Is Sport Heading Towards an Arab Spring? – Prof Simon Chadwick

October 22, 2011

This year has seen turbulent times in the Middle East and North Africa, as populations in country after country across these regions have reared their heads to exclaim “no more!” From Tahrir Square in Cairo through to the overthrow and death of Gaddafi, via the postponement of the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain, these have been epoch-changing times for this part of the world. And yet the influence of popular, social media inspired, movements in countries such as Algeria has had even more profound consequences, with the ‘Occupy’ movement emerging in the same way to challenge governments and hegemony across the world.

While the macro-global situation has occupied many peoples’ attention, sport has been grappling with a multitude of its own problems. Yet again this year, FIFA has seemed consumed by its own inexorable journey towards self-destruction. At the same time: Bernie Ecclestone has been called before a German court to explain irregularities in his business affairs; athletes from Pakistan to South Korea to Poland have been charged with fixing sporting contests; in spite of the appetite among some to clean-up sport, hard and soft-doping both still remain as serious problems; while football fans have become increasingly tired of the domination of leagues by relatively small numbers of teams, many of which are being underwritten by rich overseas billionaires and faceless investors.

In some ways, it beggars belief that some of those involved in sport so flagrantly disregard the intense scrutiny they are exposed to. Whether it is arrogance, ignorance, stupidity or laziness, sports’ deviants and non-conformists, often seem unwilling to change. That is not to say that fans, customers, and other stakeholders are simply the unwitting victims in a conspiracy of poor governance and inherent corruption. We are all complicit: when we buy our tickets, when we acquire our satellite television subscription, when we fail to voice our disquiet at kick-backs and bribes, when we let our passion for the sport we love blind us to the realities of the unsatisfactory nature of what happens in this sport.

Yet invoking the spirit of the 1960s, one does get a more pervasive sense that ‘the times they are a changing’. So much so, that one has to speculate whether sport is heading for its own ‘Arab Spring’. Before rejecting such a view, consider that if Twitter and a mobilised community can bring down a government, then those in sport should not be so dismissive. For instance, already in football, groups such as ‘Change FIFA’ have begun to mobilise in order to pose a serious threat to the established world order in football. Alongside this, once supportive domestic football associations are increasingly expressing their abhorrence about FIFA’s seemingly corrupt officials. Even corporate loyalists have started to get lose their nerve, concerned that allegations might affect their sponsorship deals and commercial partnerships with FIFA.

Hence, the old world order seems to be under some considerable threat, confronted by the growing threat of dual-action: direct action, and a sense of market-driven morality. Can it be long before we witness ‘Occupy’ campaigns targeted at sport organisations? When will we see mass withdrawals of sponsors and commercial partners, worried about the implications amongst their customers of being associated with sports that have suspect moral standards? Unlikely bedfellows they might appear, but protestors engaged in direct action and corporations concerned by image and the bottom-line will surely begin to force change across the sporting world?

Changing the systemic nature of governance in sport would appear to be the most obvious way of addressing growing unrest among sporting stakeholders across the World. But one senses that in many cases there is probably neither the will nor the way to do this in the short to medium-term. The change in ideology, philosophy would simply be too much for many of the current gatekeepers to countenance. Even in cases where there is some degree of consensus about the need to do things differently, garnering support and implementing successful and effective change programmes would pose significant challenges for managers.

If they are not prepared to change, then sport organisations must prepare for the potential impact of direct action and/or for an era of market-driven morality. In both cases, this suggests that something akin to an Arab Spring could be about to get a grip on sport. Whether this is literal or metaphorical, sport needs to recognise that it is operating in very different times, even compared to just ten years ago. While many in the industry might feel they can ride-out the storm, as leaders across the Middle East and North Africa have found out the 21st century has posed some of the most serious managerial challenges they have encountered. Sport: be warned!


About Professor Simon Chadwick:

Professor Simon Chadwick holds the position of Chair in Sport Business Strategy and Marketing at Coventry University Business School, where he is also the founder and Director of CIBS (Centre for the International Business of Sport). Chadwick’s research and teaching interests lie in the areas of sponsorship, sport marketing and commercial strategy in sport, which means that his work covers a diverse range of subjects including football, motor racing, rugby, athlete endorsements, sports branding, fan behaviour the Olympic Games, the Indian Premier League and Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Previously having worked at the Universities of London and Leeds respectively, Simon is Editor of ‘Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal’, is a former Editor of the ‘International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship’ (he continues to serve as an editorial board member for several other sport journals), and has authored and published more than 500 articles, conference papers and books on sport. His academic research has appeared in journals including Sloan Management Review, the Journal of Advertising Research, Thunderbird International Business Review, Management Decision, Marketing Review and Sport Marketing Quarterly. Simon has recently co-edited the books ‘Managing Football: An International Perspective’ (Elsevier) and ‘Sport Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice’ (F.I.T.), and has also been co-editor of the following books: ‘The Business of Sport Management’ and ‘The Marketing of Sport’ (Financial Times Prentice Hall), and ‘International Cases in the Business of Sport’ (Elsevier). Alongside his books, Chadwick has created a Sport Marketing talk series for Henry Stewart Publishing, is Editor of a Sport Marketing book series for Butterworth-Heinemann, and is a visiting academic at IESE and Instituto de Empresa in Spain; the University of Paris, France; and the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Amongst his other research and consultancy activities, Simon has worked with numerous organisations involved in sport including Mastercard, Atletico Madrid, the International Tennis Federation, FC Barcelona, UEFA, Tottenham Hotspur, the Remote Gambling Association, Weber Shandwick, Sport Business Group, The Economist and the British Council. In addition, Chadwick’s views on sport are regularly covered by the media; he has been quoted more than 4,000 times in publications across the world including in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes, Time, the Financial Times, the Economist, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde and China Daily. He also regularly appears on television, where he has commented on sport for broadcasters such as CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, the BBC, CNBC, Sky and CCTV. Simon sits on the Advisory Board of StreetGames (an organisation which takes sport to disadvantaged communities), and is a close collaborator with or advisor for various organisations in sport, ranging from teams, clubs and governing bodies through to commercial partners, broadcasters and government ministries.

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