SPORTS OP-ED: International sport has reached a tipping point it can no longer ignore

Patrick Nally
Patrick Nally

By Patrick Nally

It's now more than 40 years since I first worked in international sport and I have seen tremendous turbulence and significant change in the market ever since. But, quite frankly, I am not sure whether there has ever been another year like 2014 when it comes to off-field events hogging the headlines.

Earlier in the year I spoke to the FIFA Masters Alumni meeting in São Paulo ahead of the World Cup. There were few, if any, dissenting voices when I suggested that football -- in common with many other sports -- had reached a tipping point.  

There were a number of triggers for the discussion. First was the massive cost of the World Cup which had triggered protests on the streets of Brazil in 2013  among those who complained that the state was funding a FIFA jamboree which would earn them little or nothing and was deflecting public spending from health, education and public transport. 

At much the same time the Olympic Movement was experiencing its own difficulties as a number of cities, most notably Munich and Oslo, decided not to bid to stage the 2022 Winter Games, again because of the cost.

Further down the sporting food chain other Federations continue to face up to their individual difficulties in attracting a bigger slice of the media and commercial revenues which flow to the biggest sports properties. For many of these remaining on the Olympic schedule is a funding lifeline but there are fears that lifeline may be cut in favour of alternative, more youth friendly sports.

More recently, of course, FIFA got itself into an even bigger mess and damaged its reputation still further thanks to its inept handling of the Garcia report into bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, a fiasco which forced his resignation and diminished even further an organisation which talks freely of integrity and transparency. There have been many serious allegations made about FIFA and its conduct over the years but 2014 ends in an all-time low for the organisation and its leader.

Yet there is no reason to expect that anything will change any time soon. Sepp Blatter will stand for election in May and the chances are his only opposition will come in the shape of Jérôme Champagne, an ex-diplomat and FIFA staffer who does not appear to have any kind of mandate from any of FIFA's Confederations and is thought of in some quarters simply as a stooge to make Blatter's inevitable re-election seem more palatable to the incredulous on-looking media. 

Champagne is a decent man who holds the interests of football close to his heart and who says all the right things about the need for change at FIFA but he is still not a serious candidate to unseat a man who has done everything in his power to curry favour with the FIFA electorate over the years, despite saying he would not stand again.

Over at the International Olympic (IOC), new President Thomas Bach lost little time in instigating the Agenda 2020 review into all areas of the organisation and its operations which had been promised in his election manifesto. Its 40 recommendations were published in November and I think it is fair to say that few of us lost much sleep in fevered anticipation of its radical findings.

What was produced was a document which contained very few surprises but cleverly served the purpose of positioning President Bach as a man who didn't sit around and could be relied on to get things done. Much of Agenda 2020 contains promises to do things which really should have been done in any case. With the exception of a new, more consultative and possibly more permissive approach to bidding and the fascinating prospect of an Olympic TV channel, one is left to ask what it really changes.

But at least the IOC was genuinely trying to see itself through the eyes of the rest of the world and to find ways of being more relevant in a fast-changing world.

As we go into 2015 I don't think I can remember a time when sport has been so powerful and wealthy on one hand or so disjointed and confused on the other.

Sport has to face up to the fact that with  the power that comes with massive media coverage and incredible fees from the media and commercial partners comes a new level of accountability and responsibility, not just to those who elect the members of sports bodies but to the wider world. 

This is the tipping point we have reached. Those who connect with all their stakeholders including Governments, fans and the media will thrive while those who fail will find opportunities closing and popularity waning.

It may surprise some readers to learn that among the organisations with a keen interest in this subject is UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation. I am delighted to be working with UNESCO to organise a follow-up meeting to the 2013 Berlin meeting of Sports Ministers from around the world which aims to go beyond the understandable introspection of the IOC's Agenda 2020 and the travails of FIFA to take a more expansive look at the relationship between sport and its key stakeholders and answer the questions;: "What has to change?  Is there a new way for sport?

The meeting will be joined by representatives of sports bodies, the media and the world of commerce to discuss issues around hosting major events. But as it is impossible to divorce event hosting from issues of governance, commerce and funding, the conversation will inevitably become far wider.

The objective is a meeting which will examine the realities of sport worldwide, including in some of the world's smaller and most impoverished countries It will be a conference which will, in part at least, look for ways of sharing the benefits of hosting sports events more broadly   and finding new ways of addressing the funding issues which currently determine outcomes.

Every stakeholder has a role to play in this process, not least sport's paymasters -- the media companies and brands whose money is the lifeblood of 21st century sport.

As we go into 2015 it's worth considering the tipping point we have reached. On one side is the Doomsday scenario in which feeble, short-sighted and opaque governance combine with revulsion to doping, other forms of cheating and the vast costs involved to create a situation in which fewer outside dictatorships wants to host sports events, companies don't want to sponsor them and broadcasters see no point in paying massive rights fees because the public has become disengaged and indifferent.

That's not going to happen overnight of course which means that there is still time to address key issues and to find a "new way" for sport to remain the powerful force for the positive which it has become over the past four decades or so.

The UNESCO Conference can be seen as an important step in the right direction.

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Patrick Nally is chief executive of West Nally, the company he founded with BBC sports broadcaster Peter West in the 1970s, and through which he transformed the relationship between the worlds of sports and commerce by creating the blueprint for sponsorship which generates billions for FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and other major rights owners to this day. To follow him on Twitter click here.

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