How do you keep sport clean when it's awash with cash?

EDITOR'S BLOG: The sorry tales of Sepp Blatter and Bernie Ecclestone show that while sport is more popular than ever it has a long way to go on the governance front.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 30 Mar 2016

Yesterday I had lunch with a big cheese in the world of sports marketing. He observes games of all different sorts and brokers deals for sponsors and rights holders the world over. Inevitably the conversation turned to the issues of governance, trust and poor behaviour that have dogged so many sports over the last few years.

So, I asked, in the midst of the ordure that surrounds FIFA and F1 - not to mention the dodginess of doped athletics - if he had to name the sports in descending order of wholesome cleanliness what would the list look like? The reply was swift: ‘Rugby, golf, shove halfpenny.’ He steers clear of football if he can.

Today the FT had lunch in Zurich with Sepp Blatter. They ate ‘Mama Blatter’s’ salad - which sounds revolting - and drink Swiss sauvignon blanc. (That AND the cuckoo clock - who knew?) As Blatter nosedives like a stricken Junkers 88 into the sea, he clearly aims to bring down as many as he can with him. It’s hard to see how things could look any grimmer for Michel Platini.

Blatter utterly refuses to condemn ‘the culture of handshakes, favours and secret deals that he encouraged’ and led to bungs being distributed across Africa, and the stitch-ups of Russia and Qatar being awarded the World Cup. This noble use of the handshake - the ‘my word is my bond approach’ - has, of course, been the favoured modus operandi of Bernie Ecclestone for many years. Both Blatter and Ecclestone would say it served them well. They got things done. The trouble is handshakes are anything but transparent. What precisely has been agreed? They have the discreet advantage, naturally, of leaving no paper or electronic trail. Investigators just follow the money transfers later.

Blatter’s sense of entitlement defies belief. Equally, it’s hard to know what planet Bernie Ecclestone is on these days. The only response to this toadying interview he gave to Putin’s mouthpiece Russia Today, during the course of which he praises Russia, Blatter and slags off the Americans, can be ‘Are you ‘avin a larf?’

How does one clean up FIFA? The outfit’s problems were partially rooted in nobody really knowing who is FIFA’s ultimate customer. To whom does Blatter answer? Is it the global federations, the sponsors or is it you and me who watch games? If it’s the latter then few global spectators stopped watching the World Cup because of the widespread corruption. They just don’t care. Bungs only bother the chattering classes and they still watch anyway.

In the end the rug was finally pulled from under Blatter’s feet by the sponsors, who felt they could no longer risk the continuing reputational damage of tacitly supporting him. Even then Kia and Adidas didn’t fall into line with Coke and McDonald’s. That Gazprom didn’t make a fuss surprised absolutely nobody.

Coke’s problem, the factor that made it hang on for so long with FIFA, was the magnetic attraction of international football. What other form of ‘content’ can deliver such amazing, engaged numbers across the globe? Coke knew very well that should it withdraw, Pepsi would be in there like a flash.

Saturday sees the rugby World Cup final. After a few years when rugby became seriously dull as referees stopped the game every 10 seconds, this world cup has been amazingly exciting. It’s a reminder of why sport remains so compelling and why BT, for example, is willing to bet the farm on broadcasting sport rather than getting high speed fibre into the ground double-quick. Sport will continue to attract the very big money. But it’s what it does with that cash that counts.

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