Michael Pavitt

The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations' (ASOIF) "Future of Global Sport" report, published earlier this week, should have had International Federations (IFs) shifting rather uncomfortably in their seats.

At least you would hope that they read it, as for my money it proved a thought-provoking and often damning analysis of where IFs are currently at and the challenges to their position in the future. In the Olympic Movement, such an inward-looking critique is like gold dust.

The report was created from the aggregation of opinions of "key influencers" and backed-up by data. Among them were representatives from the European Commission, Facebook and Fox Sports, as well as sports movement officials.

Having read the 46-page report, which I would recommend, it is hard not to think the sporting world is on the cusp of fundamental changes.

Recent months have seen an increasing use of the term "European Sport Model", a phrase I first began to pay attention to in November when International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach delivered a speech calling for the European Olympic Committees (EOC) to defend against the "threat of commercial enterprises". The response has been to make the defence of the model a central topic of the EOC Seminar in May.

ASOIF presented a rather different picture to Bach, amid the ongoing disputes impacting the likes of the International Basketball Federation and International Swimming Federation against the disruption of the EuroLeague and International Swimming League.

"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," came ASOIF's rather blunt message to the IFs they aid. 

Faced with new promoters, IFs could be faced with a "beat them or join them" dilemma.

The inference was that collaboration is the best course of action for IFs with these rivals, who appear to be representing the "continued drift" of sport into the American model, one which could become predominant.

The notion of a "drift" is a fascinating one. Take for instance European club football.

Foreign ownership of football clubs and increased global brands have led to suggestions of a European Super League being formed in future ©Getty Images
Foreign ownership of football clubs and increased global brands have led to suggestions of a European Super League being formed in future ©Getty Images

Over the past 30 years or so there has been a continued shift away from local ownership of clubs, a trait deemed to be consistent of the European model. A gradual increase in foreign ownership, profit maximisation and creating international brands has certainly occurred, with each viewed by ASOIF as part of the American model.

Perhaps then it is not a surprise that there are ongoing murmurs of a European Super League, akin to a closed league. A significant number of owners have franchises in the NBA and NFL, while clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid are part of a EuroLeague format in basketball where licences ensure their participation at the top table.

It does not take a gigantic leap to suggest that is where we could be heading.

The American model is viewed as a positive for athletes, where elite performers are "promoted like celebrities". I have laughed in the past when listening to American coverage of "Harry Kane and the Spurs" facing "Paul Pogba's Manchester United", but top players have increasingly become brands themselves.

This has largely been the case in team sports, but it should not come as a surprise that athletes from Olympic sports are increasingly thinking more about their rights.

"The report highlights the success of the professional leagues in the USA and Europe," said Rob Koehler, director general of the recently established Global Athlete group. "These leagues have collective agreements between athletes and the leagues; their industry has not suffered, it has grown. This example of a successful model should be considered and explored.

"From what we have heard from athletes to date, the reason that athletes are feeling the need to act more independently and autonomously is because they have not been meaningfully engaged.

"By growing sport together, revenue streams can be shared and athletes' rights can be enhanced. 

"Such an approach can be a victory for everyone involved."

German athletes have succeeded in an attempt to scale back the IOC's rule 40 ©IOC
German athletes have succeeded in an attempt to scale back the IOC's rule 40 ©IOC

ASOIF's report noted that as the commercial value of athletes grows, so does the influence they can wield. Greater prize money, sponsorship bonuses and appearance payments were noted as incentives that may be required to ensure athletes compete at established events run by major organisers.

You sense the scaling back of the IOC's Rule 40 by Germany's Federal Cartel Office regarding athlete marketing activities this week could just be the start.

The decision was deemed to give German athletes more leeway when it comes to marketing themselves during the Olympic Games, including for example the use of certain "Olympic" terms, their pictures being taken at sports events and social media use.

Back in November, Bach claimed the potential abandonment of Rule 40 would hurt the financing of smaller sports and younger athletes, with only the big stars likely to benefit.

While the advice was designed for IFs, one wonders whether a suggestion in the ASOIF report that collaborations with "influencers" such as athletes was a "no-brainer", to promote their brand or sponsors, could be explored at the IOC as part of an ongoing collaboration on this front.

I do consider Bach’s point that a change to the existing structures of Olympic sports could benefit some more than others.

The likes of Serena Williams and Roger Federer have become among the wealthiest athletes in tennis, benefiting from private enterprises running the sport and its promotion. This coupled with their success has understandably led to significant endorsements.

If you look to the lower levels, there is an ongoing dispute between players and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) about a new tour. The ITF, who largely are responsible for the development side of the sport, have suggested too many players are aiming to have professional careers for the amount of prize money available.

Could a similar situation occur elsewhere? 

FINA's response to the ISL threat of a "showbiz" marketing-friendly event was to develop an invite only competition for the sport’s star names. While it is a strong step forward and potentially lucrative for the top names, would it benefit all?

The European Championships was cited in the ASOIF report as a potential example of an event bringing stakeholders together to deliver a mutually beneficial product ©Getty Images
The European Championships was cited in the ASOIF report as a potential example of an event bringing stakeholders together to deliver a mutually beneficial product ©Getty Images

The ASOIF report made it clear that IFs have struggled to adapt to changes, asserting that evolution has normally come in the face of potential Olympic exclusion. You can make the case that the most innovative events have come from private companies, who have disrupted the existing landscape.

A suggestion was cited about IFs following the combined 2018 European Championships in Berlin and Glasgow, dubbed as an early prototype of an event where stakeholders were brought together effectively to work on a mutually beneficial event. 

The report noted the how the Championships were "run in full collaboration with the traditional structures of the sports movement but at a fraction of the cost of larger multi-sport mega events".

While the European Games were not mentioned directly, it certainly would feel like a blow to the EOC to see that in writing. You can make the case that their concept represents the existing and seemingly under threat version of multi-sports, against a new breed. This could yet be a sweeping conclusion with a host yet to be confirmed for the second European Championships.

While highlighting several challenges, ASOIF determined that they expect IFs to remain widely accepted as unique bodies which are capable of governing and administrating their sports worldwide.

I would agree with that conclusion.

However, their publication gave the sense that the role of an IF is set to change in the coming years.

The report stressed the need for IFs to re-evaluate their role and strategies in favour of increased partnerships and collaboration with the private sector, embracing digital innovations and transforming their business models.

I was reminded of the old proverb that you can "lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" when reading though the document. Much of what was written makes perfect sense, but I suspect only a few IFs will be able to carry this out.

Either way the impression provided by ASOIF was that the ground under IFs' feet is changing whether they like it or not. There might not be dramatic instant changes in the sporting landscape, but you wonder whether we could be looking at a very different model for sporting bodies, events and athletes in the future.