What if sports federations reformed their executive board/council to become a board with supervisory powers only? Decision-making could be (almost) completely delegated to the professional administration.
Rosmarijn van Kleef
Rosmarijn van Kleef is a Senior Consultant at Burson-Marsteller Sport, where she advises clients on strategy, governance, bidding processes and campaigning. She holds law degrees (LLM, PhD) from Leiden and Neuchâtel Universities.
Conflicts of interest in sports bodies
16th March 2018, 09:20

Governance in sport has been a topic of concern for some time. But amidst ongoing reforming efforts in this field, an issue that has flown somewhat under the radar is the high level of conflicts of interest in the political leadership of sport federations. However, conflict of interest in the leadership can be a real blocker to the success and the development of the organisation and the sport it governs.

Further complicating the issue is that there is not just risk of one type of conflict of interest, but at least two: one on the personal level and one on the institutional level. As both are the direct result of the typical composition of the leadership bodies of sport federations, solutions are not as easy as they might seem.

First, the risk of conflict of interest on the personal level. More often than not, the members of the sports federation’s executive board or council (the body tasked with ‘overseeing the daily business of the organisation’ or ‘governing the sport’ between congresses) have been involved in the sport for a long time, either as a former athlete, coach, national federation administrator or closely-related enterprise. On the one hand, this long-time involvement in the sport naturally ensures a high level of specialised knowledge. On the other, it also often results in a lack of independence. 


Research into international sports federations published in 2015 found that only 17 per cent of federations had clear conflict-of-interest rules in place

Of course, conflict of interest rules are an obvious solution for this issue, but sports federations have yet to catch up with standards prevalent in other industries. Research into international sports federations published in 2015 found that only 17 per cent of federations had clear conflict-of-interest rules in place, including disclosure requirements and the duty to abstain from voting in particular cases (Arnout Geeraert, Sports governance observer 2015. The legitimacy crisis in international sports governance, Play the Game 2015).

The research also showed that 20 per cent of federations did not have any conflict of interest rules in place. Work here is still to be done, but if implemented and applied correctly the issue can be overcome.

Second, the risk of conflict of interest on the institutional level, which is more problematic. It is common practice in sports governing bodies that many executive board/council members are appointed to represent a specific group of members or stakeholders (e.g. reserved seats for confederations).

In addition, those board members who are not reserved a seat are generally put forward by a national federation (or club when looking at the national level). The result of this composition is predictable - members defending the interests of their ‘constituent’ rather than those of the governing body and the sport in general. 


Ideally, the leadership of a sports federation – an umbrella organisation whose objective is to govern and develop the sport in a specific country or worldwide – ought to be both knowledgeable and independent

The answer to this issue could be to elect more (or solely) independent members to the executive board/council. However, with this solution another issue arises: the more independent the member, the less knowledgeable they are likely to be, often lacking daily contact with the sport. Ideally, the leadership of a sports federation – an umbrella organisation whose objective is to govern and develop the sport in a specific country or worldwide – ought to be both knowledgeable and independent.

Or does it?

Perhaps the solution lies in a more profound structural overhaul. What if sports federations reformed their executive board/council to become a board with supervisory powers only? Decision-making could be (almost) completely delegated to the professional administration. As in the business world, this leaves room for the supervisory board to be composed of independent members that are elected by the membership – just as shareholders do.

With this system, the need for specialised knowledge would be covered by the administration whose task it is to act in the interest of the federation and liaise with different stakeholder groups (perhaps through topical advisory boards/steering groups). This would not only eliminate the need for board/council members to have detailed operational knowledge, but also clear up the somewhat blurred interests of executive board/council members wearing multiple hats.

If sports leaders really care about their sport and its development, a good start would be to have a serious discussion on how to best tackle the issue of conflicts of interest. By putting the sport and the success of the organisation above all other interests, there is no telling what can be accomplished.

Sportcal