will generally only be a couple of incidents in dozens of hours of competition that can generate significant interest on YouTube and its rivals. In the last couple of weeks clips doing the rounds have included Tim Howard’s goal for Everton from his own penalty box and Jerome Simpson’s front flip to score a touchdown for the Cincinnati Bengals.

While these types of incidents during competition are rare, there is no reason why athletes from individual or team sports can’t have a go at some types of tricks during training – not everything that succeeds on YouTube involves risking your life. Teams and sponsors have been in on the act for some time (see, for example, the All Blacks showing off their skills and quarterback Johnny McEntee of the University of Connecticut).

There is scope to do more, particularly among lower profile sports whose major competitions may not generate much TV coverage. Demonstrations of endurance, strength or flexibility can impress viewers in sports that don’t easily lend themselves to stunts. Video training diaries are now commonplace but it’s a bigger project to produce a high quality film with the potential to attract a sizeable internet audience, requiring a fair amount of planning and investment.

Coaches, athletes and fans who value tradition in sport sometimes feel that such stunts are trivial or a distraction from the main priority of preparing for competition, which is true. We might prefer it if all fans would watch the finals of the national champinoships live. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of 30 second clips available to watch which compete for our attention. For an audience used to dogs on skateboards, a “triple rodeo” is the least they expect.

Ice Hockey World Championships and the limits of globalisation

Unless you are from one of the mountainous countries in Europe or Canada, you may not be aware that the Ice Hockey World Championships conclude today in Slovakia.

The final pits Scandinavian rivals Sweden and Finland against each other at the end of a tournament involving the 16 best teams in the world and 17 days of competition.

There is a complication: the end of season play-offs are currently underway in the NHL, which means that some of the star players are not available. It is noticeable that Olympic finalists last year Canada and the USA were both knocked out in the quarter-finals in Slovakia.

Ice hockey is a very popular sport in a number of countries and one of the hottest tickets at the Olympic Winter Games yet its world championship struggles for global visibility. Of the 16 countries who qualified for this year’s event, 14 are from Europe, of which 11 have a population of 10m or less.

Climate, physical geography, culture, history and government support combine in unpredictable ways to determine which countries participate in which sports. While individuals can sometimes reach the top despite the lack of tradition in a particular sport in their country, in team sports it takes many years for also-rans to become serious contenders. As a result, few team sports can claim to be global.

A comparison of the teams who have qualified for the Ice Hockey World Championships with other sports events demonstrates this point. Canada is the only country which is competing in the ice hockey which also qualified for the recent Cricket World Cup involving 14 nations. Canada, France, Russia and the USA are competing in both the ice hockey and the 20 team Rugby World Cup later in the year but of these only France is currently in the top 10 in the rugby world rankings.

In all that makes 50 qualification spots in three of the major team sport events this year which have been filled by 40 different countries. The major markets not involved in any of these events include China, Brazil, Spain and Korea.

For sponsor brands which value an association with sport and are global (or wish to be), the limited reach of specific sports presents challenges. The FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games offer the broadest international audience but for a high price. Almost any other international sponsorship asset will be relevant in only a range of markets.

The ice hockey teams from Sweden and Finland deserve recognition for defeating the best that the rest of the world could offer but don’t expect South America, Asia or Africa to notice.  While sport is global, most sports are not.

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.

Post Olympic championship dilemma

The 2010 Olympic Winter Games are over but the winter sport season goes on. Athletes, officials and fans could be forgiven for feeling a degree of event fatigue at this point in the season.

The first athletes to return to work were the ice hockey professionals of the NHL, who barely had time to pause for breath before resuming competition about 48 hours after the climactic gold medal match between Canada and the USA. Events to take place in the coming weeks include the World Figure Skating Championships, the World Allround Speed Skating Championships and numerous World Cups in such sports as biathlon and cross-country skiing.

For those athletes who have enjoyed success and are still hungry to compete, there is an opportunity to bask in adulation for a few more weeks. Some of those who missed out narrowly in Vancouver will be seeking revenge but others will struggle for motivation or perhaps even withdraw. Meanwhile, event organisers and rightsholders may find it difficult to attract media and public attention unless they have Olympic stars involved.

International sport is generally based around four year Olympic cycles partly because the profile of the Games is significantly higher than any of the individual World Championships. Several of the winter sports reduce their schedule in an Olympic season but they face a dilemma because they also want to maintain visibility and showcase their new heroes straight after the Games. Event bidders have learned that a championship held soon after the Olympic Games is likely to be missing some of the biggest names. In contrast, a major championship a year earlier is particularly appealing because all the leading contenders will want to show their best form and the event may count towards Olympic qualification. It may also be held as a test event in the Oympic venue.

In short, the post-Olympic anti-climax is an inevitable consequence of the four year cycle. There is no easy answer for athletes, federations and event organisers: if there are no more events after the Games then the sport is virtually forgotten until the next season; however, any events that do take place will seem lacking in one way or another. 

Homecoming parades and media attention will distract the most successful athletes, at least for a while. Those whose dreams did not come true will have more time to consider their return to the international competition circuit. Such is the harsh reality of international sport.

