2017 in review: 25 stories that shaped the sporting year

After another eventful 12 months in the sports industry, SportsPro writers reflect on 25 tales of disruption, corruption and upheaval that made 2017 a year to remember.

2017 in review: 25 stories that shaped the sporting year

LA and Paris get their Games amid IOC bid struggles

On the one hand, the next three summer editions of the Olympic Games will be held in a diverse trio of world class cities. On the other, every bidder to reach the finish line for the 2024 event was rewarded with a prize of their own.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) parked the question of dwindling interest in its biggest event in 2017 by creating what president Thomas Bach called a “win-win-win situation”, engineering a tripartite deal to make third-time hosts of Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.

Still, the February departure of Budapest from an already disintegrating race highlighted problems that the IOC will need to heal in the years ahead: the Hungarian capital’s enthusiastic and promising campaign had hoped to show a route back in for mid-sized cities but withdrew after shedding local political support in the face of a referendum.

Now, after a challenging build-up to PyeongChang 2018 and anaemic interest in the 2022 event that went to Beijing, thoughts turn to rejuvenating the Winter Olympics. The IOC knows how damaging stories of Sochi’s freewheeling budget were to the appetite for the ice and snow event and is trumpeting a more collaborative bid process.

Sion is the closest to showing its hand for 2026 but there are no candidates yet; former host Innsbruck is already precluded by an October referendum. EC   

Digital disruption in sports media continues

If this business did not know it already, it does now: digital technology is changing sport from its very centre. In everything from the distribution of broadcast and video content to the way communities build around leagues and teams, more and more of the industry’s founding certainties are being challenged.

With TV ratings in major competitions across the world being affected, 2017 was the year in which the big media companies began their response. Disney, which has watched the once indomitable ESPN shed subscribers quarter after quarter in recent years, was the biggest mover. It upped its stake in influential MLB spin-off BAMTECH to 75 per cent in a US$1.58 billion deal in August. At the same time, it confirmed plans for an OTT version of ESPN for 2018, while also withdrawing its content from Netflix ahead of the launch of its own similar entertainment product in 2019.

With specialist platforms like DAZN in play and the tech giants circling, other US media heavyweights followed Disney’s lead. Turner and NBC will now pool the technical resources of their iStreamPlanet and Playmaker Media services, while many of the big networks also announced experimental pricing plans for selected content.

Across the Atlantic, Discovery unveiled plans to build its Olympic coverage around the now BAMTECH-powered Eurosport Player. UK market leader Sky Sports, meanwhile, produced its own response to the challenges of consumption trends with a new set of vertical, single-sport and single-subscription channels built around the likes of the Premier League, cricket and golf. EC

Formula One begins Liberty era

For all its apparent struggles over the past decade or so, Formula One remains a bona fide top-tier sport; one of the few global series which not only transcends geographical boundaries but cultural ones, possessing genuine mainstream crossover appeal. Not many sporting properties would change hands for a fee in excess of US$8 billion, as Formula One did at the beginning of 2017 when Liberty Media finally completed its prolonged purchase.

The 40-year reign of Bernie Ecclestone – a man credited in equal measure with driving the sport forward and, in his later years, acting as a human handbrake – came to an end. Almost immediately, Liberty went about liberating Formula One.

A new senior team was introduced alongside new chief executive Chase Carey, most prominently former ESPN executive Sean Bratches as commercial director and industry veteran Ross Brawn as director of motorsport, bringing a balance between the sport’s past and its future.

New races were announced, too, with the Malaysian Grand Prix making way for the return of France and Germany in an expanded calendar for 2018. Others were mooted for inclusion further down the line, with street circuits in Copenhagen and Amsterdam rumoured, while significant growth in China and the potential for additional stages there remain high up Liberty’s agenda.

A new logo followed at the end of a season in which Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton claimed a fourth world title. Bratches’ broadcast background will eventually come to bear, too, with the likely introduction of a dedicated global OTT streaming platform in 2018 – a significant indicator of the digitally led, multimedia future Liberty has envisioned for motorsport’s elite series. AN

IAAF looks to future as Bolt retires

Usain Bolt would have played out the fairytale farewell thousands of times in his head, but none of those envisaged scenarios would have ended with him losing his 100m world title to the twice-banned Justin Gatlin at the scene of his 2012 Olympic triumph. The Jamaican sprint king’s final individual race was a reminder that in sport – and particularly athletics – the crowd favourite doesn’t always win and victory is sometimes impure.

