Why is global sport business booming and why does this come with the increasing frequency and growing size of integrity scandals of bribery, corruption and cheating?
This is something I have been giving serious thought to as I prepared for today’s biannual Integrity in Sport Forum in Melbourne, co-hosted by the Sport Australia Hall of Fame and Victoria University.
I think that the digitisation of sport combined with big data analytics has dramatically increased the attractiveness of the product on sale. With that comes the desire to win or be associated with winners, a longing for social acceptance and narcissistic craving to shine.
Ultimately, there is no market without a product that is in demand. And sport is hot property.
One very important reason why sport has been in demand for decades is its primordial simplicity. Every human being understands “you against me”, “them against us” and winners trumping losers.
But it is the digital production and distribution of sport competitions that now allows for global and instant access to a mass market for sport businesses. Big data analytics and near real-time digital responsiveness have enabled the slicing and dicing of sporting contests into endless sub-products.
Betting agencies are selling odds to parts of the sporting contest, such as who will score the first goal, who will commit the foul next or what will be the half-time score.
With these multiplying moments of monetisation of sport comes the opportunities for criminals to exploit the loopholes and gaps in integrity safeguarding.
Bribing an athlete to ensure that one tiny aspect of the sporting contest can be predicted is enough to make millions, such as the scandal in world tennis revealed in January this year.
Further fuelling the sport business gravy train are the rich, but not so famous (yet). They use high-profile sport to show off their economic power and bask in the reflected glory of their team – in the process creating a sense of personal achievement and social acceptance.
But are they the right reason to be involved in sport governance.
Could private sport ownership in Australia lead to similar excesses?
In order to access the benefits that global sport offers as a platform, winning at all cost is too often required on the sporting field, but also in the sport business corridors.
It may be achieved by taking performance enhancing drugs that deliver superhuman performance, or using excessive financial resources to buy influence to stay in power.
So is sport business at the crossroads?
Whom do you trust?
In sport governance, whom do we trust? Are the current crop of sport governors and sport managers capable, skilled and equipped well enough to combat the forces that seek to illegally exploit the exploding profit potential of sport?
How do we prepare, train and educate the future managers of sport? Can the primal spirit of sport be maintained and its integrity kept safe?
A global compact between the leading international sport federations on what should be the basic business principles that underpin and regulate the trade in sport is required.
A coalition of sport governing bodies, government, international authorities, business, academia and civil society was announced earlier last month in the Sport Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA).
The Alliance needs to agree on how far the commodification of sport can be allowed to progress before the integrity of its production and consumption is irrevocably tarnished.
Educators, researchers, administrators and politicians need to combine their brainpower and industry knowledge. An admirable and crucial initiative, but one is left wondering how key principles that more than 40 organisations signed onto are implemented and enforced.
How, for example, is such an Alliance going establish an
[…] independent betting monitoring platform, capable of providing sport integrity intelligence alerts to sporting, law enforcement, betting operators and government stakeholders to assure early warning advice.
[…] establish independent monitoring, audit and oversight in relation to all sport-related development programs and financial transactions.
And how can this happen when sports themselves are competing against each other for the best TV rights deal, host city arrangement, biggest sponsorship deal and slice of the gambling dollar, not to mention the best available athletic talent to take their sport to the next level?
Those people who go to the stadium or the fans barracking from their living rooms need to be assured that sport is real.
They need to be confident that their cheers are part of a real contest, that the outcome remains unpredictable, the contest limited to those competing in it, and that there is always a chance that the underdog can win.
Only then can the superstars of world sport be role models for the millions of weekend warriors in communities around the world.
All of us, those who will only ever play sport for the fun of it, and who use sport to meet and congregate will decide if sport remains worthy of such prominence in society. If that primal spirit of sport is lost, so will be its profit potential, because nobody is prepared to pay a premium for a fake.