In 1988, having won the 100 metres at the Olympic Games in Seoul in a world-record time, Canadian Ben Johnson was stripped of gold after he failed a doping test. Anabolic steroid stanozolol was the drug of the day, and the most popular contest at the biggest multi-sport event in the world was brought into serious disrepute.

The Johnson case was a watershed moment for the sports industry, thought it was far from being the first example of an athlete being caught gaining an unfair advantage through a banned substance. Nevertheless, it focused the world’s attention on the problem of doping to an unprecedented degree and would characterise the major issue of sports governance for the next two decades.

Fairness on the field of play

If doping was rife then sport was rotten at its very core, and if fans started to believe the product was compromised and unfair, the fear for governing bodies was that they would turn away in droves to other entertainment options. A huge amount of time and resources were directed to combat the issue. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the independent body formed in 1999 under the instruction of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on behalf of the sports community, gave international sports bodies the tools to tackle the problem in a structured and cohesive way.

In 2014, sports governance is still characterised by ensuring fairness on the field of play, however it is not just doping that is a major concern, with match-fixing – athletes being paid cash to alter the outcome of a match for the benefit of, at the very top level, organised crime syndicates – having overtaken doping as the major threat to sports integrity. Three Pakistan cricketers were given prison sentences in 2011 for spot-fixing in a test match against England in perhaps the highest-profile case of recent years, but all governing bodies struggle to get on top of what is seen by many as an escalating issue at every level of professional sport.

There is also a greater focus for governing bodies to be transparent in all decisions off the field of play, particularly when it comes to elections and the awarding of major events. This is something that has brought the spotlight on world sport’s most powerful governing body, FIFA, in both its 2011 presidential election and the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar the previous year. In late 2011, FIFA invited anti-corruption body Transparency International (TI) to sit on an outside panel to advise on governance reforms. However, TI cut its ties after it said its recommendations on comprehensive governance reform had been ignored.

To put it simply, the threats to sport’s integrity are greater than ever, as is the media spotlight on how it is run. For sports governing bodies, this means they have to be run more like a business to ensure they tackle all issues as effectively and transparently as possible.

“The area of sports governance used to be quite narrow, but it’s become a lot broader,” says Kelly Fairweather, CEO of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and former sports director of the IOC. “Doping, match-fixing, issues of sustainability… all these things weren’t really something governing bodies used to have to deal with. Also now, in the world of data, digital media and betting, the landscape has become a lot more complex. It brings opportunities, but also a lot more challenges to governing bodies. We are finding more expertise is needed across these areas.”

To tackle some of the issues Fairweather speaks of, seismic changes are being made in governing bodies, part of a wider trend of professionalisation in the sports industry – something that is also requiring a change of mindset in the people leading the organisations.

“The structure of sports governing bodies tends to be quite traditional, but we are moving away from that and they are becoming more businesslike,” says Fairweather. “I think a lot of sports are wrestling with that. You also, traditionally, have had very topheavy structures in federations and now you have to have a much broader base of professional staff that have expertise in various areas.”

Canadian Dale McMann, who was elected president of the International Softball Federation in October last year, agrees with Fairweather, and says a big challenge at the moment for the body is adapting its structure to be able to effectively tackle the ever-changing challenges of sports governance.

Looking at governance

“One of the things that we are looking at right now is organisational structure, looking at the kind of people we are employing in our sport and ensuring that we have top-calibre people in our commercial, communications and marketing departments,” he said at the 2014 SportAccord International Convention in Turkey. SportAccord is the umbrella organisation for all Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations.

“We are also looking at governance models, and what we have in place from an elected official’s standpoint; what kind of models will allow us to expand in the years to come and, as a result, deliver to our athletes and the game on the ground?”

Simon Cummins, head of the global sports practice at Odgers Berndtson, says the changing world of sports governance is seeing two major shifts – firstly in the structures and personnel at board level, and secondly in the hiring of executive leaders who can combine an understanding of what it takes to achieve high-performance sport with a successful, well-run commercial organisation.

“Historically, governing bodies have been run by elected presidents, often very talented former athletes with a great knowledge of the sport. However, lots are realising that there are two sides to running a sports body: the participation and high-performance sports side, but also the business side. It is the business side that, historically, these former athletes haven’t been completely au fait with,” Cummins says.

“This has led to a lot of discussions at a strategic level of whether there should be two separate representative boards – one being the council, if you like, and the other managing the business side. The latter board looks very different to those of the past as it is chaired, effectively, by a businessman and with independent, non-executive directors who are also from the world of business and have a more objective view on how decisions are made.

People with credibility

“At the CEO level, it is a fine and delicate balance – governing bodies need people who have credibility with all aspects of the association and organisation, but don’t lead with the heart as opposed to the head.
“If someone is too embroiled in the passion and performance side of the sport, sometimes it is hard to stand back and make rational decisions. But, if they have no knowledge, empathy or passion for the sport, it’s hard to get that credibility.”

One of the most influential executives within sports governance is Vlad Marinescu, who became director general of SportAccord following the successful presidential campaign of Marius Vizer, himself International Judo Federation (IJF) president, in 2013.

SportAccord offers its members highly specialized and professional units in vital areas of sports governance – such as the DFSU (Doping- Free Sport Unit), allowing bodies to outsource their anti-doping activities in part or in full. However, Marinescu says its members are clear that in building a team, wide expertise in senior positions is vital.

“The market is changing for sports executives,” he adds. “To be successful, they have to be both passionate and educated business professionals; managerial skills and a clear and deep passion for sport are equally important.

“Management skills are required at every level of the chain. There are, of course, specialists in the major fields of sports governance who have dedicated their time and energy into a specific direction – the CEO or director must study all the respective issues and at the same time surround him or herself with experts in all fields.

“If I had to give my personal opinion of what skills a successful CEO or secretary general would need, it would be, in no order of importance, a sporting background – as either an athlete or an official – professional knowledge of the business of sport and education in the field, a passion for sport, an acceptance of and membership of the community where he or she will work, experience in the field, and loyalty.”

Matt Cutler

Matt Cutler is editor of SportBusiness International magazine

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