The IAAF, athletics’ global governing body, had decorated London 2017 posters with images of the man who has spent the last nine years defying the stopwatch, but was left with the portrait of a new champion who has spent longer defying doping laws. It was the latest blow to a sport that has suffered from a chronic credibility shortage for decades, and Sebastian Coe, president of the IAAF, admitted he was not “eulogistic” over the American’s victory.

But for all that, London 2017 and its record-breaking attendances gave athletics a kiss of life. Having spent the majority of his tenure trying to combat issues surrounding corruption and doping, Coe is now calling for a major overhaul of the sport. Insisting that “nothing is off the table”, the 61-year-old is considering NFL-style drafts, athlete auctions, franchises and pop-up tracks among a host of other radical proposals to modernise athletics.

The summer of 2017 might have seen one of sport’s greatest ever entertainers take his final bow, but with Bolt’s departure it seems that the race for athletics to remain relevant has only just begun. SC

European soccer transfer market goes wild

After 2016’s transfer splurges, it seemed soccer’s spending bubble must surely burst – but 2017 was a summer of record-smashing financial exuberance as new TV deals came on stream and generous benefactors returned to the market.

In Europe, Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain met the €222 million (US$259 million) buyout clause in Brazilian star Neymar’s contract at Barcelona. The deal was a statement of intent by the Qatari owners of the recently deposed French champions, easily surpassing Paul Pogba’s world record US$116 million move from Juventus back to Premier League outfit Manchester United in 2016. Teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé joined Neymar and company from Monaco, with the clubs brokering a one-year loan with a permanent transfer worth up to a reported €180 million (US$214.7 million) to come in 2018.

English clubs continued to enjoy unrivalled purchasing power, however, smashing their summer spending record for the seventh consecutive year with deals totalling a combined US$1.8 billion. Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City spent US$287 million to put the final pieces of their all-conquering side in place.

Javier Tebas, president of Spain’s La Liga, was among those to protest this inflated outlay, demanding an inquiry by European confederation Uefa into breaches by PSG and City of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, which limit clubs from spending more than they earn on soccer activities. Uefa rejected calls to look into City’s spending, but investigations into PSG are ongoing.

With Tebas accusing the sides of using “state aid”, creating an “inflationary spiral harmful to European competitions and the footballing industry” – and colourfully telling September’s Soccerex Global Convention that PSG and Neymar had been caught “peeing in the swimming pool” – it remains to be seen whether action will be needed or taken to deal with ‘financial doping’. Otherwise, with broadcast revenues expected to rise further, soccer’s spending seems set to carry on unchecked.  EH

Industry heavyweights jostle for esports position

At the end of 2016, 43 million viewers tuned in to watch the finale of a sports series being staged in Chicago, USA. It wasn’t soccer or basketball, nor was it football or baseball. It was the League of Legends World Championship, an annual esports competition with a US$1 million cash prize.

Love it or loathe it, esports is making its way into the mainstream, and 2017 saw a number of sports industry heavyweights make their move. From the National Football League (NFL), the New England Patriots’ billionaire owner Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke of the Los Angeles Rams both bought franchises in Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League, a new city-based competition due to launch next year.

Elsewhere, Monumental Sports & Entertainment (MSE), whose portfolio includes the Washington Wizards basketball team, appointed Grant Paranjape as its first esports director. MSE’s esports outfit is one of 17 confirmed for next year’s inaugural NBA 2K eLeague, which became the first official competitive gaming competition owned by a North American professional sports league when it was launched in February.

Soccer clubs across Europe continued to sign esports players to their books, while Formula One and Formula E headed the list of motorsport series creating video game competitions.

Drone racing, meanwhile, continues to pick up pace. The Drone Racing League received a US$20 million boost ahead of its debut season, with investors including UK broadcaster Sky, Formula One owner Liberty Media, and wrestling promotion WWE. The New York-based startup also locked in Allianz as a title sponsor.

It might be some time before video games and drones are accepted the traditional sports sphere, but 2017 hinted that major investors are already taking notice. SC   

Fifa expands World Cup as Uefa launches Nations League

When Gianni Infantino ran for the Fifa presidency in 2016, he vowed to create more opportunities for World Cup qualification. He delivered on that promise in January this year, when soccer’s global governing body confirmed that the flagship international tournament would be expanded from 32 teams to 48 as of 2026. The announcement was met by mixed reviews, with fears emerging that it might cheapen the achievement of qualification, rendering the process too easily earned and consequently less of a treasured privilege.

