Sports Governance Review of the Year 2016

As the new year begins it is timely to reflect back on the year just ended and highlight the key issues that caught the eye of the public in 2016 – not in terms of on field performances but in respect of off field issues – in other words a top 10 list of sports governance challenges . Finding a top 10 has not been difficult, unfortunately, nor can it be limited to just one or two high profile sports.

The highest profile issue, and most concerning, relates to the uncovering of child abuse within the sporting world, with a specific focus on football. Given its far reaching nature and the fact that it likely encompasses more sports than just football – swimming has certainly been another sport that may have been affected – I have excluded this from the following list. However what it highlights is the need for all governing bodies to undertake a proper risk assessment of any potential exposure to reputational risk and how to protect against this, recognising that it is the responsibility of the governing body to monitor the whole of the sport and not just the elite or professional end of the sport.

So hence my top 10 governance issues that have raised the profile of the related sport for the wrong reasons in 2016 are:

Cycling – overshadowing everything within the sport is the reputation of Team Sky and in particular the Bradley Wiggins TUE ( Temporary Usage Exemption) medical issue – and specifically the inability of Team Sky to put the concerns to bed by providing a clear and open explanation of what was in the mystery package. Being called before a Parliamentary Select Committee and not being able to satisfy the questions raised merely increased the belief that either there is indeed something to hide or that the management and leadership of Team Sky are not as focused as they would have people believe. And all of this is not helped by the bullying and sexism allegations against Shane Sutton and how that has been argued out across the media. ( Underlying cause as per my earlier blog “Sports governance -10 areas of focus “- #5 – Transparency of decision making )

Athletics – in an Olympic year there would have been hope at the IOC that sport would take the headlines in Rio rather than politics and doping issues. Regrettably this wasn’t the case -the Russians ensured that by finally being shown to have engaged in state sponsored doping programmes and cover ups such that they were banned from the athletics programme ( and the whole para olympics ) in Rio. The sport finds itself re-awarding medals from previous Olympics, being widely questioned over its ability to monitor drug programmes and having the underlying ethics of the sport being challenged and discredited as a result.  ( #9 – Drugs in sport )

Football – Sam Allerdyce falling for a press led expose was the lowlight of the year in England ( even more so than the disastrous failure to overcome Iceland in Euro 2016) which yet again raises questions over what is acceptable within the world of football. A sport where ethics and behaviour seem to play second fiddle to results and money  – at all costs – is a sport that refuses to address head-on the flow of money to individuals rather than for the good of the game itself. Whether it was the treatment of the Chelsea physio being victimised when putting the interests of the player ahead of the manager’s need to win at all costs or Pogba’s agent allegedly receiving payments of €20m or so out of a total transfer fee of €105m it is difficult to see how the revenues flowing into the sport from the commercial agreements being signed up with the media broadcasters is being used to benefit the sport as a whole. When even the biggest clubs – Juventus in this case – do not receive the full benefit from developing and then selling on a player – one has to question what the sport is doing to protect itself and its’ reputation from corruption driven by greed. ( #10 – Follow the money )

Cricket – a sport where the “spirit of the game” continues to be the mantra is a sport that struggles to live up to its own beliefs. Whether it is the international game’s response to “sweet gate ” the Faf du Plessis ban for allegedly improving the condition of the ball, or the domestic game for relegating Durham for financial breaches, the way these issues are dealt with invariably is seen to lack professionalism – an extreme example being the ECB train journey conversation being overheard and released to the media. So what confidence should we have that the proposed introduction of a new franchise led 20/20 domestic competition will be properly thought through in the best interests of the game rather than the best interests of the administrators ? ( # 1 and # 3 – Key stakeholders and conflicts of interest)

Rugby  – concussion is the biggest threat to the sport currently. Incidents like that affecting George North show the sport not having full regard for player safety. How this is dealt with by the game’s administrators will be pivotal – what is more important, protecting the players or retaining the desire to win at all costs? The early indications are positive – changing the tackling law to try and eliminate any contact with the head – but it will need the strong enforcement of concussion protocols alongside this if it is to become accepted and embedded. (# 3- Conflicts of interest)

Racing – a sport that to a large degree relies on the betting market for retaining the interest of a large number of spectators not surprisingly has challenges with monitoring efforts by people to game the system. What has become apparent in 2016 is the degree to which this could affect how the horses themselves are trained and run – we have seen recent examples of cases where jockeys’ were being asked to hold back horses ( Paul John, jockey and Jim Best, trainer )  as well as as running horses for “handicapping reasons” in order “to reduce the horse’s official rating to a mark at which it would be judged to be more competitive” ( Kevin Ackerman , Chief Executive of Towcester racecourse  and owners Kenneth Mackay and David Greenwood ).The good news is that the governing body for the sport- the British Horseracing Authority – appears to be able, in their own words, to “identify corrupt practices and is committed to investigating such activities, however complex or difficult the investigation might be”. (  # 9 and # 10 –  Gambling on sport and follow the money )

