LANE ONE: World Champion asks “Why does a popular Olympic sport struggle?”

Beach Volleyball World Champion Melissa Humana-Paredes (CAN)

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has an online feature called “Player’s Own Voice” and Melissa Humana-Paredes was the guest columnist last Wednesday (21st) with the headline:

Why does a popular Olympic sport struggle year round?

She began with the turmoil caused by the cancellation in December 2018 of one of the important – and highest-paying – tournaments of the year, the 2019 Ft. Lauderdale Major, about two months ahead of its scheduled time. The organizers reported that “we have discovered some financial and operational deficiencies that simply do not allow us to produce the tournament.” For Humana-Paredes:

“My heart sank.

“I felt both anxiety and relief, strangely oxymoronic feelings. The relief was in knowing that I could spend a few more precious weeks at home… the anxiety was all about concern for the future of my beloved sport and my livelihood. The mind raced: Is this what professional sports come to? Is it even a professional sport if we can’t make a living from it? Do I need to pick up a part-time job again?”

She is a poster child for the problem that seems universal across “Olympic” sports. Why is it so hard for “Olympic sports” athletes to make a living, while other sports thrive?

● Time out ●
Who is Melissa Humana-Paredes? She’s 26, a Toronto-born volleyball player who was so good so early that she participated in international matches beginning at age 16. Since 2016, she has partnered with Sarah Pavan and the pair became Commonweath Games champions in 2018 and World Champions this year. She and Pavan are clear medal favorites for Tokyo in 2020.

A York University graduate, she is a Board member of The International Beach Volleyball Player’s Association – established in 2017 – and writes, “I have a fire burning so deep to see my sport reach its full, untapped potential, because we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”
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Her CBC piece doesn’t answer her question, but wonders what the future is. As she states, she believes it is bright. Really?

As discussed about track & field a week ago, what Humana-Paredes is discovering is that being a “popular Olympic sport” is exactly the problem.

Because it’s the Olympics which are popular and not the sports in it.

Think about that carefully. Taking the 28 sports in the summer Games, how many are self-sustaining, stand-alone businesses – on a commercial basis – for North American athletes like Humana-Paredes? I suggest:

Yes (6): Basketball, Boxing, Cycling, Football, Golf, Tennis

No (21): Archery, Aquatics, Athletics, Badminton, Canoeing, Fencing, Gymnastics, Handball, Hockey, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Rowing, Rugby, Sailing, Shooting, Table Tennis, Taekwondo, Triathlon, Volleyball, Weightlifting and Wrestling.

Equestrian is somewhere in the middle; with its various continental leagues, there is very substantial prize money at the highest level, but the costs – for the riders and the horses – are enormous.

There are overseas leagues which are self-sustaining in Handball, Hockey, Rugby and (indoor) Volleyball and very significant interest in Asia in Badminton and Table Tennis, but not in the U.S. Cycling is problematic outside of road racing.

Not a very good situation, is it? Further:

(1) In the U.S., the very name “Olympic sports” are synonymous – thanks to the classifications used at NCAA institutions – with “non-revenue” sports. This comes from decades of non-ticket sales and trivial-if-any television revenue for almost everything other than men’s football and basketball.

(2) Consider the amount of effort and expenditure that athletes put in to just get into the Olympic Games, an event which – itself – pays nothing. Nothing for competing, nothing for winning, nothing for travel, but the organizing committee will house you and feed you when you are there competing for a couple of weeks every four years. That speaks to be importance of the event and not the sport, when the same competitors show up at an annual World Championships.

(3) Look at my list of six sports in which you can make a living as a North American athlete – Basketball, Boxing, Cycling, Football, Golf, Tennis – are any of those referred to in media coverage as “Olympic sports”? No, of course not. They are sports on their own and not dependent on a quadrennial infusion of interest.

(4) Don’t blame the International Olympic Committee. The IOC, for all of its faults, collects billions of dollars in television rights and sponsorship money for the Games and sends almost 50% of it right back to the Olympic organizing committees because the event is so expensive to produce. Moreover, it sends most of the rest to the National Olympic Committees and International Federations to support their development of sport in those countries and in those sports.

(5) And the IOC funds, at its expense, the Olympic Channel, which was supposed to be a savior for the smaller Olympic-sports federations, exposing their events to millions of new fans. The IOC has done its part; the Olympic Channel effort is a money-loser in its three years of existence, despite the billions of videos viewed on its site. Are any of the “Olympic-sport” federations seeing a major financial bounce from it? None that are obvious, anyway, and probably none is the answer.

The hard truth is that, for the substantial majority of “Olympic sports,” that designation and the crowds that may fill the arenas every four years at Games, are a result of the popularity of a modified religious festival which brings the world together in a unique way and is a showcase for a global, two-week summer camp: what we might be together if we could put aside our differences. But there are still winners and losers on the field of play and the Games are also a platform for the nationalism that some decry as tearing the world further apart than bringing it together. Both contribute to its enormous popularity.

Humana-Paredes is dedicated, smart and hard-working, but has been deluded by the aura of an event which is much, much more than the sum of its parts, the Olympic Games. The question is not why her “popular Olympic sport” is struggling, but “why is my sport struggling?”

Once the players, supporters and sponsors of beach volleyball – and all the other struggling sports – focus on that question, then the possibilities may open up.

Or not. Because as the big-time leagues know well, sports is a business. Those who do not recognize this are doomed to fail, no matter how many people watch them for a couple of weeks every four years.

Rich Perelman

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