Centre circle

Dithering blazers let moneymen like Ecclestone take over sport

F1 can’t run smoothly all the time. David Davies/PA

For those unfamiliar with the workings of Formula 1 motor racing, No Angel, Tom Bower’s biography of the sport’s supremo Bernie Ecclestone, is a fast-paced chronology of F1 during the modern era. It reveals a sport dominated not only by one man, but also by conflicts of interest, duplicity, deceit and at times a degree of menace.

As the larger-than-life boss of F1, Bernie Ecclestone now finds himself under the spotlight. He is currently facing charges in Germany for bribery – the alleged recipient, banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, has already been jailed for accepting the payment. Ecclestone accepts he made the payment but denies bribery.

The sporting world is littered with similar allegations of wrongdoing: some of immorality, some of impropriety and some of them downright illegal.

For example, FIFA and several of its officials have long been embroiled in claims and counter-claims involving alleged misconduct. Indeed, even recent internal FIFA reports have raised fears of a “culture of bribery” throughout the organisation.

Another example is professional cycling; the Lance Armstrong affair saw the sport’s governing body, the UCI, accused of receiving “hush-money” and failing to promote any meaningful transparency, among other issues.

Perhaps such standards of behaviour, conduct and morality could be explained by the very nature of sport and the way it attracts intensely competitive people who are intent on winning at any cost. But there is rather more to this than high jinks and a desire to finish first.

Sport has become big business, estimated by PWC to be worth US$145 billion globally. Such is the scale and magnitude of sport that even international organisations such as the UN, the World Bank or the EU are now paying close attention to what happens across the industry. And many of these bodies have simply concluded that there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with the world of sport.

Sport may once have been “just for sport’s sake”, but no more. These days, too many sports seem to be run on principles no one agreed to, by people we don’t know much about, with only minimal oversight. As such, whether they like it or not, the controversies surrounding Ecclestone, FIFA’s Sepp Blatter and former cycling boss Pat McQuaid have inadvertently pushed governance to the top of what is fast becoming the world of sport’s most pressing organisational and managerial agenda.

We have been building toward this point for the past two centuries. Some sports organisations are so deeply and historically embedded in a network of socio-political forces that affecting any sort of meaningful change in their approach to governance continues to be a formidable challenge.

Returning to Bower’s book on Bernie Ecclestone, he notes that many F1 teams have traditionally not wanted to govern, they have simply wanted to race. At the same time, the teams have not necessarily wanted a governor governing them, preferring instead to control their own destinies. Catch 22 therefore, and not just in F1 but in other sports too, particularly those with their modern origins in either the 19th or early 20th centuries.

The consequence of this desire by major teams and other actors to do no governing and yet not be governed themselves is that, for too long, certain sports have been controlled by what some refer to as a “blazeratti”. That is, a group of internally focused, lifetime sports administrators – think the likes of former Olympic President Joao Havelange and you get the picture.

Many of these leaders have let poor governance standards ferment to such an extent that they are now beyond their control. So serious is this neglect that the “blazeratti” is now out of place, out of time and, arguably, no longer fit for purpose.

Into this governance vacuum swept the “moneymen”, those who view sport as a commodity, something to be bought and sold for profit, with governance primarily dictated by market-forces.

If the blazers nurtured the conditions for a governance crisis in sport, then those with money and a lust for power exploited whatever deficiencies this engendered. Bower portrays F1 as having been a classic battle between the “blazeratti” and the sport’s “moneymen”. In Bower’s view, therefore, a classic moneyman like Ecclestone could not have seized control of a well-governed sport.

It is no exaggeration to describe the current situation as a crisis in sports governance, and we surely stand on the cusp of much needed changes.

Yes, some organisations have taken admirable steps towards improving their governance standards (such as the International Olympic Committee). Some have advocated fan-led approaches to building better governance; others believe external authorities such as lawyers and academics are the route to improved standards.

Jerome Champagne has just announced that he will stand in the 2015 election for FIFA’s next president (assuming Sepp Blatter does not put himself forward too). He has promised the kinds of reforms noted above – this could be a tipping point for world football. But then, without effective change, Champagne’s potential presidency could yet turn out to be “more of the same”.

It therefore remains to be seen what the most effective governance model will be for sport in the 21st century, but some sort of hybrid between the blazers and the money seems almost inevitable. Assuming standards do change though, the moneymen will find the going harder than ever.