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EXCLUSIVE: CEV’s 12-year Infront deal under fire from European volleyball clubs

CEV president Aleksandar Boricic awards MVP to Serbian Uros Kovacevic at EuroVolley final (Photo by Baptiste Fernandez/Icon Sport via Getty Images)

The European Volleyball Confederation (CEV), the sport’s governing body in Europe, has been condemned by a body representing volleyball’s European clubs with a recent 12-year global media-rights and production agreement with the Infront agency a subject of much of its consternation.

SportBusiness understands that the ACPV, the European clubs body, has sent a letter to the CEV to question various aspects around the granting of media rights over such a long period, along with the way in which the federation is run.

The criticisms come amid rising discontent among European volleyball clubs and other stakeholders about how the continental sports body is being run by CEV president Aleksandar Boričić, who is standing for re-election this year.

The CEV-Infront agreement, which runs until 2032 and covers international and club competitions, was ratified by the CEV’s members associations at the continental federation’s extraordinary general assembly in Vienna on February 29.

The deal is worth a total of €106m ($114.7m), comprised of the following: €70m in cash payments; €27m in production and digital value-in-kind services provided by Infront; and €9m ascribed to the Infront volleyball team cost and coverage. The CEV followed up the Infront announcement with news of a long-term betting streaming and data rights deal with IMG Arena.

Among the complaints raised by ACPV in its letter, which has been seen by SportBusiness, include the failure of the CEV to respond to requests to involve the clubs body in discussions ahead of the award of the rights, which include the rights to international club volleyball competitions in Europe.

In the letter addressed to Boričić, the ACPV, which was formed two years ago, claims that it has “recently been confronted with facts which show that the clubs have been simply ignored by the organisation you represent as president and that our outstretched hand has been plainly rejected”.

Along with its questioning of the inclusion of rights to club competitions including the CEV Champions League, CEV Cup and CEV Challenge Cup, the ACPV has also questioned the lack of a tender process for the rights and the failure to inform Europe’s volleyball clubs about the 12-year contract.

Other questions raised include: if an option for future rights has been granted to Infront beyond 12 years; if there is more information about a supposed ‘bilateral’ termination right after four and eight years; if the CEV has the right to approve and co-sign contracts with broadcasters; and which media rights the participating clubs can retain for distribution on their own platforms.

Further queries about the commercial value that has been ascribed to the club competitions and, accordingly, the ensuing levels of participation fees and prize money, have also been posed. Details of minimum broadcast guarantees are also being sought by clubs as they look to ascertain the exposure they can give to sponsors.

The ACPV, whose members include some European leagues as well as clubs, is understood to have asked the CEV for a meeting no later than June 30 to discuss its concerns. Should the request fall on deaf ears, then the clubs body has warned it will “consider further steps to actively defend [the] interests of our members and carefully review participation in future competitions”.

Responding to the criticisms of the Infront deal, the CEV told SportBusiness today: “All details about the prolongation of the partnership were presented to representatives of our member federations and subsequently approved by the delegates attending the CEV Extraordinary General Assembly held in Vienna on February 29, 2020.

“To this extent, the CEV has shared with members of the volleyball family the full rationale of the partnership as well as the benefits that it brings to European volleyball in the short as well as in the medium- and long-term.”

The CEV also pointed to its €11.5m ‘Marshall Plan’ to support European volleyball through the Covid-19 crisis as an example of its support to stakeholders and said, as a general principle, it “continues to exchange information and views with all its officially recognised stakeholders, aiming at improving the conditions for the growth and further development of Volleyball from the grassroots up to the elite level”.

The 71-year-old Boričić, who became CEV president in 2015, faces the Estonian Volleyball Federation president Hanno Pevkur in an election that will take place at the CEV General Assembly in Moscow.

Some European volleyball observers have questioned whether the length of the Infront contract has been partly driven by a move by Boričić to cement his presidency by providing guaranteed income beyond the next decade.

At the time the deal was ratified, the Serbian described it as a “milestone agreement for the CEV and the whole European Volleyball family which clearly indicates our strong ambition to further invest into the growth of our sport in Europe”.

Within its letter, the ACPV accuses the CEV of ignoring the “voice and involvement of important stakeholders such as the volleyball clubs, but also the national leagues and the volleyball players”. The letter also calls for a modernisation of the CEV’s governance and structures “in line with other respected European sports bodies” and the elimination of “old-style behaviour”.

Infront is the CEV’s incumbent agency for the distribution of media rights to its national team tournaments but takes over from the sports data and content agency Sportradar in commercialising the media rights to the CEV club competitions from 2020-21 onwards.

There is an equal profit-share system in place with the CEV after each two-season cycle if pre-defined targets are met.

National team events that also form part of the contract include the men’s and women’s flagship national team competitions, such as EuroVolley and the European Beach Volleyball Championship, along with European Volleyball Leagues and Olympic qualification tournaments. Rights to the Snow Volleyball European Championship are also included, plus CEV-run continental events in both beach volleyball and snow volleyball.

The CEV has said that it remains the owner of the rights as it works with one agency only for the management and marketing of the media rights to all major competitions in volleyball, beach volleyball and snow volleyball.

The existing Infront-CEV deal for the sale of media rights to national team competitions was signed in 2013 and was due to run until 2021.