Infantino though, has insisted that “there is nothing bigger in terms of boosting football in a country than participating in a World Cup”. However, a confidential internal report leaked to the media would suggest that the biggest boost may well be for Fifa’s finances, with the governing body set to pocket an additional US$1 billion in revenue from the expansion.   

In truth, though, international soccer has required rejuvenating for some time now and, in September, European confederation Uefa also launched its new Nations League tournament, which is set to debut in 2018. The competition’s promotion and relegation format is intended to create more competitive national team matches, and Uefa will be hoping that it’s latest innovation can subdue the increasing levels of apathy that greet the international breaks during Europe’s domestic soccer season.    

With news now emerging that Fifa and Uefa have entered talks about taking the competition global, and Concacaf due to launch its own League of Nations contest in North and Central America next September, this is certainly a space that needs to be watched. SC

America’s franchise landscape shifts again

It was another year of change in the landscape of American sport, with several major league franchises coming under new ownership or relocating to new markets.

No sooner had the San Diego Chargers confirmed plans to bolt to Los Angeles in January than the National Football League (NFL) found itself approving its third contentious franchise relocation in less than 14 months. In March, the want-away Oakland Raiders secured their long-rumoured yet fiercely opposed move to Las Vegas – a move motivated by the promise of an unprecedented US$750 million public contribution towards a new US$1.7 billion stadium to be built close to the city’s casino-laden Strip.

With the Raiders facing the prospect of at least two ‘lame duck’ seasons in Oakland before setting up shop in Sin City in 2020, two franchise transactions in the National Basketball Association (NBA) further underlined the continued appeal of the booming basketball business. In Houston, local restaurateur Tilman Fertitta forked out an NBA-record US$2.2 billion to acquire the Rockets in September, while in Brooklyn Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai’s purchase of a 49 per cent stake in the Nets valued the loss-making franchise at some US$2.3 billion.

In October Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, agreed to buy a 20 per cent stake in Washington DC-based Monumental Sports & Entertainment, whose assets include the NHL’s Capitals, the NBA’s Wizards and the WNBA’s Mystics.

Elsewhere, in what was perhaps the messiest franchise transaction in recent memory Major League Baseball (MLB) finally approved the sale of the Miami Marlins to a group led by New York businessman Bruce Sherman and Yankees great Derek Jeter. The league’s approval of the US$1.2 billion buyout in late September brought an end to a protracted negotiating process that dragged on throughout the year, clouded by a succession of false dawns and failed bids from multiple interested parties. ML

Joshua emerges as heavyweights resume centre stage

If there was one night in the year that came closest to capturing all of the glory that sport can sometimes promise, it was at London’s Wembley Stadium late in April.

In one corner of a boxing ring at the home of English soccer stood Anthony Joshua, a local boy restored from adolescent misdemeanour to Olympic gold, powerful and finely honed but delivered way ahead of schedule to the defining moment of his young career. In the other stood Wladimir Klitschko, long-time custodian and emblem of a stagnant heavyweight division, hoping to serve reminder of his relevance at the age of 41.

Even amid the excitement that followed an immaculate promotion there was little sense of what the two men would produce. Klitschko, returning after a bizarre surrender of his world titles to the underestimated Tyson Fury in 2015, turned in a limber and menacing performance, among the best of his two-decade career. But in a stirring, seesawing encounter that saw both men on the canvas, Joshua recovered from a mid-fight wobble to stop his Ukrainian idol in the 11th round.     

It was a contest that confirmed Joshua as a superstar and made fans dare to dream that heavyweight boxing could be great again. Reality has since settled in: beyond fellow knockout artist Deontay Wilder of the US and the troubled, inactive Fury, there are few compelling opponents for Joshua’s team and promoter Eddie Hearn to line up as they plan a global assault. There will be nights, too, like the one that yielded a laboured win over late substitute Carlos Takam in October.

Still, between the presence of a marketing magnet among the big men and a growing appreciation of the value of proper match-ups, fight fans have cause to be excited again. EC

Cycling’s leadership tussle ends in Cookson’s departure

Brian Cookson, professional cycling’s great reformer, became president of the International Cycling Union (UCI) in 2013 when he ousted Pat McQuaid. His early years in the role were dedicated to restoring the sport’s image and coincided with the exposure of the once-revered American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s history of systematic doping.

To the outside Cookson appeared to be a transparent, popular leader of the cycling’s governing body and the overriding favourite to be re-elected at the UCI Congress in Bergen, Norway, on 21st September.   

