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.

Do we care? Ethics in the 21st Century.

To corrupt: cause to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain

(Oxford Dictionary)

 

Dishonest: behaving or prone to behave in an untrustworthy, deceitful, or insincere way

(Oxford Dictionary)

It should not be too hard for the world of politics, economics and our society to focus at least occasionally on the ethical foundations on which we have to operate to survive. In order to live with each other and prosper together, there are written and unwritten laws which lead us to reduce dishonesty to a minimum and rid ourselves of corruption.

Society as a concept is one in which all participants should have respect for each other even if we disagree with each other’s beliefs.

The central core of society is that we should not be dishonest or act dishonestly.

Underlying the way society works is the split between the various sections of that society – and, in a well ordered state, the division and co-operation between legislature, executive and judiciary (as marked out in the USA, and less clearly in the UK). Making law, executing the law and ruling on the law are fundamental to any just society – but, the debate (that we hear and see through all the media) is about the mechanisms that rule society more than the ethical under-pinning.

In the UK and the USA (and many other nations), the law (its formation, its implementation and the rulings on it) seems to be the pervasive elements that dominate everything we do.

The debate is constant – no government feels it has done anything without changes in the law on a constant scale. The legal apparatus has overtaken so much of what we do and think. Even though the number of lawyers in parliaments may have diminished in many countries (viz statistics from Dawn Oliver and Gavin Drewry, The Law and Parliament, 1998) the debates in legislatures (which formulate laws, of course) are based on the premise that a range of laws exist and need to be tampered with regularly.

In the UK the situation is made worse by the fact that the Executive (those whose remit is to implement the laws) are also part of the legislature – where they are seen by the public most often.

Ethics in the Centre

Tinkering with laws – whether social issues or economic – represents the norm in many societies where the rule of law has been in place for some time and where the division between the three branches of the system operate. Of course, elsewhere, the attempt is made to copy the tenets of those countries’ already established procedures. This is basic and proper in many cases if it correctly enshrines the ethical basis of a society.

Recently, the new country of South Sudan was formed after many years of extreme strife (and continuing strife with Sudan). South Sudan has recently formulated laws that attempt to take into account the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) divisions in society between regions, tribes and religions but the society is based on a legal system and laws. The ethical basis of that society in its various legal charters is subsumed within the economic struggle to survive – which is leading to grotesque corruption.

In the same way, many other nations are set up with detailed legal systems (as was the U.S.S.R. under Stalin – which did not stop millions being executed and many more sent to the gulags) but where the law is not enacted as the ethical underpinning does not exist.

It is not just a legal system, which has to underpin society – it is an ethical stance that is the grounding for that legal system and for society in general that has to be formed and around which society has to operate. People do not stop killing each other because of the law except where terror rules (although many in parliament believe that is the only thing that stops us) but because an ethical process and system exist within which cultural norms apply.

Ethics – the moral principles which guide our behaviour may well change over time and geographically. A continuing debate about our ethical grounding is key and often lost in the debate over which tax is being increased or reduced. Often laws overtake the ethical consideration; often economic decisions (many short-term) discard ethical consideration; often politicians have no ethical stance or forget it.

Forgetting ethics

Recently, many examples come to mind (some minor, some major), which highlight a forgotten set of ethics. Here are some but I bet we can all see many more every day:

Example 1: George Osborne slaps a limit on tax deductions by the wealthy when making charitable donations – a tax decision, an economic decision but completely bereft of any apparent ethical standards.

Example 2: the death of Neil Hayward in China highlights the completely different ethical basis on which Chinese politics rests. The hushing up of the death because Bo Xilai’s wife may have been involved is reminiscent of 18th Century ethics in the UK. How do we deal with this? One way is proposed by Martin Davidson, the CEO of the British Council – see: http://blog.britishcouncil.org/2012/04/we-must-engage-with-china-through-culture/

who proposes continuous normalization of relations.

Example 3: Transparency International produces its annual corruption perceptions index. Corruption (see above) is a key indicator of ethics (or lack of) in a society. The index is seen by many yet is not generally held to be a decisive indicator of action by those in power – to whom practical issues like exports are far more important.

Example 4: the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian jail (as highlighted by Bill Browder – a hedge fund owner for whom Magnitsky worked) while investigations were under way over corruption making Browder appear to be guilty of fraud shows a manipulation of the legal system and power in Russia and an ethical framework, which is defunct.

Example 5: care homes in the UK are filmed by the BBC showing mistreatment of patients.

Example 6: reports show elderly patients in hospitals in the UK are malnourished and allowed to die as efficiency statistics become more important than patient care.

We can multiply these examples by millions…….

So What?

Society in the 21st Century moves on. Developed countries are saturated with products so that economic discussion is more about the next iPad or its equivalent. Elsewhere, the production processes are ramped up to meet the rising demands of increasingly developing nations such as China, Brazil, India and, maybe, Africa. Worldwide, short-term economic issues are central to all decision-making.

Other issues are sidelined in the pursuit of short-term economic growth. Externalities (like resource depletion) are sidelined and economic growth, the measure of success, is the politician’s mantra.

So, society becomes focused on a prospective nightmare. We may well now be at a critical point in the world’s history – a point where economics by numbers cannot be the central objective of mankind, where a resurrection of ethical considerations should begin – not just in universities but also throughout all we do. The basic tenet of how we live has to be that we weigh whatever we do against crucial ethical norms.

So what? Well, it becomes essential that our politics, our economics, our legal systems, our strategic decision-making and the way we operate in the world be ethically based. In the 19th Century and before, the ethical basis was religious and formed the backdrop to Empire-building; in the 20th Century, economics and totalitarianism were the backdrops to communism and fascism as human ethics disappeared down the throat of centrist power building.

Today, economic short-termism and a blindness and inability to act on what is right provides societies worldwide with real risks. It is not just climate change that can impact our society in the future (although it will in ways we don’t yet fully comprehend). Just as great is the risk that we have developed simply into short-term, economic robots, where real society-driven ethics are lost.

As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in “The Affluent Society” in 1958:

“To furnish a barren room is one thing. To continue to crowd in furniture until the foundation buckles is quite another. To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it and to fail to proceed thence to the next task would be fully as tragic.”

The next task is the re-establishment after hundreds of years of conflict over land and resources of a global set of ethics which should form the bedrock of our societies: an ethics system that swings us away from the corruption-centred economic system so prevalent that we can think that reducing charity income is some sort of solution, that the elderly are a burden, that special needs are wasteful of resources, that we support unethical regimes in order for Formula One racing to continue.

We show every day that we have limited ethical bedrock and that decisions and actions are undertaken in its absence – not after real consideration. Listen to David Cameron on F1 in Bahrain?

“It’s important that peaceful protests are allowed to go ahead. Bahrain is not Syria, there is a process of reform under way and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform,” Mr Cameron said.

We run the risk of self-corruption.

So what?