New report warns IFs to adapt or die in face of commercial competitors
By Jonathan Rest
International federations were today warned to start thinking like a commercial business or risk losing control of their sport to private entities that have the resources to enrich their athletes.
In the ‘Future of Global Sport’ report from the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, governing bodies are urged to be collaborative in seeking to commercialise their competitions, with experts warning that the days of the “protectionist approach” are over.
Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of ASOIF, said the 46-page report, which also touches on event bidding, athletes’ rights, sponsorship and the media landscape, could “serve as a wake-up call” for many international federations.
While the report did not name individual IFs, its warnings will be most felt at FINA, swimming’s governing body, which for the last six months has been trying to stave off the rise of the International Swimming League, a new club-based commercial competition due to launch in August.
An ISL test event was postponed at short notice in Italy in December after FINA blocked it, according to FIN, the Italian swimming federation, by threatening sanctions against swimmers that took part, perhaps as severe as banning them from international competition, including the World Championships and Olympic Games.
FINA last month clarified its position, saying that swimmers competing in unsanctioned events, such as the ISL, will not face bans, albeit all results and any records will not be recognised.
In the wake of ISL’s plans to stage lucrative meets with top contracted swimmers around the world, FINA launches its own new ‘FINA Champions Swim Series’, a three-leg competition aimed at elite swimmers, from next month that will have prize money of $3.9 million.
The ISL has said of that competition: “FINA blatantly copied the ISL model in an obvious attempt to win over the elite swimming community FINA has long been exploiting.”
FIBA, too, has had its battles, with basketball’s governing body embroiled in a long-running dispute with commercial entity Euroleague Basketball over various issues, most notably new windows for international games that clashed with Euroleague fixtures, meaning top players could not take part in both.
While not directly related to summer sports, today’s ASOIF report does cite the International Skating Union case, which “led to a European view on the legitimacy of and sanctioning athletes and officials taking part in events outside of the IF envelope.”
In December 2017, the European Commission decided that ISU rules imposing severe penalties on athletes participating in speed skating competitions that are not authorised by the ISU are “in breach of EU antitrust law. The ISU must now change these rules.”
Indeed, the ISL threatened to follow the legal precedent set in the EC’s case against the ISU, if it was not sanctioned by FINA.
The ASOIF report said: “Governing bodies have not always fulfilled their roles of effectively governing and administering their sports. For example, some IFs have struggled to drive an appropriate share of revenue and profile to their top athletes [an issue the top swimmers contracted to the ISL have raised]. Where IFs do not assert themselves, business may sweep in and capitalise on missed opportunities.
“An IF has to think like a business. A protectionist approach is not going to cut it and IFs can ill-afford to rest on their laurels while claiming a historical right to govern a sport. This can always be questioned and their entitlement must be earned on an ongoing basis in the face of commercial and political encroachment.”
IFs are given an ultimatum in the report: “Are they going to compete against these promoters or are they going to focus on ensuring that their top athletes are incentivised to stay within their structures? Either way, if an Olympic IF loses controls of its Olympic qualification pathway, its competitions become less attractive to athletes, potential host nations and cities.”
At the opening of the 2018 general assembly of the European Olympic Committees in November, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, alerted delegates that “the European sports model is under pressure, not to say threat.”
In an attack that seemed to be aimed mainly at the EC, he said: “This purely market-based approach ignores the social contribution of sport to society all over Europe. You can see this by the way sports organisations based on volunteers and social engagement are treated in the same way as any commercial organisation that just wants to harvest the fruits from the trees.”
Bach continued: “We really have to start defending this, our European sports model, because it’s not only in our own interest, but in the interest of European society. You cannot treat a commercial company that has the idea to make money from sport by inviting athletes you have been growing and supporting by providing facilities and coaches and helping them in daily life – you cannot just allow commercial interests to take over and the authorities to put you on the same level as commercial interest-driven organisations.”
The ASOIF report was primarily compiled from interviews with leading figures in the areas of sport, business and public authorities, such as: Christophe Dubi, IOC executive director of the Olympic Games; Peter Hutton, Facebook’s director of global live sports partnerships and programming; Yannis Exarchos, chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services; Darren Bailey, chairman of the EC expert group on good governance; David Dellea, director of sports business advisory, PwC; Michael Payne, the former International Olympic Committee marketing director; and Emma Lax, the sponsorship and women’s sport expert and advocate, who recently joined HSE Cake, the dedicated UK sports and entertainment agency of international advertising giant Havas Group, as strategy director.
The full report can be accessed here.