Tennis  -matchfixing has been a subject of some discussion in 2016  – started by some social media mischief focused on Lewton Hewitt at the time of the Australian Open and then being thrust into the limelight in Italy where an Italian prosecutor claimed that more than two dozen leading players should be investigated after their names appeared in evidence obtained from gamblers suspected of match fixing. The focus is on the lower professional ranks of the game – the Futures and Challengers circuits – and as recently as December 2016 34 people were arrested in Spain and Portugal suspected of being involved in a criminal betting organisation. The tennis integrity unit has reacted to this by doubling its staff numbers to 10 during the year but clearly this remains an area that will be of concern to the sport as social media channels provide instant feedback on matches to betting syndicates. ( # 9 – Gambling on sport )

Angling – angling is the largest participation sport in the UK and is also not without its own integrity issues. Most recently a claim to have landed the heaviest ever carp – weighing in at over 69lbs – was rejected because of evidence that the fish in question had been farmed by a lake owner in Shropshire until it reached its record breaking weight and only then was released into the lake for an angler to catch and claim the record. An arm of the sports governing body, the British Record Fish Committee, stated that ” this fish is a cultivated fish that has been grown on an artificial feeding regime …prior to stocking into the water. The committee does not accept claims for cultivated fish…”  ( # 5 – Transparency of decision making )

Boxing – boxing is a sport that is used to being challenged over what happens within the ring, in particular in respect of boxer safety, but recent developments have shone the spotlight onto inappropriate behaviour outside the ring – Dereck Chisora throwing a table at his rival Dillain Whyte at a press conference to promote the fight for example. The sport needs to ensure that its image doesn’t disintegrate into that of showmanship more akin to the Worldwide Wrestling Federation (WWF) rather than its previously accepted image of ” the noble art ” if it wishes to remain relevant to sport in the 21st century.(  # 6 –  On and off field behaviours )

Golf – talking of image then golf , and Muirfield in particular, scored an amazing own goal when the club rejected a vote to allow women to become members, thereby removing itself from the Open rota. At a time when the sport is desperately looking at ways to encourage better and more participation , in particular amongst the younger generation, reminding people of the stuffy image and outdated practices that continue in many golf clubs up and down the country was unhelpful and could have far reaching consequences for the sport. ( # 7 – Role of unpaid executives )

Lets conclude with some more positive news – news which may not have caught the headlines in the manner that the stories recited above did. Sport England and UK Sport, recognising the importance that governing bodies can have on the sports for which they are responsible, issued  ” A Code for Sports Governance “in October 2016. This requires all sports bodies in the UK receiving any form of grant funding from these two organisations to recognise the importance of the principles espoused within the code and adopt the mandatory elements for the code as soon as practicable.

So while I am confident that compiling a top 10 sports governance issues for 2017 will not be difficult I am more positive about the focus that is now being shone on the activities of all those sports that we enjoy and support. Gradually a more professional focus is being adopted as to how best to run these sports for the benefit of the population as a whole and not just for the administrators and participators of these sports.


Sports governing bodies -responsible to whom??


Should betting and gambling be embraced by sports governing bodies? Andy Murray recently questioned whether it is hypocritical for the Australian Open and other tennis tournaments  to accept sponsorship from betting companies whilst at the same time criticising players for allegedly being open to accepting money in return for match fixing.

This question isn’t restricted to tennis – you can’t watch a football match on television without seeing gambling companies logos being prominently displayed on player’s shirts or go into any test match arena to watch cricket and you will be able to bet on performances in the match itself – even though betting is prohibited for players and officials on the wider sport as a whole.

So what is the role of the sport governing body in respect of gambling – is it to promote it to generate more revenue for the sport, is it to police the abuse of gambling by the participants or is it to do everything in its power to protect the integrity of the sport at all costs?

One of the biggest challenges for sports governance is embedded within this question -does the governing body exist to promote the interests of its members or is it to promote and develop the sport for the benefit of all? And this indeed is a question which is rarely debated , let alone answered and communicated by the governing body.,

At the heart of the question is money – money and the ability of sport to develop significant commercial revenues is what highlights conflicts and problems. But it is not only money -at times you will see that the member bodies of non commercial sport looking to protect their own interests at the expense of growing participation more generally.

My own personal experience of looking to answer this fundamental question arises from my work as joint author of what became known as the Woolf Report on the activities of the International Cricket Council*. And I would suggest that others should be debating this as well – in particular the International Association of Athletics Federation, FIFA and UEFA and Formula One .

Ultimately in my opinion the sports governing body needs to be seen to be promoting the interest of the sport itself rather than the interests of any group of members or participants – whenever there is any degree of public interest in the sport. The public interest may arise because the sport is an established part of society – eg football, cricket, rugby, athletics etc – or because it is an Olympic sport, however small, where international recognition is at stake ( eg gold medals ) , or because it has a high degree of participation – possibly angling** as an example – or even just because the values that come from participation require a sense of fairness to be present -disability sport may be a good example of this.

