Good governors of the game or dictators?

Ben Buckley, John Brumby, Lucas Neil and James Merlino at the launch of another big game in Melbourne.

Good governors of the game or dictators?

By Roy Hay

The administrative leadership of major sporting bodies comes in for a great deal of criticism these days, some of which is warranted and some perhaps not. When you scan the newspapers, you sometimes wonder whether there are parallels with what is happening in other contexts and, while it may be regarded as totally fanciful, I got to thinking there was something in common between our sports administrators and another group in the news.

These sports leaders share certain characteristics with middle-eastern dictators currently under challenge by their populations. They have mostly insulated themselves from popular election, at best being chosen by a relatively small coterie of insiders to the sport. They use their power or influence to extract very large sums of money from the taxpayers of the countries in which they operate, some significant proportion of which goes to reward them and their henchpersons with disproportionately large incomes. They use their political power to bend other sources of authority to their will.

They have privileged tax status in their countries and receive massive overt and covert public subsidies. Take a couple of local examples. The new stadium at Carrara on the Gold Coast cost roughly $140 million. Of that the federal, state and local governments put up $130 million and the AFL contributed $10 million. The Football Federation Australia received $45 million of public money for its failed bid to host the World Cup in 2022, losing out to a middle-eastern politico-sports leader who is currently under investigation for bribery. Qatar, to general surprise, won the competition despite the higher technical merit of both the United States and Australian bids as determined by FIFA’s own assessment process.

Of course there are differences. These sports leaders are not in unfettered control of their countries. They are subject to the laws of the land in a way that the dictators are not, though the sports which they govern have many dispensations in practice from those laws. Think for instance of Richard Pratt whose firm conspired to run a cartel to force up prices in the paper packaging industry for which he and his firm were heavily fined. At Carlton football club, on the other hand, he took part in a sporting cartel whose regulations constitute a major restraint of trade, justified in terms of its necessity for the operation of the game of football.

The sports leaders project themselves and their ‘industries’ as contributors to the economic well-being and social and cultural development of their respective countries, just as dictators do. Countries fall over themselves to attract major sporting events, the legacy of which is often at considerable variance to the pre-event puffs of its advocates. The leaders shamelessly spin their bone fides and value to the communities in which they operate. They treat their players and fans with thinly disguised contempt while professing that both are the life blood of their activities. Players in major sports give up many freedoms the rest of us take for granted and are subject to regulations which treat them like serfs, well-paid serfs so the administrators would have us believe, but is it true?

Andrew Demetriou can tell the media constantly that his players are misled when they seek 27 per cent of the football’s revenue they help generate. In the United States, players in the National Football League receive around 58 per cent of revenue. The average across American sports—baseball, basketball, ice hockey and football—is between 55 and 59 per cent. In European soccer, apart from the German Bundesliga at 51 per cent, the range is from 63 per cent in Spain to 73 per cent in Italy, with the English Premier League at 67 per cent.

In Australia the AFL players’ share of revenue has fallen from 27 per cent in 2001 to 20 per cent in 2011. In the NRL the players’ share has been constant around 22 per cent of revenue in the last four years. Rugby Union between 2005 and 2008 paid its players between 18 and 20 per cent of total revenue. Australian elite soccer players have received between 21 and 29 per cent of total revenue including government grants between 2006 and 2010. This calculation includes the separate agreements for the Socceroos and the A-League. The share of A-League players alone is higher at 48 per cent in 2009-10. Ordinary workers in Australia have seen their incomes rise in the last decade, whereas footballers have gone backwards in relative terms. All this data is taken from a detailed study undertaken by Dr Braham Dabscheck, on behalf of the Australian Athletes Alliance, who concludes, ‘To the extent that leagues experience financial problems it is not due to the payments made to players.’

Then there are the fans, who are expected to pick up increased ticket prices, to succumb to high-pressure merchandising of replica shirts which change every year and to be bombarded with artificial noise and exhortations at games which drowns out the atmosphere they used to create themselves. While Australians may feel that the right to gamble is part of their heritage, it is worrying when sports now aggressively promote gambling on and during matches and need gambling revenue in the way they used to depend on tobacco.

Perhaps it is time for a bit of participatory democracy in sport on the part of the players and the fans.

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