Friday, 25 April 2008

Missing the Millions

Why are no billionaires attracted to track and field athletics? Where are the Roman Abramovich’s, Thaksin Shinawatra’s, Tom Hick’s et al who could at a stroke transform international and domestic athletics into something commercially attractive and truly professional?

Two billionaires, one Indian (Subhash Chandra) and one American, (Antigua-based American Allen Stanford) are investing tens of millions of dollars in cricket, especially in the relatively new concept of Twenty20, exciting, colourful and full of razzamatazz, which will, in most pundits’ estimation, transform the game over the next few years. Two tournaments offering unheard of (in cricket terms) appearance and prize money will start the process off. Those who thought that cricket, with its staple diet of three-day county or state games played in front of a few aged, retired colonels snoozing in deckchairs on hot summer afternoons, presented no challenge to athletics better think again. Commercially viable Twenty20 cricket could swiftly spread to countries where no one thought it could reach; it could swiftly revive the sport in schools. Even the dyed-in-the-wool English Cricket Board is waking up to the gauntlet being thrown down by the current ISL tournament in India and the projected one in the West Indies. It knows that unless it responds positively it could, like the old soldiers in their deckchairs, simply fade away.

Track and field has always had problems with the tribal nature of team sports as the only time tribalism (in our case nationalism) comes to the fore is at the major championships, Olympic, World and European, but even these meetings, as was shown in a recent Blog, are becoming less compelling to television viewers and if that trend continues, will be equally less compelling to television companies.

The truth is that the sort of sums needed to revolutionize (I use the word deliberately) athletics aren’t available to it because, frankly, it is mostly commercially unattractive, boring (Americans sprinters beating American sprinters etc), without purpose and far too spasmodic. At too high a competitive level athletics just isn’t entertaining. Its biggest problem though is that the IAAF and its constituent associations are seemingly content for it to be that way. It doesn’t help itself either by it being so publicly and loudly self righteous about “fighting a war against doping”; in view of recent revelations about junkie sprinters the public are slowly beginning to wonder if this protesting too much is hiding severe deficiencies in the testing systems.

In Britain two former Olympic medallists Alan Pascoe and Brendan Foster have become entrepreneurial millionaires thanks to athletics. They have and do run unashamedly profitable but very successful companies. Pascoe deals with televised events for UK Athletics, Foster concentrates on road running, his showpiece event being the internationally renowned Great North Run. Both keep the public profile of the sport in Britain higher than it deserves and so you would think that athletics would be duly grateful. Not a bit of it. There is general resentment, especially at club level, about large sums of money being made from athletics; money that those slaving away at the grassroots believe should come to them. What they would do with it is unspecified, however.

Perhaps this ambivalence towards professionalism is at the heart of athletics’ problem, accounting of its love- hate relationship with its full-time executives down the years. In the mid-nineties, when Andy Norman and honorary treasurer John Lister left the old British Athletics Federation (BAF), there was much delight in the hearts of the “voluntary” sector. It was a pyrrhic victory. The latter took over the asylum and what had been a highly successful commercial enterprise soon went down the pan. Within a couple of years BAF was shamefully bankrupt.

A new federation rose from the ashes of disgrace. But, given this and the visceral antipathy to fundraising membership schemes from the voluntary sector die-hards, UKA had no choice but to forge a Faustian pact with government quangoes. But, sadly, selling its soul has not brought forth the glory that was anticipated or indeed promised. It has failed because the apparatchiks of both government quangoes, in imposing a one-size-fits-all policy on all the sports they fund, have failed to comprehend the uniqueness of athletics in that it is almost twenty sports in one. Britain’s performances internationally over the decade since UKA was formed have been the poorest since the Olympics of 1936.

These thoughts went through my mind as I travelled north from attending Andy Norman’s Memorial Service. To many present in St Giles church in central London, Andy was a flawed athletics genius who, back in the eighties, single-handedly transformed not only athletics in Britain but throughout Europe also.

Jonathan Edwards and Sebastian Coe gave fulsome tributes, acknowledging the tremendous debt that each owed to him. Jonathan told the story of his attending a press conference at Gateshead, well before his stunning world records, when Andy introduced him as “the man to jump over 18 metres”, which not only nonplussed the audience but Jonathan as well. But part of Andy’s genius was this intuitive ability to spot real talent; the story of his letter to Linford Christie in 1985 urging him to train hard to become European champion (Linford’s best at the time was 10.42) is well known and Ron Roddan, the man who guided Linford to his Olympic and World golds, told me that he thought that Andy had had “great intuition based on great knowledge.”

It will come as something of a surprise to those that knew him and were guided by him when I say that, in a way and compared with today, Andy came from a chivalrous age of athletics, a golden era of exacting and very exciting sporting combat between athletes of extraordinary talent. He transformed athletics meetings, as European vice-president Sven Arne Hansen said, both in Britain and across Europe but all that he did he did for athletes.

Although, in recent years, he worked behind the scenes for England, European athletics and the IAAF, he was scornful of the present tick-a-box bureaucracy and those who have no sense of the history of the sport. “The age of chivalry is gone,” said Edmund Burke in another context, “that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded…” It was a pity that the hierarchy of UK and England athletics were not present at St Giles church to pay official tribute to a man that steered British athletics through its golden decade. One top official is purported to have said that he was “not impressed” when he met the man. Sadly that says more about those who presently govern us than it does about Andy.


wales said...


On my site I had a piece about this. Athletics needs to turn professional- to the extent of providing support(paid incomes) for a greater depth of athletes in each discipline. We cannot expect Athletics to become exciting when we have competitions dominated by a few "funded athletes", with other talented athletes struggling to manage training and earning an income. the Sport has to realise we need depth, not just the funding of the perceived 2012 Athletes.
It could be exciting,with radical changes, European Athletics is trying to make changes- but in order to develop the best talent and keep it in the Sport of Athletics we need more money.
Get greater depth in talent in the UK ,better competitions, get TV companies interested and the rest will follow.
Athletics needs to get onto the front page- the BBC still rate it as a minority sport on their website.
Athletics lives in the dream world where they perceive the sport as the premier Olympic event, but sadly that is not true in the general Sports environment where athletics ranks lowly.
We all know that given a choice most athletes will follow money- hence they move to Rugby etc.
The Old guard may have done it their way, but times are a'changing- and athletics needs to adapt.


Alfonz said...

I knew Andy for many years from the other side of Europe. He was helpful in golden age of Bratislava meet in the eighties and nineties as he brought here Linford, Jonathan among others and also for example Gary Lough to run his 3000 m PB. It would be great if somebody would be able to write maybe a book about how it all began with appearance fees, prize money etc. He made the ground for the current situation. It was also pity to see him in recent years struggling to help Eastern European competitions (mainly in Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia). He learned the officials here how to be effective, how to organise a development meet so that it will be interesting also for public and media. And mainly he always had ideas how to do it better. In recent years he helped me with Ostrava and was also helpful when we started to break the advertising rules because our sponsors coming from other sports simply did not understand why in athletics all is so limited. And with that back to your begin. What would you offer to billionaires withing current advertising rules, within current competition formats (IAAF insists to have 16 events at one day meet which results to the fact that some are not watched etc) and withing current series when the dates are so organised that everybody is struggling (athletes, meet organisers, agents, media)? We must not change 100 m to 99 m to make it attractive for public and fast, always moving, web-used young generation.
Alfons Juck
agent, media representative, meet organiser

The Host said...

Interesting Post, exploring this from the other side of the pond. I'm going to start checking this out from the US side. Feel free to check it out:

-The Host