Sport is one of the greatest sources of entertainment content available and its popularity is why so much money is pouring into the industry. At the same time, elite players in sport are the drivers of the industry’s success, and so their high salaries are justified, according to panelists participating in a Doha Goals Forum debate entitled, “Is the Pursuit of Money Killing Sport or Can Money Buy Success.”
“The need for live, real-time competition and the unpredictability is why sport represents the best content available,” said G. William Hunter, Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association.
Dan Jones, a Partner with Deloitte, said the huge flow of money into sport “is a reflection of the passion and the embrace of the public for sport.” He added that this money supports a virtuous cycle in which money brings “better facilities, better athleticism, better training” and so better performances that attracts more money.
He pointed to the success of the UK team at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in London. “This was fueled by large amounts of money. However, the people who won medals didn’t win for money, they went into sport because they love it, and so they worked hard. Now they are just getting some reward for all that effort.”
And contrary to popular perception, he said, secondary-level sports “have more money than they have ever had. Yes, there is a gap between top teams and secondary teams, but that is not the same as less money. Sport must follow a ‘solidarity’ model where organizing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA force money to be distributed on down the sport.”
This, in turn, requires improved governance and transparency across and down these organizations, adding that there now is more money for anti-corruption and anti-doping units than there has ever been. This last point is crucial, Jones said, because, “the public must believe what it is seeing. Without that, sport has no value.”
In a comment that drew wide applause from the audience, Javier Faus, Senior Vice President of Finance for FC Barcelona, offered his club as a model for other clubs, saying that this popular franchise is owned by 180,000 fans, “not by some millionaire. So if our fans don’t like what we are doing, they can kick us out. We do not favor the model where clubs are bought and sold, and that to win you have to invest 1 billion Euros over 10 years. We believe you have to invest in the grassroots, in youth academies. In this model, success is not bought with money, but rather with effort, discipline and austerity. Cheap and easy money will kill the sport. That’s why UEFA has implemented the Financial Fair Play concept,” which forbids clubs from repeatedly spending more than their general revenues.
Philippe Blatter, CEO and President of InFront Sports, suggested a new way of looking at the relationship between sport and money: “They are like fire and water. If you put them together, one extinguishes the other. But if you put them together in the right way, you get steam.”
He said you couldn’t have successful sport without professionalism and sustainability, while money can enhance the success of sport. He even suggested you could have success in sport without money, so long as the model is otherwise sustainable.
Seeking to differentiate professional sport from recreational sport, Faus said of the latter: “Sport is the best thing to have on the planet. It helps people to be healthy, it teaches children how to win and lose. The best thing is to see the practice of sport increased in our schools,” adding that all the money governments and the private sector spend on sport in schools is “money well invested.”
Hunter said that in the conflict over pay between players and owners, the reality is that players generally play for up to 10 years, thereby limiting the amount of time they can earn a salary directly from their talents. On the other hand, “owners have the ability to hand a franchise to their children and grandchildren.”
Faus defended the salaries paid to players, by saying that star athletes provide inspiration. “More and more children and adults play sport, started by this inspiration, because their star player plays sport.”
Similarly, Wen Wang, Chairman of Holyland Sports Corporation, said, “We need to share the experience of being an athlete. We need to promote and develop sport for the masses and allow the mass of people to enjoy practicing sport.”
Blatter reminded the audience that the talk of large salaries applied only to perhaps 5% of the sporting world, while Olympic gold medal winners are sometimes struggling to meet monthly expenses. He said it is crucial to give these athletes the support they need. “What is needed is money from governments and commercial partners to fund these athletes so they have the facilities and training to get results and become an inspiration.”
Summing up a general consensus among the panelists, Hassan Al-Thawadi, Secretary General of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, said, “We have to look at sport as an industry, and as an increasingly professional industry. From humble beginnings, maybe 30 years ago, people did it just for the love of sport. Now it is an industry that generates great content. There must be mechanisms to ensure the industry can survive to provide great content and continue to fund itself.”