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Leena Singarajah | Don’t forget the athletes

Leena Singarajah, executive vice-president at sports strategy consultancy StratGy, says the pandemic is a good opportunity to consider whether athletes, national federations, and others lower down the sports industry food chain are getting a fair share of revenues

Leena Singarajah, executive vice-president, StratGy

The plight of athletes during the Covid-19 pandemic has been overshadowed by the focus on media rights and sponsorships, and events, leagues and federations getting back underway.

There have been some positive moves, including NBA players encouraging colleagues to get financial education during the league’s stoppage; the Wimbledon tennis championships distributing its insurance pay-out to athletes and officials; and governing bodies in sports including athletics, archery, gymnastics, volleyball, swimming and tennis creating funds specifically for athletes.

But for every encouraging act, there are dozens of disheartening stories – American track-and-field athletes taking delivery jobs, lower-ranked tennis players considering signing for unemployment benefits, Indian badminton players selling their rackets, Malaysian badminton players calling time on their careers early, Indonesian footballers selling satay on the streets just to make ends meet.

Nike is also reported to be considering dropping British athletes; Indian badminton players have been warned not to expect sponsorship income until November; a young swimmer in the International Swimming League has deferred entry to medical school, having run out of money due to the cancellation of the league; and runners in Egypt and Kenya are getting by with $600-$700 monthly stipends from local federations and clubs.

There are also Covid-19-related risks to consider. Doctors say the full extent of the risk of harm from the illness is unknown, but the symptoms already identified – including blood clots, brain fog, tiredness, and heart and lung problems – are plenty cause for concern for athletes. Cardiologists have said myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle which can affect the heart’s ability to pump and cause rapid or abnormal heart rhythms – is a potential side effect, contracted recently by Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez. An Indian hockey player was re-admitted to hospital weeks after testing positive for Covid-19 due to venous thrombosis – blood clots in the vein – in his arm. Tennis player Grigor Dimitrov has acknowledged that he is still not 100-per-cent fit months after contracting the virus. Many athletes who contracted Covid-19 have reported challenges getting back into shape, both physically and mentally.

Some sports have worked hard to restart within ‘bubbles’ or with new formats. Domestic competitions look to be in a better place to get started again than international ones. But many federations have given little consideration to making changes or trying new formats in order to restart competition. Some federations have published calendars only to make numerous subsequent cancellations – some of this is unavoidable, but it adds to the instability being experienced by athletes.

This instability and uncertainty has increased mental stress and physical risk for athletes. Some are facing increasing air fares and reduced prize pools, further increasing the financial pressure they are under. Some who have jumped out of the gate back into top-level competition have risked, or suffered, injury.

Many federations and leagues will say that restarting events is the best way to revive athletes’ livelihoods. But arguably there is an over-reliance on events in many sports and too little support for athletes beyond this, outside of the event ecosystem.

In most sports, only the very top percentiles of athletes are able earn significant commercial income outside of events. For Olympic sports, only the very top athletes from chosen sports get government support – the rest are reliant for income on either small salaries from their national federation, low-value sponsorships, and part-time or full-time jobs.

The immediate financial problems that many athletes were plunged into by Covid-19 raises the question whether athletes and national federations should be getting a larger share, or greater distribution, of the media rights and sponsorship revenues earned by the federations and leagues. Certainly, the revenue distribution by some governing bodies and leagues deserves a critical look. Are the revenues from minimum guarantees, media rights, sponsorship rights and the IOC going to the right places?

Hugh Marks, the chief executive of Australian broadcaster Channel Nine, is one senior sports media expert to question this publicly. As Nine was renegotiating its media-rights deal with Australia’s National Rugby League, he argued that too much of the money his company was paying to the league had gone on big salaries at headquarters and an ambitious digital project, and would have been better spent on the players, clubs and local federations that are the bloodline of the sport.

Commercial partners can play a role in this. For many sports, a lion’s share of revenue comes from the sale of media rights and sponsorships. As primary stakeholders, broadcasters and sponsors are in a position to demand greater transparency over where their money is spent. Where appropriate, they could lobby for more equitable distribution of revenue to neglected parts of the ecosystem, including players and national federations.

For their part, athletes’ commissions, player councils, national federations and local clubs must also speak up and demand a greater share of the revenue pie.

The pandemic is an opportunity to have overdue conversations about these issues. The risk of not doing so is that, when we come out the other side, we may have lost many of our sports stars.

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