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The bird in borrowed feathers? Professional sport broadcasting rights in a new light

By Mogens Kirkeby, ISCA President

Comment by Mogens Kirkeby, ISCA President

I believe it is totally fair that professional sport protects its broadcasting rights against online piracy. But I get concerned when the reasoning is that this income is “vital for the development of grassroots sports”. I will get back to that.

One of the biggest myths in sport is that all sport is the same. Kids that are playing table tennis in their schoolyard in Slovenia are supposedly part of an integrated ecosystem of sport that includes professional baseball in the US. The illustration of this is typically the (in)famous pyramid model of sport (below), which shows the direct link between the top athletes and the less talented, but always aspiring, “bottom” of the pyramid.

But the pyramid is not an accurate model for citizens’ participation in recreational sport activities. The pyramid wrongly implies that the “bottom” is there to serve and underpin the top by providing talent and competition structures to screen and train talented individuals. But most citizens do not play sports or recreational activities to become professional. They do not see themselves as part of a “sport food chain”. Rather, they are active because it is healthy, fun and social.

The pyramid model of sport also implies a monolithic organisational landscape of clubs, national federations and international federations. But the reality is that there are a multitude of organisations, clubs, civic organisations, local facilities and loose networks that organise sport and leisure time physical activities. They try to meet citizens’ demands by providing relevant offers of physical activities and sport – sometimes co-organised by the citizens themselves in local, volunteer-based clubs; sometimes managed by a local authority; sometimes delivered on a commercial basis.

Let’s get back to the professional sport broadcasting rights. An argument for the pyramid is also that there is a solidarity mechanism at play: The top receives income, which trickles down to the grassroots level of the pyramid. However, this is not the case in most sports. In fact, elite athletes in the vast majority of sports are not earning much – if any – money from their sport, and certainly not enough to share it with grassroots level sport. In many cases, it is actually the opposite – the federations in the sport are using their income, which, amongst other sources, comes from the local level, to fund the top athletes in their sport. It is a reversed solidarity!

What we see is “football blindness”. We say sport, but we mean football. And in football, to be sure, there are significant earnings to be made at the professional level and the top of the pyramid. And in some countries, such as France, there is legislation in place to ensure that broadcasting revenue also benefits local sport. But such revenue does not materialise in most sports. And in football, it does not benefit the many different organisations in sport that I described – only the clubs in the federated structure.

The reality is that grassroots sport is funded mainly by the citizens themselves, and by local authorities as described in the “Study on the funding of grassroots sports in the EU”.

The myth of the pyramid model of sport needs to be broken. Perhaps we should use the “church model of sport” instead, as proposed by Scheerder et al (above). There may be a pyramid indeed, but this is just the top of the church tower. The majority of citizens are to be found in the church itself, which is much larger, and with limited connection to the top of the tower.

I hope that professional sport will manage to protect its broadcasting rights against online piracy. But I suggest that it is not done through myths of how this will benefit grassroots sport. And it is not too late to react: The above quote on broadcasting rights being “vital for the development of grassroots sports” is just from the DRAFT of upcoming European Parliament recommendations on the matter. Let’s base policy decisions on facts, not on myths, please!

Photo: Spectator sport in a new light, Bertrand Gabioud, Unsplash

Posted on 14/10/2020 by Mogens Kirkeby, ISCA President


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