Centre circle

Centre circle

The sporting year that was 2014, and the one that lies ahead

It was a victorious year for the German football team. EPA/Andreas Gebert

It was a massive year for sport – a winter Olympics, a summer World Cup, the FIFA World Cup scandal that won’t die, and reforms afoot at the International Olympic Committee. Here are some of my highlights from the business of sport in 2014 and what to look out for in the year ahead.

Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympic Games kicked off 2014, and what we anticipated at the start of February was exactly what we had got by the start of March: cynicism about the cost of the games, criticism of the environmental destruction they caused, and concerns about Russia’s stance on gay and lesbian rights. This all made for a contentious backdrop to Vladimir Putin’s showcase event.

Sochi snafu: one of the Olympic rings failed to open at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Mike Egerton/PA Archive

A general belief that Putin was using the Olympics for the purposes of self-aggrandisement and political capital was hardly dispelled when Russia then annexed the Crimea, no doubt buoyed by an Olympics feelgood factor. What should have been a sporting showcase left many across the world seriously questioning what exactly the Olympic Games, and indeed sporting mega-events in general, are for.

The World Cup

As a sporting spectacle, the World Cup was a success for hosts Brazil this year. The build up to the tournament had many worried that news from off the pitch would overshadow events on it. Numerous accidents took place in the building of infrastructure, most notably at the Sao Paolo stadium and the collapse of a viaduct in Belo Horizonte, and there were various cases of civil unrest too. But once the tournament began, things generally went off without too many problems – off the pitch at least. On it, the Brazilian football team nearly matched the humiliation of the Maracanazo – a humiliating home defeat by Uruguay – in 1950, with their drubbing by Germany.

The other side of the World Cup: protests over cost and benefits. EPA/Fernando Bizerra Jr

One view is that the tournament’s apparent success was testament to its security management and contingency planning, but many would alternatively say draconian policing and the strict management of communications became a symbol of Brazil’s month in the sun that should be highlighted – and not celebrated. Somewhat unpalatable lessons from 2014, then, for every event organiser in 2015 seeking to ensure their projects: remain “on message” and under control.

FIFA

FIFA has been persistently dogged by accusations of corruption this year, perhaps more so than ever. The results of FIFA’s investigation into the World Cup bidding process (that saw Russia and Qatar named hosts of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments), were published in November, producing more controversy than conclusion. The report’s lead author resigned and the full report still hasn’t been published.

Pleading innocence: Sepp Blatter, FIFA president. EPA/Steffen Schmidt

This matter is not going away any time soon. Adding to the drama, we have a deeply inquisitive European media, the FBI involved, governments that are prepared to spy on bid rivals, some disaffected sponsors that are now beginning to voice their concerns, and Sepp Blatter, a FIFA president who is preparing himself for a fifth re-election at the end of May 2015.

Olympics and the IOC

The new year will bring further challenges for Brazil, as Rio de Janeiro gears-up for the 2016 Olympic Games. With the country’s economy struggling and preparations for the Games racking up hefty bills, 2015’s test events will challenge both the nation’s preparedness to host the world’s biggest sporting event, as well as its willingness to pay for the privilege.

As the Brazilian economic miracle falters, China’s growing strength continues. It’s Beijing vs Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, left in the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Competition between them will intensify in 2015, with the decision due on July 31.

Indeed, 2015 will be a crucial year for the growth of non-traditional sporting countries. Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games (a kind of continental Olympics) in June, and the country will likely continue to press for an F1 Grand Prix to be staged there too.

Could the Olympics return to Beijing for a winter 2022 offering? Peter23, CC BY

The IOC will also hold briefings for candidate cities that are likely to bid for the right to stage the 2024 Olympic Games. The name of Baku in Azerbaijan is likely to appear again, as too may Doha in Qatar. These bids will do little to address concerns that these nations are unsuitable event hosts, and that they are using their newly found wealth to buy a place at the sporting world’s top table.

Clearly this is a debate that will rumble on for some time after 2015. But, in the ongoing furore surrounding FIFA and the World Cup bidding processes, the IOC’s upcoming decisions are likely to be viewed through the lens of Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022.

Other sports too

How professional cycling must love the weekly fare of intrigue, deceit and skulduggery served up by the football world. It’s shielded them in many ways. But cycling too was investigated in 2014 (by its governing body, the UCI), in a similar way that football has been by FIFA, with findings expected to emerge next year.

The pertinence of this investigation is particularly acute given November’s announcement that 11 professional cycling teams are launching an organisation called Velon to provide more commercial and marketing opportunities, as well as engage with fans. Watch out for developments next year.

With a UCI and FIFA investigation double-whammy to look forward to next year, the issue of governance in sport will take on an even sharper focus. It may be somewhat idealistic to hope that these bodies begin to seriously address the issue of who their sports are for and, therefore, on what basis they should be governed. But with geopolitical change, public scrutiny, commercialisation and global economic pressure posing a challenge to many sports, we have to hope 2015 provokes a debate about governance in a more constructive way than has hitherto been the case.

Financial trouble ahead

While 2007 may seem like a long time ago, the effects of the global financial crisis are still being felt. This is especially the case in Formula 1. In spite of winning the world championship, during the last financial year the Mercedes F1 team made a loss of US$100m. While the team hemorrhaged cash in the pursuit of ultimate success, further back the Marussia and Caterham teams high tailed into oblivion, as both were liquidated.

F1: shiny but expensive. Michael Elleray, CC BY

With too many economies around the world struggling, the rampant costs of success could well pose sport’s biggest challenge next year. Noises coming out of F1 suggest that we are close to a tipping point in the need for a new operating model.

It is hard to believe that we will see an equivalent to football’s UEFA Financial Fair Play rules being introduced in F1. However, 2015 is likely to be an economically uncomfortable year, not just in motor racing but in many sports. How teams, clubs, governing bodies and event owners respond may well become a spectator sport in itself.

Don’t forget the fans

Somewhere in the midst of all this drama are the fans. Remember them – the individuals, groups and communities whom many people believe are the lifeblood of any sport? As was the case this year, so it will be next year; the big issue for many sports organisations will be fan engagement. With so much competition for their spending, both from within and outside the industry, getting fans and keeping them has become a big issue.

And yet, for all the claims about how social media, the match-day experience and ticketing bundles are the key to effective fan engagement, it would be good to think that over the next 12 months economic, political and moral good sense will prevail and give fans a reason to fall in love with sport all over again.

Will 2015 be the year of ethical organisations in sport, when success is earned and not bought, and when equality and competitive balance are preserved, making sport an innocent pleasure once more? A Christmas miracle may be required.

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