However, the 66-year old’s only challenger, David Lappartient – a vice president of the UCI and an ardent supporter of Cookson’s previous election campaign – claimed in an interview with the BBC that Cookson was “out of touch”, “lacked a clear vision” and was uninformed “about some of the key points of the institution”. It was a view more widely shared within cycling circles than previously thought.

Lappartient had been branded “a political machine” by French journalist Jean-François Quénethas, having never lost an election of any kind, and he duly franked the form in a convincing victory. The incumbent Cookson took just eight votes to his opponent’s 37.

France is ostensibly the spiritual home of cycling – particularly on the road – and Lappartient becomes his nation’s third president of the UCI; the first to hold the position since 1957. While a magnanimous Cookson believes that he can “depart with head held high”, some observers attributed his loss to an anti-British sentiment within the organisation.

The new president has since spoken of banning corticosteroids, including those taken on a therapeutic use exemption (TUE), from the beginning of 2019, as well as cutting road teams to six riders per team. Cookson, meanwhile, has announced plans for a team on the Women’s WorldTour. GD

Formula E to the fore as motorsport grid is rewired

2017 saw another drive for the world’s first all-electric motorsport series, and while Formula E faces a lengthy battle to rival Formula One’s global fanbase, the effort to attract leading automotive brands appears to be a more straightforward one. Reigning Formula One world champion Mercedes’ decision to follow German rivals Audi and BMW on to the grid – to be followed by Porsche and Nissan – only served to strengthen the notion that Formula E is weaving a permanent place for itself in motorsport’s tapestry.

The series also introduced an expanded 14-race calendar for 2017/18, featuring debuts for Chile’s Santiago, São Paulo in Brazil and the Italian capital of Rome, while the addition of a Zurich ePrix is set to return motorsport to Switzerland for the first time in 60 years.

There may be some way to go before Formula E overtakes its rival combustion engine counterpart, but it’s becoming increasingly attractive for sponsors and manufactural teams to showcase themselves in a forward-looking setting.

And what Nascar would give to have the same trajectory right now. The arrival of Cup Series title sponsor Monster Energy was coupled with another slate of format and rule changes intended to arrest the series’ big skid but, according to Sports Media Watch, 22 of this year’s 26 top-tier races declined in ratings and viewership.

Nascar might keep its official attendance figures under wraps, but with the visual impact of empty seats unnerving broadcasters and potential sponsors, it appears that the stock of North America’s pre-eminent racing series only continues to slide. SC

Major leagues go big in Las Vegas

After years on the periphery – years marked by stigma around its gambling DNA and historical links to the mob, both of which had fuelled persistent fears of possible impropriety – Las Vegas finally cemented its place on the global team sports map in 2017.

With a metro area of more than 2.2 million inhabitants, the neon-encrusted desert metropolis had been notable in being the largest American city without a major professional sports franchise. Besides the odd flirtation with football and regular helpings of boxing, MMA, motor racing and college sports, the city of Las Vegas had long remained off the cards for North America’s preeminent leagues.

In March, however, that all changed when the Vegas Golden Knights officially joined the National Hockey League (NHL), becoming its 31st franchise. The creation of the Golden Knights, who began play at the US$375 million, 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena in October, ensured that the tourist hub of Las Vegas would have a new big attraction to sit alongside its embarrassment of entertainment riches. But there was more – plenty more – still to come.

In August, the city landed its first-ever professional soccer team, Las Vegas Lights FC, who will join the second-tier United Soccer League (USL) next year. In October, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) approved the relocation of its San Antonio Stars franchise to Vegas for 2018, while the impending arrival of pro football in the form of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders will add another big-ticket draw to this once-untouchable city’s rapidly maturing sports scene. ML

Tech giants get serious about sport

2017 saw the tech giants make their opening moves in the sports rights arena. In April, ecommerce giant Amazon won the rights to show the NFL's ten-game Thursday Night Football package on its Prime Video service in a deal worth US$50 million.

Amazon then outbid Sky, picking up the UK rights to show exclusive coverage of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour for a reported UK£10 million (US$13.2 million) per year. It also showed the inaugural ATP Next Gen Finals around the world in November.

Meanwhile, Amazon has been using other parts of its platform to expand its offer to sports rights holders and subscribers, adding Discovery’s Eurosport channel to its Amazon Channels platform in the UK, Austria and Germany, creating access to a range of sports from German soccer’s Bundesliga to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Away from live rights, it is taking on original content rival Netflix in the race for documentaries linked to major teams and leagues, and has also made further moves into sport by way of ticketing and cloud-computing.

