The Business of Sport


                                                                       

The Question: as the gap between elite sport and its fans grows ever-wider, should those who pay for the sport (its fans) expect to have a say, should the communities on which the clubs and associations depend be better treated by those at the top and, if so, how?

Many of us have a love affair with sport – many play it directly and millions watch sport and maybe actively or passively support a team. Sport underpins many of our lives – it makes us fit and provides excitement, motivations, inspiration, team-building and social cohesion.

As the 20th Century went on, professional sport was progressively distanced from the amateur and the fan by its takeover by business interests – initially, the local businessman but later, by international business.

This provides a distancing of ownership from the mass of people that generate the income in an industry that is unlike so many others: where the customers are so involved, often so passionate, often players.

This means that sports authorities (and especially businesses that own the major teams) have a responsibility that is different to other businesses or business organisations. They have a duty of care to their customers around the “game” and how it is played. This opens up the issue of how individuals (or groups of individuals) who are customers can be “played” because of their commitment and what can be done to protect them. There may be lessons for all industries from the examples available.

Business Governance and Sport

Governance in sport impacts many beyond the teams themselves. That is why Deloittes show their involvement in all the following areas :

  • licensing systems for sporting competitions;
  • cost control mechanisms;
  • transparency measures and anti-money laundering;
  • events and/or membership application and selection processes;
  • sporting calendar matters (national and international);
  • regulations in respect of players’ agents;
  • measures to protect the integrity of the competition;
  • independence of clubs – ownership rules and other means of influence;
  • player transfer rules; and
  • ‘football creditors’ rules.

Governance is much wider than this in regard to sport and its impact in  and on society can be shown by three articles in The Independent (Saturday, 18th May) that highlight the difficult interconnections between business and sport (here, England football teams) and the intertwining connection between sport and the community.

·      The first by Chris McGrath attempts to show the worst side (Manchester City’s owners sacking of Roberto Mancini) and the best side (the Portland Timbers superb response to a charity – Make a Wish – for help for an eight-year-old cancer victim).

·      The second (in the business section – Jim Armitage) reflects on the Arsenal blog that shows the support of Doan Nguyen Duc (a wealthy timber merchant from Viet Nam) for Arsenal and questions whether they should take the support (financial and otherwise) from someone that Global Witness (an anti-corruption NGO) says was responsible for much of Viet Nam’s destruction of its forests and the displacement of many people that lived there. He is said to have made the comment: “I think natural resources are limited, and I need to take them before they’re gone”.

·      The third (also in the business section by Simon Read) reports on how Sheffield Wednesday turned down a deal with a “payday lender” which it refuses to name but was said to have offered 25% more than anyone else.

The three articles (I assume “coincidentally” in the same newspaper on the same day) highlight the mistrust of journalists for the businesses behind the clubs but also for the type of ethical questions that the clubs have to consider at this time.  “This time” means at a time when business and the community is undergoing strains and, in football, when the position of a team as part of the community it serves is strained to the full. In the USA, big teams moves State; in the UK, only smaller teams like Wimbledon (now Milton Keynes based) have tried it as fan bases are crucial to the business (even if more revenue than ever is via TV and international support).

Whose business is sport?

It is a long time since amateur sport ruled anywhere (the top tennis players rarely joined the professional circuit until well into the 1960’s; athletics was similar and rugby became professional in the UK in the late 1990’s). In the UK, football was severely structured with maximum wages well into the 1960’s as well and even if clubs were limited liability companies, they were owned by local families who kept them private.

In those days of amateurism, sport was for the community. Players were not paid much (outside the USA) and players were close to those they played in front of, living in the same streets and drinking in the same pubs and clubs.

In the USA, football, basketball and baseball (and ice hockey and the rest) became business pursuits earlier. Europe and the rest of the world (and most sports) have followed. It is now the normal way of life that business had taken over professional sport to the financial benefit of players and (mainly through TV) the income for sport worldwide is now massive.

Whether the Olympics, football (through FIFA and its major tournaments such as the Champions League and World Cup), the Superbowl, 20:20 cricket in India and so many more, sport now generates massive income through its massive fan base and the ability of TV to generate that income. So, there has been a rapid shift by large businesses and entrepreneurs to own sports team and have influence over the organisations that manage sports – such as Formula 1 or baseball or football (of all types).

This income has been generated through the opportunity that sports presents over almost anything else – to transmit excitement visually and aurally through radio, TV and the internet to a mass audience that is entranced by the game played – with an excitement and passion rarely found elsewhere. This mass appeal is now available and reach-able worldwide and with that appeal comes massive advertising revenue (and, with the internet) growth is coming faster.

So, sport (something we all get involved in to some extent) has both appeal as participants and observers (although to a greater extent than anything else, the two are mixed with sport). This appeal is then converted into income for companies that are able to transmit sport into the home – via pay per view, rents and advertising.

Sky in the UK has become a dominant operator (although BT are now incurring on their territory).

Owners of sports teams (especially in football in Europe and all the major sports in the USA) benefit wherever they operate.

