Agenda 2015: the outlook for global sport over the next 12 months

5 January 2015 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By David Cushnan | Contact the author

Agenda 2015: the outlook for global sport over the next 12 months

SportsPro editor-in-chief David Cushnan anticipates a busy year ahead for the global business of sport, despite the lack of mega-events on the 2015 calendar.

The 2015 calendar does not feature an Olympic Games or Fifa men’s World Cup, but as sport gets bigger – more events, more coverage, more money, more parts of the world – there will, assuredly, be no shortage of talking points over the next 12 months.

World Championships or World Cups in athletics, skiing, rugby and cricket top the bill along, of course, with the annual staples – tennis Grand Slams, cycling’s Grand Tours, golf Majors, major leagues in the US and Europe, start-ups across India, Nascar and Formula One – but the sports industry, as is its way, will inevitably spend much time looking further ahead, particularly to the next batch of mega-events.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), of course, will set the tone, its influence over the sports currently on the Olympic programme and those who want to be all too clear to anyone active in the business of sport.

Rio de Janeiro finds itself in the final stretch of its build-up, with the Olympic flame just 18 months away from being lit for the first time in South America. Brazil begins this crucial year with a new minister of sport, George Hilton replacing Aldo Rebelo as part of president Dilma Rousseff’s post election reshuffle. As Hilton takes up his post there is much still to be done and one question hangs in the air: were the well-documented struggles Rio 2016 organisers faced in 2014 a mere bump in the road or a hint of the problems to come?

Rio's Olympic Park remains under construction. 2015 marks the beginning of the final countdown to the 2016 summer Games.

PyeongChang may well find itself the subject of similar questions in 2015, as concerns grow, inside and outside Korea, about the financing and leadership of the next scheduled winter Games. In the background are the IOC’s reforms, rubber-stamped in December, which potentially offer PyeongChang and Tokyo 2020 room to adjust previously published action plans. Those decisions, on venues and disciplines, must be made relatively swiftly and will be keenly watched by Olympic and would-be Olympic sports federations alike. By the end of the year, we should be able to watch all things Olympic unfold via the IOC’s new broadcast channel, available initially online and another of Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reforms.

By the end of 2015, we’ll know whether Beijing or Almaty will be hosting the 2022 winter Games; the sensible money is that the former will emerge victorious from a bidding process that has, over the past year, exposed the concerns over the cost and format of the winter Olympics.

In 12 months time, we’ll also have the list of contenders for the next available summer Games, in 2024. With bids from the US, Germany and an Italian effort from Rome already confirmed, it is certain to be a more competitive process, one which will only underline that the IOC has significant work to do on revitalising the winter version.

All of these Olympic bidding hi-jinks will likely play out away from the mainstream Western media, which continues to obsess over Qatar, the way it won its World Cup and exactly when in 2022 the tournament will be played. Like Fifa’s handling of its enquiry into the 2010 vote, the soap opera is stultifying – and watching it play out feels a little like rubbernecking. Do not, though, expect anything other than another term for Sepp Blatter when Fifa holds its presidential election in June. Whatever else he may be, there is no question that Blatter is a supreme sports politician; he understood years ago that the key to retaining and expanding his powerbase was looking after the smaller nations reliant on Fifa for funding. They will back him to the hilt, giving little or no chance to any reformist challenger.

Blatter’s re-election will inevitably be another hit to Fifa’s reputation, at least in the Western world, but it will not be a surprise. And in truth, a quick scan of world soccer’s senior administrators does not reveal many – any? - who would be able to implement the kind of changes desired by the world’s most popular sport’s many stakeholders. There will be no revolution but soccer will roll on merrily as the world’s most popular and lucrative sport.

Fifa is not the only major sports federation facing an election year. The IAAF, world athletics’ governing body, will select a successor to Lamine Diack, as the Senagalese steps down after 16 years at the helm. As other federations have modernised, professionalised and repackaged themselves during that time, a period of seismic change in communications and media, the IAAF, the largest Olympic sports body, has stagnated.