Facebook, meanwhile, began rolling out its new ‘Watch’ tab through the year, featuring a variety of sports content produced by Facebook partners rolled out in the US. Then, in September, the social media behemoth revealed how much it was willing to pay for sports content after it posted the second-highest bid, at US$610 million, for the local digital rights to five years of Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket.

With considerable financial arsenals to deploy, both Facebook and Amazon have been linked to bids for next cycle of rights to English soccer’s Premier League. Neither Facebook nor Amazon have ruled themselves out, though many analysts believe talk of a significant entry to be premature. EH

Women’s team sport makes strides

After seeds had been planted in 2015 and 2016, women’s team sport has been bearing commercial fruit in the past year – not least over a summer of growing media attention in Europe.

Three major international tournaments dominated the agenda, each providing evidence of impressively robust interest. In the UK, England’s women won the Cricket World Cup on home soil, beating India in the final at a sold-out Lord’s Cricket Ground and monopolising national front pages.

Domestic pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports, which had shown every game live, recorded an audience of 900,000 for the final – its highest peak audience across all cricket programming all season. The efforts of the runners-up also brought suggestions of a transformative impact on the sport in the giant subcontinental market, while many of the stars of the competition will be taking the field in Australia’s surging Women’s Big Bash League in December.

In soccer, the Uefa Women’s European Championship set TV viewership records across the continent. Back in the UK, England’s Lionesses were watched by four million viewers as they fell to hosts and eventual champions the Netherlands in the semi-final – free-to-air Channel 4’s biggest audience of the year at that stage and the biggest ever for women’s soccer in the country. The final pulled in an 83 per cent audience share on Dutch television, with 4.1 million domestic viewers forming part of a live global audience of over 13 million.

Not to be outdone, the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup final was the first to be shown live on free-to-air TV in a prime time slot in the UK. The game netted national record viewing figures for a women’s rugby match, with a peak audience on ITV of 2.6 million for England’s defeat to New Zealand. 3.2 million French viewers watched their team play England in the semi-finals.

There is some way to go but the success of women’s sports teams, and investment in them, is helping break the cycle of low media exposure and providing real opportunities for the future. EH

#TakeAKnee

Not even Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, could have foreseen the furore sparked by his refusal to stand during pre-game renditions of the American national anthem. What started in 2016 as one athlete’s stand against police brutality and racial inequality quickly grew into an entire movement, one that spread from the National Football League (NFL) to other sports and became one of the year’s most contentious and talked-about political issues.

In the opening week of the 2017 season, several NFL players ‘took a knee’ in solidarity with Kaepernick and his cause. When US president Donald Trump waded into the issue, describing protesting players as “sons of bitches” and calling for their dismissal in repeated Twitter tirades, the story became a debate not about social injustice, but a racially charged, partisan argument about respect for America’s heritage and its military, the constitutional right to one’s freedom of expression, and the role of the modern athlete.

Spying an opportunity to stoke his right-wing base, the embattled president, whose years in business were pockmarked by unsuccessful attempts to buy into the NFL, refused to let the matter go, spouting off time and again about much-publicised declines in the league’s TV ratings whilst urging a boycott. In response, the #TakeAKnee movement blossomed, with dozens of NFL players and some team owners speaking out in opposition of Trump’s perceived intimidation.

The league’s unity, however, was short-lived. With Kaepernick still unemployed and the anthem protests starting to hurt business, players and owners held emergency meetings. In November, a resolution of sorts came when the NFL agreed to donate nearly US$90 million to social justice causes supported by players, though it is already clear the gesture has failed to appease the activists. ML

Icarus rises from Russian doping row

The public perception of doping is that it’s a matter of individual athletes knowingly cheating to gain an advantage in a sporting event; the reality may be of systematised, even state-backed deception whose ramifications have a major political dimension and may even threaten lives.

That is the narrative thrust and the revelatory impact of Icarus, the acclaimed documentary by playwright and actor Bryan Fogel (right), which begins with his experimental attempts to juice his performance in an amateur cycling sportive and ends with him at the centre of one of the great sporting scandals of all time.

The film follows Fogel’s burgeoning relationship with Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow anti-doping laboratory director whose testimony has lent such strong foundations to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) McLaren Report, which in 2016 brought forth revelations of a state-sponsored programme of doping Russian athletes.

Fogel brings the story back into public discourse and puts a human spin on the crisis, underlining just how much of a personal risk Rodchenkov has taken in an era where the Russian government treats attacks on its supremacy with extreme prejudice.

