Nick Butler

“Autonomy” is among the top words of today in sporting circles. This has chiefly concerned National Olympic Committees and ensuring they are free of Government interference. But in recent weeks we have also seen the emergence of conflict on several fronts between established sporting events and unsanctioned rivals.

To an extent, conflicts like these have always existed. But on the other hand, recent developments have been indicative of a fascinating new battle for ever-more lucrative commercial deals and broadcasting rights in our less certain economic times.

First we had the row in basketball which is overshadowing preparations for Rio 2016. This began in 2000 when the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) sold its rights for the Euroleague, which has since grown in stature to dominate all other continental club competitions. As ratings soared, and revenue and sponsorship increasingly bypassed the International Federation, FIBA hit back by establishing a rival, but less successful, Champions League format.

National bodies, battling overburdened clubs playing too many matches, were effectively faced with pledging their allegiance one way or another. This culminated last month when 14 teams - including regional powerhouses Russia, Serbia, Lithuania and, crucially, Olympic silver medallists Spain - were threatened with suspension from all international competitions by FIBA Europe.

FIBA, whose secretary general is the new SportAccord President Patrick Baumann, are fully in support of their continental cousin, while other members of the so called Olympic Movement have been queuing up to offer their backing.

Chief among them was Patrick Hickey, President of the European Olympic Committees (EOC). "I have been flagging up the dangers for a while now about these profit-making organisations trying to hijack sport," the Irishman told insidethegames. "If we don't kill it now then it will get out of control…the next thing we will have private organisations we have no control over trying to set up an alternative to the Olympic Games."

Tension between the Euroleague and FIBA is one example of a administrative rivalry in sport ©Getty Images
Tensions between the Euroleague and FIBA is one example of a administrative rivalry in sport ©Getty Images

Last week it became clear quite why Hickey was so quick to speak out as a similar dispute between his EOC-organised European Games and the rival European Championships burst into the public domain. The latter, it emerged, are attempting to pressure participating federations into restricting their involvement in other continental multi-sporting events.

Seven sports are signed up for the inaugural European Championships in 2018: with aquatics, cycling, golf, gymnastics, rowing and triathlon taking place in Glasgow as athletics is held simultaneously in Berlin. All, except for golf and rowing, are also expected to feature at the second European Games in a yet-to-be-determined location in 2019. But under the proposed contracts, none will be able to hold official European Championships at any other multisport event for one year after 2018 - a direct threat to the contrary aims of the EOC.

This “would be completely against the Olympic Charter and the IOC strategic plan Agenda 2020”, a riled Hickey claimed, adding: "The Olympic Movement cannot be held ransom by private commercial organisations whose only interest is profit and the ownership of sport in Europe must and will be protected at all costs."

In reality, few of these sports are likely to want to hold European Championships at the European Games anyway, but the point is more one of principle.

“There needs to be someone in control of what is happening,” claims International Ice Hockey Federation President René Fasel, the head of another body with similar problems in Europe. “Clubs have no long vision; they are under pressure financially and their main challenge is to increase income. So we need a strategy, a programme, integrity and rules about protecting athletes and referees. You need this structure, because otherwise the clubs would decide something, then decide they don’t like it and change their mind…”

The European Games, for which a second host to follow the successful debut in Baku is yet to be found, is another threatened event ©Getty Images
The European Games, for which a second host to follow the successful debut in Baku is yet to be found, is another threatened event ©Getty Images

This argument, which has been far more prominent in IOC circles since Thomas Bach replaced Jacques Rogge as President in 2013, does make sense. If you did not have a central authority, there would be no uniformity and nothing to stop one country playing football with 10 players, for instance, or changing the basketball scoring system. 

But neither is it watertight. We have pointed out before how the IOC are quick to suspend a hostile Kuwait for Government interference but are less bothered when NOCs in Belarus and Azerbaijan are also led by the President of the country. Both FIBA and the EOC have complained or threatened to complain to the European Union following the latest disputes, which rather undermines this whole sporting autonomy argument. And while we’re on the subject of hypocrisy, the same figures who claim Russia’s potential absence from Rio 2016 is unfairly affecting clean athletes seem to have less qualms about banning others from the Games if their country refuses to respect autonomy rules.

In the case of FIBA, a compromise will surely be found before Rio 2016 and, if needed, the IOC, acting more and more as the governing body of sport rather than just the organisers of the Olympic Games, may get involved. As IOC Executive Board member Hickey suggested, they may also intervene to help the EOC cause.

But in the medium to longer-term, everything is more up in the air. Investors will, more than anything else, be looking for the best product which offers the most revenue potential rather than something which is sanctioned by the right people.

A good historical example came in the sport of cricket in the late 1970s. This most traditional of games was transformed when brash Australian Kerry Packer set up the rival World Series Cricket. Boosted by television coverage on Packer’s Channel Nine in Australia, the World Series survived a legal barrage to lure away many of the globe’s best players. It ultimately lasted just two seasons, but left a huge legacy and paved the way for the Indian Premier League (IPL), Twenty20 and other explosive forms of the game so popular today.

The key thing here was money. Players were always, and rightly, going to be swayed by big salaries to boost a competitive career which is both short and volatile.

Money remains the driving force today and is the key reason why we can expect many more disputes ahead. Take football, for instance, where the huge growth of the UEFA-run Champions League and top European divisions has reached staggering levels due to television in recent times. New leagues, desperate for a slice of the pie, are being set-up, in China, Qatar, India and elsewhere.

Attracting new markets, such as the one in Thailand where English Premier League leaders Leicester City have been so successful, is key ©Getty Images
Attracting new markets, such as the one in Thailand where English Premier League leaders Leicester City have been so successful, is key ©Getty Images

Globalisation is another factor. No longer is a European club satisfied with being popular just in one town or country. Teams are battling for a place in the market in Thailand, Japan, China and elsewhere. In ice hockey, everyone recognises the potential of the Chinese market, particularly after Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics last year. But both the IIHF and the National Hockey League (NHL) are pursuing rival ways to do this.  

A third point concerns social media. American Olympic rightsholder NBC has just announced a landmark deal in which coverage of Rio 2016 will be streamed on imaging sharing platform, Snapchat. Similar deals with the likes of Facebook and Twitter seem destined to follow soon. Events must therefore find ways to attract these audiences, and if they do not, they will falter regardless of their political support. The fall in global oil prices and economic downturn adds to the risk, just as it has for sporting bidding cities, making the market all the more fierce and competitive.

So if the European Championships is ultimately seen as the better model than the European Games, for instance, it is the former that will attract the big television deals, regardless of which one those in Lausanne are supporting. And a new event like the World Beach Games, due to be held in San Diego for the first time in 2017, will only prove successful if the right commercial, sporting and marketing model is adopted, not automatically because it is organised by the powerful Association of National Olympic Committees,

To return to one of Hickey’s points, does this ultimately mean the Olympic Games are threatened by a potential rival?

Not anytime soon, now that the potential threat of Marius Vizer’s United World Championships has been crushed. The Olympics have too much tradition and prestige, plus flourishing finances improved in recent times by huge broadcasting deals with NBC and Discovery. They have also responded to the times, making the Olympic programme more flexible to encourage more youth-centric sports and working to improve their reach.

An excellent presentation was given by the IOC head of social media Alex Huot at last month’s SportAccord Convention in which he explained the work they are undertaking to improve their tweeting, snapchatting, instagram-ing and other such verbs incomprehensible a generation ago.

But they and all other sanctioned bodies must remain on their guard and no event can afford to rest on its laurels and allow complacency to set-in.