Given the public interest then the governing body must accept or take on the role of looking after the interests of the sport as a whole – and not allow the interests of certain bodies to dominate at the expense of others.

So what does this mean in practice ? This is easiest to answer by highlighting examples where the governing body questionably did not act in the public interest of the sport as a whole:

  • The big three test cricket playing nations – India, England and Australia – taking control of the finances of the sport in 2014 at the expense of the smaller test playing countries and the associated nations.
  • FIFA awarding the World Cup to Qatar and expecting the players to perform in temperatures which questionably are hardly safe for top level sport.
  • The IAAF awarding the 2019 world athletic championships to Eugene, Oregon without any transparent bidding process and with Lord Coe, at the time the  IAAF Vice President, chairing the Evaluation Committee whilst also being a sports ambassador for Nike – who are headquartered in Oregon.
  • Formula One taking the sport to extremes of technology thereby reducing – removing?- the importance of the drivers which ultimately who the public relates to.

In each case there is an inherent conflict between those who were making the decisions and those who would benefit from the outcomes.The lack of any form of independent questioning or challenge is evident such that the ability for the best interests of the sport at large to be considered is missing.

The way forwards? Simply put – clarity that the role of the governing body is to promote the interests of sport as a whole coupled with independent decision making that is clear in its ultimate objective – to develop the sport for all its stakeholders rather than the members themselves. Ensuring that the balance of power around the governing body board table does not reside in the hands of a few but instead independent directors are able to exercise their views on behalf of the sport as a whole.

So would this help solve the problems of alleged match fixing in tennis or the increasing conflicts between promoting gambling through sponsorship and restricting participants from betting in any way? Possibly not but at least the reputational implications of decisions on the sport would be capable of consideration and the sport would be in a better place to justify why decisions were taken and demonstrate that self interest wasn’t at the heart of the decision itself.

* An independent governance review of the International Cricket Council by Lord Woolf and PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP – February 2012

** competitors in the World Ice Fishing Championships are tested for drugs by the US Anti-Doping Agency



Why governance matters in sport – 10 areas for focus


Sensational sporting headlines are starting to dominate the front pages of the press rather than just the sports pages. Recent sports scandals are almost too numerous to mention : drugs in cycling and athletics, match fixing in cricket, how major events are awarded to countries (FIFA, IAAF,) how to balance sporting considerations with difficult human rights issues ( FIFA – Qatar world cup; IOC – Rio Olympics ), patronage and potential bribing of officials ( FIFA ), imbalance of power between test and associate countries (ICC ), as well as other challenging governance issues such as the balance between club and country (football), appreciating why conflicts of interest matter (IAAF ) and the application of salary cap regulations and the selection of players performing overseas ( rugby union).

I suspect you can think of others ….

So how can sport respond to these issues before the general public lose confidence in sport as a whole ? And does it matter?? My strongly held opinion is that it does matter – the reputation of sports in general – and professional sport in particular – is at a crossroads and a wrong turn could negatively impact the future of sport for generations to come.

Within this series of articles I will seek to demonstrate how the underlying governance issues need to be understood and addressed by the national and international governing bodies if their ongoing role as guardians of sport is to continue. Failure so to do will result in government intervention – already starting in the UK with required appearances for example of Greg Dyke and Lord Coe before parliamentary select committees – or pressure from sponsors who are focused on their reputation by association. And, in extreme cases, the law enforcement authorities will step in as seen recently in Switzerland where the US enforcement bodies moved into FIFA and arrested several high profile sports administrators.

So what should the governing bodies be doing to proactively ensure that the sport over which they have responsibility is both above board and seen to be above board? A start would be for the respective governing bodies to focus discussion around the board tables on the following matters to enable them to exercise their governance responsibilities proactively:

1 key stakeholders – to whom is the governing body accountable?

2 patronage and the dangers stemming therefrom – appreciating how voting structures can be influenced by individual favours

3 conflicts of interest – recognising conflicts and then responding appropriately to them

4 board room knowledge – governance expertise is required , not just sporting expertise

5 transparency of decision making – with decisions made for sporting and not legal reasons – and not restricting the scope of investigations and committees

6 on and off field behaviours – reflecting the purpose and values of the sport off field as well as embedding the values in on field behaviour

7 the role of unpaid executives, awarding sporting prowess with prestige appointments and engaging with volunteers – ensuring decisions are taken for the right reasons, not just because of an individual’s commitment to the sport

8 the personal aspects of players lives – for example how does the governing body respond to illegal or inappropriate behaviour

9 gambling on sport – ethically appropriate? – and the issues around drugs and performance enhancement; and finally

10 follow the money – appreciate how it influences decisions and provides individuals with power

There is overlap between a number of these concerns and issues but ultimately each and everyone has the potential to undermine the governance , and ultimately the degree of public trust, of the sport in question.

I will expand on these themes in my forthcoming blogs