The Duty of Sport

Because sport is not just another product and because the “customer” is so involved, there is a chance that sport offers something different. The players are celebrities and, in modern culture, people that youngsters look up to (rightly or wrongly). More people know David Beckham than any politician or scientist – it is a (maybe unfortunate) fact.

This means that businesses involved in sport (and that means the sports clubs and managing organisations themselves) have opportunities to involve themselves with society that is not there for other businesses. Not only that, but they have a duty because of the nature of their business and for their own protection.

This duty can be said to be to serve the community that provides them with the income they derive. This is not about BSkyB or BT doing some CSR. They are the middlemen in all this – the means of transmission. No, this means the sports entities themselves working out how much their “community” means to them and how much they should give back to that community. It can be done.

A good example is Arsenal Football Club that has set up the Arsenal Foundation and, in turn, developed real partnerships with Save the Children (its international charity) and Willow Foundation (a national charity). I have an interest here in that I am Chief Executive of Willow Foundation – which provides special days for seriously ill young adults.

Arsenal is an international business these days but has worked out that it also has local roots and its Foundation works in the local community and with Willow on a national scale. With Save the Children, it operates internationally. At its recent Annual Ball, Arsenal Foundation raised over £300,000. That maybe small compared to the Football Club’s annual revenue of £226 million in 2011, but it is a start. Moreover, the time and effort of the club and those within it (like Arsene Wenger – an Ambassador of the Foundation) are worth a lot.

However, the balance sheet is patchy on sport’s involvement with their support base and through them with the community. There is no real driving force that connects through the massive distance that exists between them. While the same distance exists between many businesses and their customers (banking is a very real example, but the same can be said of energy companies and so many others), there is a very real difference in sport that is both for bad and for good.

The Sporting Difference  – and Opportunity

The business sector has been buffeted by recession and, in such a recession, business leaders and their companies are vulnerable to attack from other sections of society. So, the tax avoiders like Apple, Google, Starbucks and others (all under attack by newly-zealous politicians in the UK and the USA along with the tax havens that they employ) are not just seeing their potential tax bills increase. Their relationship with customers is also under attack that can lead to reduced sales. This may not be the case for Google (now so big and dominant that it may no longer care) but others may well feel the pain.

In the sporting arena, it is easy to see a large array of problems: FIFA and football corruption, allegations on racism across the world, NFL alleged behind-the-scenes collusion on player wages (the NFL is a not-for-profit – which may surprise) and the general disbelief that ordinary fans have with the salaries that players “earn”.

Football in the UK is an example of the changes that have taken place in the last forty years where salaries of £100,000 per week are not unusual (Gareth Bale is negotiating £200,000 a week at Tottenham) and the difference between that and the average wage in the UK of around £25,000 per year is stark.

Taking all this together, sport (as epitomized by the 2012 Olympic Games in London) can be magnificent but clubs and sports organisations have to take notice of the communities upon which they rely. The piecemeal CSR and charitable work should be as competitive as their sport rather than resisted or an afterthought – or done just for publicity.

Sport is a collective experience – whether in teams or the association between individual sports stars and their fans. This provides an opportunity to seal the gap between the stars and the fans that small groups of supporters on their own can never fill.

The link between the stars / clubs / associations (the elite) and the fans / amateur groups has always been a struggle. It is for each club to decide how it deals with the community upon which it depends. Some ensure the players get into the community – at Tottenham Hotspur in London, Ledley King and Jermaine Defoe are well-known for the time they spend with young, inner-City kids and clubs. Other set up Foundations and / or develop relationships with charities (usually connected in some way to the work they are doing or the area they are in).

Heading for Rollerball?

Deloittes produce an annual report on the top football teams – with the last issued in January of 2013.

No one (that I can see) assesses annually the contribution that sport and teams make in society or the potential for that contribution – let alone any analysis on the work individual clubs perform.

Business seems now to be the only driver – which is a Rollerball outlook on sport – a dystopian future that may well be here already. Made in 1975, the film showed the world in 2018 as corporate-controlled where sport was the controller – like 1984 with sport instead of three political blocs fighting each other.

So the Question: as the gap between elite sport and its fans grows ever-wider, should those who pay for the sport (its fans) expect to have a say, should the communities on which the clubs and associations depend be better treated by those at the top and, if so, how?

Bodies such as Sport England, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the major associations of all the sports and clubs discuss the wide range of benefits and opportunities that exist. Because it is hard to measure the impact of sport and the part played by big corporations in sport (it is not something easy to measure like GDP), the real impact of large corporations on communities and people in the UK is not assessed.

Like the problems of measuring the benefit of a woodland or a river, our focus on numbers (and scores) misses the potential for large sports organisations to do good – and the result is that newspapers see the Rollerball potential.

The Government has set up a Natural Capital Committee to measure the value of natural capital in the UK. It  just published its first Annual Report

Because of its enormous impact on society and people, one response may be to set up an equivalent in the area of Sport – to assess the benefits and problems associated with the business of sport and the benefits to society, people and communities in ensuring that Sport is well managed for the benefit of as many as possible and that Businesses in Sport gives back to society sufficient of the benefits it derives from those communities and show how they take those communities into account. We would then get to see an Annual Report on the state of sport in the UK.

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