David Owen

The history of labour relations in sport can be seen as a chronicle of athletes’ struggle to secure a bigger share of the spoils produced by a particularly successful arm of the leisure sector, one of the great growth industries of the past, what, 200 years.

This struggle started out as a form of class warfare, since sport was chiefly amateur and hence the domain largely of boisterous gentlemen.

Since then, its progress, in some places spectacular, has been uneven and spasmodic, with results achieved using a variety of levers and stratagems.

With a wave of athlete militancy now sweeping through the Olympic world, which only finally set its face against amateurism in 1972 with the end of the Avery Brundage era, it will be fascinating to observe which levers and stratagems are adopted, and to what effect.

One of the great changes that has helped to enrich sport, Olympic and otherwise, in recent decades has been the advent of sponsorship.

Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, one of the directions taken by current conversations has been to explore whether it might be possible for Olympic athletes to improve their lot by generating more sponsorship income.

This is why Rule 40 has been getting so much attention; after all, any discussion about how to slice up a pie is likely to progress more smoothly if the pie is growing.

Unfortunately, as the pioneer of sports marketing, Patrick Nally, understood from very early in the day, when it comes to sponsorship, exclusivity is king.

Olympic 100 metres breaststroke champion Adam Peaty is poised to compete in the inaugural International Swimming League, which has vast financial backing ©Getty Images
Olympic 100 metres breaststroke champion Adam Peaty is poised to compete in the inaugural International Swimming League, which has vast financial backing ©Getty Images

Throughout the history of the marketplace, sports property owners have found they earn more by offering a select few brands exclusive rights in a range of well-defined product categories than by signing up scores of competing companies to a sponsorship free-for-all.

And while the digital revolution has changed many things, I have yet to see evidence that this golden rule of sports marketing is one of them.

It could well be therefore that liberalising – and so potentially cluttering - the marketplace to the athletes’ intended benefit reduces the amount that tried-and-trusted National Olympic Committee (NOC) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) sponsors are prepared to pay.

What is more, those reductions might well exceed the increased revenues that the athletes themselves are able to generate. This would mean not only that medallists, in effect, would be absorbing income that would once have been channelled into the so-called solidarity model, but that the overall size of the pie would shrink.

One of the things that the digital revolution has done, mainly via social media, is to make explicit the vast marketing power of leading sports stars, including Olympic athletes. This far exceeds the equivalent firepower of most of the organisations that arrange the competitions at which the stars parade their skills.

This makes me wonder whether a more fruitful approach might not ultimately be to hand the sponsorship sphere over almost entirely to the athletes, including during the Olympic Games, but to then levy quite a substantial tax or royalty on sponsorship income earned during the Games period. This would then go into the solidarity pot for distribution down through the sports pyramid.

Much water would have to flow under the bridge, I suspect, before such a radical remodelling, as opposed to slightly tweaking the present system in the athletes’ favour, received the slightest consideration.

But if maximising revenues is the name of the game, then one would have thought that fully harnessing sport’s best ambassadors in the manner outlined would warrant serious scrutiny.

There is one category of Olympic athletes who are not having to await a remodelling of the sponsorship regime to boost their earnings prospects: the swimmers.

Thanks largely to the intervention of one Konstantin Grigorishin – a Ukrainian businessman who could, I suppose, be portrayed as the Kerry Packer of aquatics – the top Olympic swimmers are about to see their pay packets considerably augmented, at least for the next couple of years and very possibly for longer.

Grigorishin is the man behind the International Swimming League (ISL), a privately-financed venture due to launch later this year which has stoked tensions with the sport’s governing body, the International Swimming Federation (FINA).

Businessman Konstantin Grigorishin is the man behind the International Swimming League ©Getty Images
Businessman Konstantin Grigorishin is the man behind the International Swimming League ©Getty Images

According to Grigorishin, the league will have a first-year budget of some $20 million (£15.5 million/€17.9 million), of which up to $7 million (£5.4 million/€6.25 million) is to go on appearance money and prize money for the athletes, along with bonuses for coaches.

With the first ISL season set to involve a maximum of 256 athletes – including reigning men’s Olympic 100 metres breaststroke champion Adam Peaty, who has signed on as an official ambassador – something like $25,000 (£19,325/€22,350) on average looks set to be pocketed by each participating swimmer.

Not enough to make the average Premier League footballer get out of bed in the morning, but a real help to most of these international-level athletes.

The ISL, though, is not expected to make its entrance until October.

First into the water comes FINA’s own new three-leg Champions Swim Series, which debuts this Saturday (April 27) in Guangzhou, China.

With the governing body putting total prize money for this competition at nearly $3 million (£2.32 million/€2.68 million) and appearance fees for swimmers at more than $800,000 (£618,400/€715,200), the average payout to each of the 109 athletes said to have confirmed may approximate to some $35,000 (£27,000/€31,000).

There is no particular rhyme or reason to all of this. You might well feel it would be preferable for some carefully-calibrated overarching framework to be drawn up and agreed with the great and the good setting out just how much of that overall Olympic pie the gladiators who ultimately put on the show should be entitled to.

There is certainly a debate to be had about whether paying elite performers more risks starving the grassroots.

I also cannot help feeling that athletes’ groups would have found the powers-that-be more malleable a decade or so ago while the broadcasting rights boom was still in full spate.

But the world is an untidy place and it is via initiatives like Grigorishin’s that change, more often than not, tends to happen.

Either way, you sense that this more militant mood among athletes in the Olympic space is unlikely to fade away and that some at least will see real benefits.