LANE ONE: The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to blow sport up and start over; FIFA’s Infantino is already on it

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In the wake of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, business has appeared to stop. It hasn’t.

Instead, as one veteran television executive put it to me recently, it’s an opportunity to blow everything up and start over. And in sports, the head of the world’s largest international federation is doing exactly that.

Just before the virus shut down the world of on-field sport, FIFA’s Gianni Infantino (SUI) addressed the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) at its 44th Ordinary Congress in Amsterdam (NED). In an excellent, 11-minute address, he told the assembly of the heads of European soccer that it’s time to look into changing everything:

“It’s important to have a spirit, a philosophy of debate, of discussion and to see what comes out. Maybe nothing, maybe something, but if we don’t discuss, we will not know it.

“As FIFA vice-president and president of the English F.A. [Greg Clarke] said after that meeting as well of the [International Football Association Board] where he praised the spirit of cooperation between everyone and mentioned in this spirit of cooperation the ongoing discussions on the international match calendar. I think that this will be really the topic – the international match calendar – that we have to focus on for the future of football. … It has to be fine-tuned. It has to be debated. It has to be discussed by all stakeholders.

“We have to ask ourselves many questions that maybe we avoided to ask ourselves in the past. ‘How many matches can a player play in a year?’ ‘How many competitions do we have?’ ‘How many competitions should we have?’ ‘What kind of competitions do we need for the future?’ ‘Do we play too much or don’t we play enough, maybe, in some parts of the world?’ And we have to realize that the international match calendar is a global match calendar which has to take into account many issues such as, of course, climate and geography.

“And, you know, [in] this we need to consider the fans as well. The fans are the lifeblood of football. I had the pleasure to assist in Belfast on Saturday the quarterfinal of the Irish F.A. Cup between Glentoran and Crusaders, and it was freezing cold. But there were a few thousand people watching this game and supporting their team. These are the true, core football fans and we have to work for them, of course, and offer them what they want to see, and if possible even a little bit more.”

How many sports as successful as football – the world’s most financially successful sport – are willing to look at everything? Not enough.

The questions Infantino is asking are the keys to success, but you rarely hear even the athletes involved voicing these issues in the comprehensive way Infantino did. Read them again:

(1) How many matches can a player play in a year?
(2) How many competitions do we have?
(3) How many competitions should we have?
(4) What kind of competitions do we need for the future?
(5) Do we play too much or don’t we play enough?
(6) How can fans get what they want to see, and if possible even a little bit more?

These questions – and one more noted below – apply to every sport, but most are set in their ways with a calendar that is either set by chance, by tradition or according to the whim of a supporter or sponsor. Time to blow it up – at least on paper – and start again … and see if the new concepts look anything like the current program.

One sport already in tumult is swimming, which has seen FINA, one of the most financially-sound federations, challenged by the new International Swimming League, founded and supported by Ukrainian metallurgy billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin.

With swimming’s schedule now being reset in the wake of the move of the 2020 Olympic Games to 2021, Swimming World Magazine reported that the head of the 14,000-member World Swimming Coaches Association, American George Block, has asked the FINA Coaches Commission to completely revise the way the sport is contested at the international level.

The magazine reported Block’s letter as suggesting:

“● handing the northern winter season over to the International Swimming League (ISL) in a new Pro-Sports partnership

“● shunting the World long-course Championships to 2022 or even 2023

“● dropping universality in favour of soccer-style regionalism; and

“● using the knockout blow of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ‘as an opportunity to de-clutter the international schedule, create co-branding strategies … and to re-think international swimming, rather than focus on short-term finances’.”

Wrote Block:

“This opens a bigger, philosophic question. There are already too many ‘championships’. The International Federations (in all sports) have created – strictly for financial reasons – additional World Championships, World Cups, World Qualifiers, etc. The profits from these events grew the corruption capacity of the IFs, but it also lessened the importance of the unique, historic and traditional regional events.

“I cannot see FINA (or any of the other IFs) giving up their revenue-generating events, but this would be a wonderful opportunity to relook at the world calendar and rebuild it around the local events.”

Infantino is not the only one thinking about the future.

The head of World Athletics, Britain’s Sebastian Coe, wanted to tackle this question when he was elected in 2015, but has been bogged down in the Diack bribery and extortion scandals and the Russian doping quagmire. The recent hiring of Dane Jakob Larsen to head the federation’s Competition and Events team also carries with it the responsibility to figure out the sport’s disjointed calendar for the future (and with a new commission to do so).

Not mentioned by Infantino – because in football, it’s not a major issue – or by Block, is the added question that many athletes will raise if given the opportunity:

(7) How can I make a living in my chosen sport?

In the case of many of the sports on the Olympic program, it’s impossible. But if athletes, coaches, promoters, broadcasters, current and potential sponsors and the applicable federation actually discussed this together, the result would be (a) a better grip on reality and (b) the start of a real plan for the future.

FIFA, with Infantino pushing already, is moving ahead, trying to make the world’s biggest sport even bigger. In fact, he has released his own vision to do so, entitled “Football 2020-23: Truly Global.”

Everyone else is already playing catch-up with FIFA and if there isn’t vigorous movement in other sports to consider what they could be – as opposed to what they are – they’ll be even further behind.

And then there may be nothing to blow up at all.

Rich Perelman

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