The relative merits of Sebastian Coe, who has already confirmed he will stand, and his likely challenger Sergey Bubka will be pored over before the athletics world convenes in Beijing for the world championships and presidential vote in August, but in truth either man will likely provide the breath of fresh air and energy the organisation and sport of athletics requires.

In the absence of an Olympics in the next 12 months, the major regional multi-sports Games will take centre stage – Toronto is host of the Pan American Games, the Congolese capital Brazzaville will stage the All-Africa Games and, for the first time, a European Games will join an already flooded sports calendar.

Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, has invested heavily to stage an event it hopes will raise its own profile and position it closer to Europe; whether it proves a wise investment will be determined largely by the level of coverage the inaugural European Games receives. The tone of that coverage will also be important. As Baku is not alone in discovering, winning the right to stage a major event also means opening up to a much greater level of global scrutiny. Spotlights will be shone, for better and for worse.

As the mainstream focuses on Qatar, Brazil and, increasingly, Azerbaijan, the keener industry eyes are already searching for the next wave of major event hosts, the so-called ‘emerging’ markets. Those eyes are trained on Kazakhstan where Almaty, the old capital, is bidding for the 2022 Olympics and Astana, the new one, which has invested heavily and perhaps shrewdly in developing all its major sports teams under one promotional umbrella brand, and Turkmenistan, where an ambitious Olympic complex is under construction. As Central Asia wakes up to the opportunity hosting major sports events provides, as previously seen by Middle Eastern states, are the likes of Tajikistan and Uzebekistan the next to stir?

The 2022 Commonwealth Games, meanwhile, will be awarded in September to either an established event host in Edmonton, Canada or the relatively inexperienced Durban, in South Africa, a battle that rather sums up the industry as a whole as 2015 begins. Chase the uncharted territory, or stick with the more familiar where the opportunity for new revenues, new fans and new interest is perhaps not as great but where less risk is involved?

The federation formerly known as the International Rugby Board, now World Rugby, has hedged its bets in terms of placing its flagship event. Four years from now, it will pitch up in Japan, where the sport is fledgling, for the Rugby World Cup. Later this year, though, England will play host to the 2015 edition. The tournament’s success will largely depend on ticket sales and the continuing appetite amongst Britons for major events on their doorstep, which may well depend on how the host nation fares.

The Cricket World Cup begins on Valentine's Day and will not conclude until the end of March.

The Cricket World Cup will take the focus in a matter of weeks, not least in India where the sport’s true power continues to lie. Cricket World Cups are notoriously convoluted – the 2015 edition, to be played across Australia and New Zealand, begins on Valentine’s Day and concludes at the end of March – and this year is part of the early-year sporting swing across Oceania which also includes the usual staples like the Australian Open and Australian Grand Prix, plus the Asian Cup, the largest soccer tournament Australia has ever staged.

Mid-January also sees Equatorial Guinea stage the Africa Cup of Nations for the second time in three years, following Morocco’s controversial Ebola-related ceding of the hosting rights late last year. The Asian Cup and AFCON, plus Chile’s hosting of the Copa America in June and the Fifa women’s World Cup in Canada, will doubtless provide many moments of drama and captivating storylines; on the sidelines, however, all four tournaments will almost certainly turn into hotbeds of Fifa politics. You have been warned.

In the United States, all the major US leagues have long-term broadcast contracts in place and remain in rude health. The focus, instead, will be on expansion. The National Football League (NFL) will continue to toy with the idea of expanding to London – three more Wembley games are scheduled for next season - and mull over a return to Los Angeles. It will be a topic commissioner Roger Goodell may relish in comparison to continuing questions over his leadership and handling of various league controversies.

The NBA, under the impressive Adam Silver, will continue its own impressive work abroad – at the end of the year it took control of the commercial side of Brazil’s top basketball league, part of its efforts to grow the game and ultimately increase revenues, and returns to London later this month.

