David Owen

Better late than never: the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has finally done the right thing by acting to strip Russia of hosting rights for this year's men's World Championship.

This was bad news for me, having sat up into the small hours writing a column urging them to do just that. It was bad news for Russia. But it is a welcome move in every other respect.

Frankly, with sanctions - rightly - raining down from all directions on Vladimir Putin's giant, nuclear-armed fief, the decision had appeared inevitable from a practical standpoint alone.

And it was in practical, rather than moral, terms that FIVB's statement was couched: the body’s Board of Administration had, it said, come to the conclusion that it would be "impossible to prepare and stage the World Championships in Russia due to the war in Ukraine".

It would also have been disastrous for the image of a generally well-run organisation whose vision is to make volleyball the world's number one family sport.

And, if I may descend into flippancy for just one moment, how would organisers have finessed the bleakly ironic coincidence whereby the colours of so many of the volleyballs made by Mikasa, the Hiroshima-based company that is FIVB’s official ball provider, appear to be yellow and blue, the national colours of Ukraine?

Anyway, those considerations of practicality and severe reputational damage today, it seems, finally won out over whatever it was - questions of finance, possibly? - that had deterred FIVB from acting until this point.

I personally think that FIVB should have removed the tournament from Russia a couple of years ago after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sought to ban the country from hosting major events as part of a different package of sanctions.

There has been an outpouring of support from across sport for Ukraine ©Getty Images
There has been an outpouring of support from across sport for Ukraine ©Getty Images

Instead, it was reported last June that WADA had accepted it would be "legally and practically impossible" to strip Russia of the event.

FIVB President Ary Graça explained at the time that reasons for the decision included "the sheer scale of the event, the significant financial investment from multiple parties, and the extensive preparations which have been underway since 2018".

WADA for its part noted that the "advanced stage of preparations of this major event, organised in 10 separate venues, a number of which have already been built or renovated since the awarding of the event in November 2018, as well as the absence of any other nation that bid to host the event, were recognised as valid arguments".

Oddly, when Russia was initially awarded the event, our insidethegames story quoted Graça referring to a "very competitive bid process".

Whether or not alternative hosts are in reality already hurling themselves at FIVB to take Russia's place, the organisation's evident reluctance to act in the wake of the WADA ruling has now left it with a far more truncated timeframe in which to make alternative arrangements, if it is to avoid disruption to volleyball’s sporting calendar.

To be fair, this has all been unfolding at an unfortunate time for the International Federation (IF).

In 2018 in Cancún, Graça outlined 11 strategic goals, including "To grow the average FIVB annual income from $31 million (£23 million/€27.5 million) to $66 million (£49 million/€59 million) by 2020".

Of course, the pandemic intervened. Financial statements show that 2020 revenues in fact reached less than CHF14.7 million (£12 million/$16 million/€14.3 million), although they had attained just over CHF61 million (£49.5 million/$66.5 million/€59.3 million) in 2019.

Ten cities in Russia had been due to stage the World Championship, with a Siberian tiger mascot also launched ©All-Russian Volleyball Federation
Ten cities in Russia had been due to stage the World Championship, with a Siberian tiger mascot also launched ©All-Russian Volleyball Federation

While 2020 spending was down sharply too, the severely shrunken top line resulted in an operational loss of nearly CHF16.8 million (£13.6 million/$18.3 million/€16.3 million) and a final loss of CHF32.4 million (£26.3 million/$35.3 million/€31.5 million).

FIVB has also been revamping its commercial operation, jumping into bed with the private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, to set up Volleyball World (VW), billed as the "commercial entity for the sport around the world".

On launch in February 2021, it was stated that VW would be responsible for "the commercial operation of key volleyball and beach volleyball international events, including the World Championships, Olympic Qualifiers and the Volleyball Nations League".

According to the FIVB controller’s report for 2020, CVC Capital bought 33 per cent of VW’s share capital.

On the other hand, the financial statements also make clear that FIVB remains an enviably wealthy IF.

Financial assets at December 31 2020 stood at CHF92.6 million (£75.2 million/$100.9 million/€90 million), while total equity was CHF85.5 million (£69.4 million/$93.2 million/€83.1 million).

Moreover, while property assets are valued on the balance sheet at CHF15.5 million (£12.6 million/$16.9 million/€15.1 million), the controller’s report states that the "sale price of [FIVB’s building] can be evaluated between CHF10 million (£8.1 million/$10.9 million/€9.7 million) and CHF15 million (£12.2 million/$16.35 million/€14.6 million) more than the accounting value at the end of this year".

Mikasa volleyballs are mare in colours similar to that of the Ukraine flag ©Getty Images
Mikasa volleyballs are mare in colours similar to that of the Ukraine flag ©Getty Images

Furthermore, it seems reasonable to think that the invasion of another country by the armed forces of the tournament host might either trigger force majeure clauses in event-related contracts, or bring an insurance claim into play, or both, limiting the cost to FIVB of making the switch - always assuming another host is found.

I asked FIVB how much profit and revenue the Men’s World Championship had been expected to generate, but it declined to answer on grounds of commercial sensitivity.

However, thanks to the new partnership, the financial statements appear to offer some insight on this score as well.

A "subsequent events" note explains that VW has been appointed as sub-contractor for the 2022 World Championship, while adding that FIVB will pay VW "all amounts received… as advanced payments minus any specified prepaid expenses identified and incurred… and all amounts received…as future payments".

The amount due "shall be payable… in spring 2023".

The entry goes on: "Accordingly… FIVB shall pay the amount of CHF31,996,271 (£26 million/$34.9 million/€31.1 million) deducted of CHF1,297,038 (£1.05 million/$1.4 million/€1.25 million), which constitute related deductible expenses and adjusted for other specific items. The net amount of CHF29,815,289 (£24.2 million/$32.5 million/€29 million) is recorded as long-term payable due to affiliate in 2023."

Finally, consider this: the Soviet Union (USSR) won six of the first 10 men’s volleyball World Championships; yet since the collapse of that Moscow-run empire, the Russian team has failed to win even one.

Given the current severe geopolitical tensions, the symbolism, should a Russian squad have succeeded in triumphing on home soil in September, could scarcely have been missed.

Thankfully, in light of the living hell Putin has unleashed on Ukraine, this is no longer within the bounds of possibility.