Russian officials continue to deny any wrongdoing beyond the actions of rogue individuals, including Rodchenko; WADA continues to deny the country’s Rusada agency a clean slate. As SportsPro went to press, the IOC executive board took Rodchenkov’s side: finally losing patience and banning the Russian Olympic Committee from PyeongChang 2018.

Reports in the UK’s Daily Mail have also indicated that Russia’s soccer team may yet be implicated ahead of the 2018 Fifa World Cup. The flames of suspicion will burn for some time yet. EC

Tennis sows seeds of change

2017 will go down as a year of progress in tennis, even if it was the return to prominence of the old guard – and the return to action of the suspended Maria Sharapova – that dominated headlines on the court.

In the men’s game, the year’s four Grand Slams were split equally between the evergreen duo of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, while on the women’s tour Venus Williams led the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) money list at the ripe old age of 37, earning more than US$5 million despite not winning a title all year. Other, less heralded female stars had their moments, too, albeit in the absence of a pregnant Serena Williams.

Elsewhere, signs of reform have begun to emerge. The WTA has finally launched WTA TV, its new over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, and is mulling bids for its year-end Finals, while in Nitto the ATP World Tour has a new title sponsor for its season finale.

The men’s series also launched the ATP Next Gen Finals for top players under 21, experimenting with a raft of rule and presentation changes, while in an effort to boost participation among big-name stars, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) confirmed plans for a World Cup of Tennis and a shortened format for its venerable yet ailing Davis Cup competition.

Coincidentally or not, news of those latter changes came shortly after September’s Laver Cup in Prague had offered a glimpse into the future of tennis presentation. Pitting Team Europe against Team World in tennis’s answer to golf’s Ryder Cup, the all-new made-for-TV tournament, fronted by Federer and a supporting cast of past and present stars, was staged to rave reviews, bringing much-needed energy and entertainment to a sport that has been otherwise slow to innovate.

Whether the event – or the sport of tennis, for that matter – can thrive beyond today’s golden generation remains to be seen, but those in the game are doing nothing if not trying. ML

MMA’s battle for Asia heats up

Between the rise of the UFC and the more recent growth of Asia’s ONE Championship, something of a duopoly has developed in the global business of mixed martial arts. This year, however, the planet’s two largest MMA promotions demonstrated that amicable co-existence is never a given in the fight game. Throughout the summer, the struggle to win the hearts and minds of Asia’s burgeoning MMA fanbase became a tussle of two pugnacious PR machines.

June’s UFC Fight Night 111, staged in ONE’s backyard of Singapore, saw the Las Vegas-based promotion throw its first event in Asia since November 2015. The accompanying fanfare included a UFC-commissioned study that just so happened to declare the American series ‘the leading provider of MMA TV content across Asia’, surpassing all local and regional promotions in terms of hours viewed. New Asian broadcast agreements swiftly followed and soon after the UFC, under new ownership and on the front foot once again, announced plans to debut in mainland China in November.

ONE’s response was to drive its flag deeper into its Asian stronghold. Fresh off securing new equity investment from a group of venture capitalists in July, the six-year-old promotion announced an expanded slate of 24 events for 2018, confirming plans to enter Japan and South Korea in the process. Yet this particular dispute was as much about a clash of philosophies as a turf war.

Amid talk of potential cross-promotional bouts in future, ONE founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong chided the UFC’s brand of “distasteful”, ego-driven bravado, arguing that the promotion’s trash-talking protagonists represented the antithesis of his more humble cohort of “true” martial artists.

Whatever happens next, the scene has been set for more showdowns to come. ML

Rio 2016 fallout claims more victims

The closing curtain on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro fell on a country in economic and political turmoil, in the grip of its most severe recession in a century, and facing a public security crisis, unpaid debts, spurned Olympic legacy promises and growing accusations of corruption in relation to construction projects for the event.

Some estimates put the spend on the Games through public and private financing close to US$20 billion, with creditors still reportedly owed millions by the local organising committee, and with Olympic venues left empty and in disrepair. The absence of legacy planning for the venues was the focus of an investigation led by federal prosecutor Leandro Mitidieri, who, at a public hearing in May, called the venues “white elephants” needing to be turned into “something usable”.

In September, accusations of corruption came to a head when Brazilian and French authorities announced they had uncovered an international corruption scheme aimed at buying votes in awarding the 2016 Olympics, and issued 11 detention warrants for those implicated in what was termed ‘Operation Unfair Play’.

Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) president and Rio 2016 head Carlos Nuzman was arrested and accused of arranging more than US$2 million in bribes to Lamine Diack, a former International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, in order to win hosting rights for Rio for the 2016 event.

In another year dogged by revelations of corruption across sport, the need for big changes in the governing processes of key bodies has never been more urgent, with demands for transparency and accountability rising. EH

IPL and ECB deals remake cricket’s broadcast picture

In September, cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) went to the TV market for the first time since signing a founding ten-year deal with Sony Pictures India all the way back in 2008. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which owns and operates the six-week T20 juggernaut, secured US$2.55 billion from Star Sports for the next five years, more than doubling its money on a new contract which runs for half the length of its predecessor.

But the truly telling elements lay in the background. There was the subplot of a US$610 million bid from Facebook for local digital rights, an unprecedented play from the social media monolith. Then there was the subtext: for the first time, a media rights deal in domestic cricket is worth more per match than any in the international game.

The question is whether this is an outlier – in a period where the gathering struggles of franchise leagues are exemplified by the delay of South Africa’s new Global T20 League – or a game-changer.

In the UK, the growing importance placed on a robust, future-facing domestic offering was underlined by the new T20 league, still unnamed, that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has inked into its schedule from 2020 onwards.

The eight-team competition will fit over the top of England’s historic 18-county structure, and was central to the ECB’s own new proposal to broadcasters – which delivered a UK£1.1 billion, five-year deal between existing pay-TV partner Sky Sports and the publicly funded BBC, bringing live English cricket back to free-to-air TV at home for the first time since 2005. EC

PyeongChang 2018 struggles to capture imagination

The potential participation of National Hockey League (NHL) players is regularly one of the key talking points ahead of a Winter Olympic Games. The biggest names in winter sport compete in North America’s premier ice hockey league, and their presence is seen as a significant boost to the visibility of any Games.

As it has turned out, the stars of the NHL will not be present in PyeongChang, after the IOC refused to sanction payments covering the league’s costs. But the issue has been relegated to a footnote in the storied build-up to 2018’s biggest multi-sport event, as global politics have overshadowed comparatively minor squabbles between sporting bodies.

The corruption scandal which led to the impeachment in March of South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, cast a long shadow over the country’s Olympic preparations, and has been one of several factors cited by the local organising committee for low ticket sales.

As of the end of November – just over two months out from the main event – only a third of tickets had been bought, with the Paralympics struggling even more, having reportedly shifted around five per cent of the total allocation.

If Park’s impeachment hadn’t generated a difficult enough political climate, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ramped up his exchange of bellicose rhetoric with US president Donald Trump in the latter half of 2017, contributing to the negative perception around the region and further dampening international ticket sales and wider commercial interest. While the expectation remains that PyeongChang will pull through, the IOC, after a difficult year of its own, will be looking for it to do so sooner rather than later. AN

A sea change for sailing

It has been a year of choppy waters across the world of sailing. After a build-up that took on a life of its own, in the form of a lengthy World Series and qualification process, the 35th edition of the sport’s flagship America’s Cup contest finally got underway in Bermuda in June. While there was no repeat of Emirates Team New Zealand’s humiliating collapse of 2013 – this time around they held on to their commanding lead to claim a third victory – the antipodeans took the opportunity to land a humiliation of their own on to the rest of the America’s Cup field.

Before sailing had got underway, the other five teams agreed a framework to bring the race into a biennial schedule, with the intention of holding the 36th America’s Cup in 2019. New Zealand were the only holdouts and, upon claiming the ‘Auld Mug’, immediately reversed those plans, confirming that the next edition would go ahead in the original timeframe in 2021, and not with the previously agreed upon specification of boats.

Seemingly having been prompted by its short-course counterpart, the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race also unveiled a biennial programme this year, only to capsize into chaos of its own.

Having failed to amass support among the VOR’s stakeholders for a change of boats and an all-new environmentally minded approach ahead of a mooted 2019/20 contest, chief executive Mark Turner stood down on the eve of the 13th edition, after just 16 months in charge, during which time commercial constraints continually conspired against his revolutionary plans for the race. The Swedish duo of Richard Brisius and Johan Salén will now be charged with getting the series back on course.

Sailing’s bright new future, it seems, remains perpetually beyond the horizon. AN

Qatar in the firing line – again

If 2010 afforded Qatar a vision of itself as a sporting superpower, the subsequent seven years have been a constant reminder of what that status will cost.

