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.

The impact of Kindle Fire on sports broadcasting

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet device could have a significant impact on sports broadcasting, speeding up the trend towards live streaming of major sports events being available alongside regular TV coverage.

Initially the Kindle Fire will only be available in the US. Judging from the publicity material, it is anticipated that users will primarily want to consume books, magazines, films, TV and music, all of which are on sale through Amazon. Nevertheless, there is great potential for the new device to impact on sports broadcasting around the world because of its price (at $199 it is much cheaper than the iPad and several other rivals) and the strength of Amazon’s brand.

According to news reports, the iPad currently has over 60% of the global market share for table devices and around 80% in North America. Total sales so far worldwide run into tens of millions, which is a small figure compared to the global TV audience.

If Amazon’s cut price competitor can help the market for tablets to grow considerably over the next couple of years the potential audience of sports fans who own tablets will become an appealing target.

Many TV broadcasters already offer live streaming of their programming as well as the TV signal (such as Eurosport and Sky ). This is useful for people who may watch on a laptop at home and also for office workers but the online audience is a small fraction of those who watch on TV. As tablets come within the reach of far more people, this audience could grow dramatically – the bigger screen is much better for watching video footage than a mobile phone.

Beyond the established broadcast networks, online-only media channels are now showing interest in sports broadcasting. It was a notable milestone when YouTube secured the rights in January last year to stream Indian Premier League cricket and agreed to share advertising revenue with the rightsholders.

Facebook could be next – Ultimate Fighting Championship has already streamed matches live through Facebook. One day perhaps Amazon’s Prime service will be in a position to bid for the rights to stream major sports events.

Even if, as seems likely, the traditional broadcasters around the world continue to dominate sports TV rights for some time, the portion of the audience who watch live streaming of sport rather than TV broadcasts looks set to grow.

Sports fans will benefit from more ways of watching their favourite events. It’s also possible to imagine that exclusive hospitality packages to sports events might soon include a Kindle Fire or a similar device so that guests can watch replays and access competition data.

When Amazon started developing their new product the potential impact it would have on sports broadcasting was probably not a major consideration but as it turns out the consequences could be significant.

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.

Michael Schumacher’s 20 years in F1 and sporting longevity

Today Michael Schumacher competes in the Belgian Grand Prix 20 years after his first appearance in a Formula 1 race. It’s a remarkable achievement and compares with some of the the most notable cases of sporting longevity.

Schumacher, who has won the world title seven times, is spending his 17th season in Formula 1 having retired from the sport between 2006 and 2009. Since his return at the start of the 2010 season he has not won a race and has often been out-performed by his much younger team-mate Nico Rosberg.

You might be forgiven for asking why he bothers. After all, his place in Formula 1 history is assured, he is one of the wealthiest sportsmen in the world and a serious accident can never be ruled out. Surely he should retire from racing, devote himself to family life and the various humanitarian projects he has been involved in? Why does he keep going?

Well, eventually he will retire, perhaps at the end of this season (as a recent interview seems to suggest), although he is contracted through to the end of 2012.

Great champions in sport sometimes retire on a big win, when they potentially have a couple of years left. For example, Michael Johnson quit after winning the 400m gold medal at Sydney 2000 when he still looked unbeatable.

Others continue until they reach a point where they realise they are not quite at the level they once were. Pete Sampras bowed out on a high as champion at the US Open in 2002 after struggling earlier in the year.

Of course many others are not given the choice: omitted by the selectors, ruled out by injury, failing to qualify. A further category of champion continues to compete willingly when they are no longer in contention.

Examples familiar to British sports fans include snooker player Steve Davis (still playing professionally at 54, 14 years after his last major tournament victory) and cricketer Mark Ramprakash (still playing for a county side almost 10 years after he was discarded by the England selectors).

Barring accidents and ill-health, athletes will be retired for a long time so they may decide to continue competing for as long as they can. No doubt occasional victories against young tykes bring great satisfaction and help prove the critics wrong. The commentary box, coaching or administrative positions are not for everyone.

In the cases of Schumacher and Steve Davis, they were respected and feared by the fans in their heyday rather than loved. Years later the adulation comes more easily. Jimmy Connors might be another who comes into this category. Is a longing for public acceptance one of the motivations to keep going?

What athletes really prove by continuing on the circuit when they are no longer contenders is their genuine love for what they are doing. When the money is no longer a major factor and titles are not a realistic ambition, what is left is the enjoyment which brought them into the sport in the first place.

For this reason I would like to see fans and media show more appreciation for the long-serving athletes and players who battle on rather than slipping easily into their place in the commentary box.

If Michael Schumacher can manage one last Grand Prix win I for one will be cheering.

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.