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, awaits Rob Manfred’s first moves as commissioner. He starts work as Bud Selig’s replacement on 25th January. Silver, who took over from David Stern last January, is the new model of how to handle a transition period and make an immediate, refreshing mark.

In Major League Soccer, the big story is also expansion. The debut of New York City FC, the team owned by Premier League champions Manchester City and the New York Yankees, and Orlando City, whose roster boasts Kaka, will come this year, while preparations continue to gear up in Atlanta and Los Angeles ahead of their own bows in 2017. As Steven Gerrard arrives in the States, David Beckham’s battle to find a suitable home for his proposed franchise in Miami will likely be resolved, one way or another.

Nascar will roll on, almost every weekend, with a new broadcast partner, NBC, in tow and a new name for its secondary series. What was the Nationwide Series is now the Xfinity Series. The search has already begun for a replacement for Sprint as sponsors of Nascar’s top-tier championship, following the telecoms firm’s decision to end its partnership at the end of 2016.

In the apparent absence of any succession planning, Bernie Ecclestone retains his iron-like grip on Formula One as 2015 dawns.

In Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, rather against the odds, continues to set the tone – again, for better or worse. This time last year Ecclestone’s diary was clogged up by court appearances in Germany but with most of his legal battles now concluded he has returned to Formula One’s board. Despite courting – excuse the pun - Diageo’s Paul Walsh as a potential new chairman, ostensibly to keep Ecclestone in check, CVC Capital Partners, the firm which owns the largest stake in the Formula One Group, appears back at square one in terms of selecting a successor for the 84 year-old. It is an incredible state of affairs and comes as the sport tries to size up the impact of the loss of two teams, caused by costs that were both rising and apparently impossible to control, at the end of 2014. Barring a miracle return by Caterham, the 2015 season will start in March with just 18 cars on the grid. Formula One’s pull, though, is still strong: Mexico will return to the calendar for the first time since 1992 in November, staging a race in its capital, while Baku – yes, Azerbaijan again – is poised to hold a street race in 2016.

In terms of well-managed transitions of power, Formula One might learn something from golf. In 2014, Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, and George O’Grady, the European Tour’s chief executive, announced not only their departures but clear, sensible transition timetables. Martin Slumbers, a banker with Deutsche Bank, was the surprise choice to replace Dawson, while the search for O’Grady’s successor is ongoing.

At the top of tennis, meanwhile, Chris Kermode now has his feet well under the table at the ATP but there is a possibly significant change at the WTA where Micky Lawler, a longtime tennis executive at the Octagon agency, is taking on the role of president, a role newly-created for her by WTA chairman and chief executive Stacey Allaster. Whether it is the first step towards a succession remains merely speculative.

Further down the food chain, the sports industry – however you choose to define it - will continue to talk and talk and talk, promise but usually fail to deliver genuine innovation and focus on all things digital and social. Sports that might be termed as ‘emerging’ will continue to try and get a foothold in a saturated marketplace. Bigger, grown-up issues like governance, corruption and drugs will continue to be mulled over, but it is a forlorn hope that clear solutions will emerge.

The annual SportAccord Convention, taking place in Sochi this April, will as ever offer a chance for global sports federations to display their newfound professionalism and new packaging, achieved through various methods including new branding, creation of digital platforms, enhanced broadcast production and reformed sponsorship sales strategy.

In sport, quite simply, there is more to be bought than ever before – properties, rights, events, platforms and data packages abound. Competition is rife before a ball has been kicked, puck dropped, pistol fired or green flag waved. As the lines have been blurred – Manchester United, subject of SportsPro’s February edition cover story, are soccer club, global sales hub, event host, broadcaster, media house and digital publisher all at once – the industry is more complicated, cluttered and sometimes confused than ever.

But there are billions of reasons to be – and stay – involved. In a year almost certain to see broadcasters’ commit record sums to retain or buy Premier League rights in the UK, headlined by a fierce battle between Sky and BT, be sure that the lack of mega-events will not make 2015 a quiet one for those working in, or merely fascinated by, the business and politics of international sport.

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