Australian Open – look out for the comeback queens

One of the intriguing stories of this year’s Australian Open tennis, which is getting underway in Melbourne, is the comeback of Belgian stars Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

The 26 year-old Clijsters retired from tennis for two years, during which time she had a baby, before returning in spectacular form last summer to win the US Open. Henin, a year older, played her first competitive tournament for 18 months in Brisbane in the first week of January. Fittingly, Henin made it through to the final before losing a close match against Clijsters. Both women are former world number ones and Henin won the Australian Open in 2004. Few would bet against either of them winning more Grand Slams. 

The comeback is one of the classic narratives of sport, familiar particularly in individual sports such as boxing (Muhammad Ali is the most famous of many), but also sometimes in team sports (for example, Michael Jordan in basketball). Cyclist Lance Armstrong was a high profile returnee in 2009.

Motivations for returning to top-class sport vary: hunger for competition and the limelight; a sense of unfulfilled potential; recovery from injury; desire to prove the doubters wrong; a need for money. Success on comeback often seems to depend on age and fitness. Clijsters and Henin both have age on their side and their respective retirements were linked more to mental tiredness than creaking bodies. Justine Henin was surely influenced by the instant success her former rival enjoyed on her return to a women’s game that, apart from Caroline Wozniacki, is still dominated by the same players as it was five years ago. 

Some unfortunate athletes are deluded or return as a result of manipulation but for others comebacks can bring many benefits. Returning athletes sometimes gain sentimental support from fans who were less enthusiastic in their earlier career and players often talk about being more relaxed or level-headed after time away from the sport. For media, comebacks of course provide a great story. If either Kim Clijsters or Justine Henin reaches the semi-finals of this year’s Australian Open it will be much bigger news than it would have been five years ago.

For other significant comebacks this week, look out for 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko and former World Champion Stéphane Lambiel at the ISU European Figure Skating Championships in Estonia. Neither could resist the challenge of another Olympic campaign. Win or lose it will be a great story: the comeback is here to stay.

Winter sport athletes on trial

With the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games just a few weeks away, athletes in several winter sports are facing selection trials. After training and competing hard for many years, athletes have to overcome one last barrier to achieve the ambition of a lifetime.

The Olympic qualification process is necessarily complicated. The number of participants is generally capped for each discipline (for example, 12 men’s ice hockey teams, each with a squad of 23) to enable the international federations to schedule the competitions and the organising committee to plan accommodation and transport. Each international federation seeks to give the leading contenders a fair chance but they also allocate places to athletes from countries and regions where their sport is less developed. As a result, the fifth fastest skier from a leading country will often lose out to a lesser-ranked skier from another part of the world, who benefits from the qualification rules.

As sports and disciplines evolve, international federations try to adjust their quotas but, due to competing demands, there are sure to be some who are disappointed. Ahead of the Vancouver Games there has been a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign by women ski jumpers to gain entry to Olympic competition for the first time. However, the campaign has not been in vain as there may well be a women’s ski jump competition in Sochi in 2014.  

For many of the sports and disciplines, including ice hockey, figure skating and short track, it is the national teams that secure qualifying places rather than individuals. Individual athletes may therefore  compete in national trials to claim one of the spots on the team. A few outstanding competitors have only to produce their regular form to qualify while many others chase that one last place in the squad, hoping for their best ever performance which will get them on the plane to Vancouver.

In a few cases these are high profile, televised events such as the AT&T US Figure Skating Championships which start on 14 January. More often, however, athletes’ dreams are fulfilled or broken at national championships or World Cup events in front of a sparse crowd, where only family, friends and fellow competitors realise what is at stake. “News in brief” entries in the sports media record the successful names but say little about those who missed out.

Even for those who qualify, there is a risk of injury in the tense final days and weeks of preparation: travelling at high speed over snow and ice involves inevitable dangers. A handful of athletes on the reserve list will ultimately benefit from the misfortune of others.

When you see athletes on the start line in Vancouver, remember the trials they have been through to get that far. And do spare a thought for those left behind.

Winter Sports and winter sports

This week marks the switch from the summer to the winter sport season in the UK. Rugby League, which successfully re-invented itself as a summer sport a few years ago, has had its showpiece end of season finale, the Carnegie Challenge cup. Meanwhile Durham have won the LV County Championship for the first time. The football season, naturally, has been underway for months. 

British sports fans may be less aware, however, that this time of year also sees the start of the Winter Sport season in the northern hemisphere. Yes, that’s right, snow and ice.

Ice hockey’s NHL opened up on 4 October and runs through to May. Leagues in Europe follow a similar timetable. The outdoor Winter Sport season follows a little later with the first significant alpine skiing events at the end of October.

Media coverage of ice hockey, skiing, skating and the rest is limited in the UK due to a combination of low awareness and a lack of British contenders. It’s a shame to miss out on some really compelling sport but I don’t expect to see a dramatic increase in coverage any time soon as geography and tradition pose significant barriers. And yet I can’t help thinking that there may be a sponsorship opportunity to be seized. 

Those British athletes with a medal chance at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games (now only a year and a half away) will receive more individual attention than each of the dozens of successful athletes in Beijing. If a sponsor out there is brave enough, the rewards could be considerable. Now is the time to act, while the media profile is low. Anyone for curling or skeleton bob?