Ever since the tiny but affluent and influential gulf state was awarded the 2022 Fifa World Cup, the deluge of negative press surrounding its winning bid has ensured that when the tournament finally rolls around, it’s unlikely to be remembered for the soccer.

Having spent previous years fending off allegations of corruption and mistreatment of migrant workers, the host nation’s preparations were further disrupted in 2017, when a handful of its powerful Arab neighbours opted to impose a land, air and sea blockade, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism.

While this threatens to derail construction deadlines, equally disconcerting was a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report which revealed that workers building stadiums for 2022 are still operating under life-threatening heat and humidity.

And if the toxic combination of a diplomatic crisis and a potential human rights scandal isn’t troubling enough, one of the country’s key sports industry influencers, Nasser Al-Khelaifi (above), has also been the subject of two major probes. The BeIN Media Group chief executive, whose French soccer side Paris-Saint Germain are already being investigated by Uefa over their record-breaking €222 million purchase of Neymar, was also accused of criminally bribing disgraced former Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke to buy TV rights to two future World Cups.

The bad news keeps flooding in, and while Qatar’s powers that be will hope that the old adage of ‘new year, new me’ holds true in 2018, recent history has taught us to expect otherwise. SC

Golf’s status quo preserved as takeover talk resurfaces

Jay Monahan’s first year as PGA Tour commissioner was always going to be one of consolidation. Tim Finchem had departed at the end of 2016 with the tour in rude financial health, leaving his successor to do whatever necessary to affirm the American circuit’s position as the biggest and most powerful in world golf.

A US$650 million, ten-year extension with FedEx, the PGA Tour’s biggest corporate backer, in May only underlined that status, while a string of new sponsorship and media deals and the addition of new events added further lustre to a burgeoning brand.

With the PGA Tour busy solidifying its empire, others in golf were left pondering their future in uncertain times. After a major calendar overhaul saw the US PGA Championship moved to May from 2019, talk of creating a global unified circuit resurfaced once again, with four-time major winner Rory McIlroy insisting the establishment of a single world tour is “going to happen one day”.

Speaking in September, the Northern Irishman suggested a Monahan-led takeover of the European Tour could be a viable option, not least since having several competing tours was proving “counter-productive” for everyone bar the PGA Tour.

If the workability of a global tour remains up for debate, it was in the women’s game that takeover talk appeared to carry more substance, particularly after Ivan Khodabakhsh stepped down as chief executive of the Ladies European Tour (LET) in August amid a dwindling schedule and mounting financial troubles.

Khodabakhsh’s interim replacement, LET chairman Mark Lichtenhein, was formerly at the European Tour, fuelling speculation that a cross-gender merger could be forthcoming. The LET’s woes also piqued the interest of the US-based LPGA Tour, whose expansionist leaders will be keeping a close eye on developments in Europe heading into 2018. ML

Mayweather and McGregor talk up a Vegas jackpot

It was the most talked about sporting event of the year and yet, in many respects, it barely constituted elite sport at all. It briefly outshone desert neon, then flickered out like a mirage.

A welterweight boxing match between undefeated multi-weight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr and Irish UFC sensation Conor McGregor held dubious competitive merit but was playground conjecture made flesh. It was sold on the back of playground taunts, too, through a promotional tour that took in four cities and a full measure of verbal abuse and crass grandstanding. But sell it did.

Indeed, much of the pre-fight talk centred on the numbers involved – for the two fighters and their camps, for UFC owner WME | IMG, and for host broadcaster Showtime. Even the WBC commissioned a one-off ‘Money Belt’ to commemorate the occasion in suitably gaudy style. Tellingly, the T-Mobile Arena did not sell out, but viewers in 4.4 million US households were tempted enough by the spectacle to pay up to US$99 apiece to tune in, with millions more watching elsewhere.

In the event, McGregor prepared thoroughly and performed gamely but was readily dismantled by Mayweather, who cruised through the middle rounds before deciding time was up in the tenth. The beaten man protested a hasty stoppage and suggested things would have gone differently in the octagon. The latter claim, at least, was undoubtedly true, but then there are some things Floyd Mayweather would not do for money.

The American duly collected an estimated US$300 million to close out a 50-fight career as a peerless heel, who mastered the art of saying what it took to promote a fight then doing what it took to win it. For all the summer talk of McGregor’s relentless pull, it is Mayweather whose gifts may not be matched again – inside or outside the ring. EC


SportsPro writers Eoin Connolly, Michael Long, Sam Carp, Elena Holmes and George Dudley all contributed to this story.