The Matt Slater Column: Governing bodies in the big money era

Press Association’s chief sports reporter wonders how sporting federations and governing bodies can meet their core responsibilities in a rapidly evolving landscape.

The Matt Slater Column: Governing bodies in the big money era

Posh hotel in London, a conference room full of companies flogging training technology and sunnier climes, three more rooms staging talking shops on the issues du jour, a rolling maul of canapés, blazers from around the globe... this was World Rugby’s annual conference in November but it could have been almost any self-respecting governing body’s yearly get-together.

I was there for the free food and to take part in a panel discussion about corruption in sport. There was plenty of both to go around.

I suspect I was a late addition to what was otherwise a high-profile ‘top table’ – the moderator, Heather Rabbatts, would have made for a lively Q&A on her own – and my job was to lob a few grenades about how rotten Fifa, world athletics’ IAAF, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), insert your own scandal-hit Victorian-era construct here, have been. It was fun and not particularly taxing.

The thing that really struck me, though, as I sat there listening to myself making it up, was how very, very big sport has got, and how very, very difficult things have become for sports bodies that want to be hip but still have to worry about annoying things like amateur sport and the views of ‘markets’ that do not generate enough broadcast revenue to cover their blazers’ travel costs.

This is not meant as a specific criticism of World Rugby. From what I witnessed, it is trying harder than most to remember that a strong pyramid needs a solid base. But, like almost every other governing body, it can still look a bit like a fashion victim trying to wear all their favourite hats at once.

If there was a unifying theme to the points made in our panel powwow, it was that the massive influx of money into sport, as it transformed from pastime to powerhouse, has not corresponded with an improvement in governance.

Old-fashioned structures, with old-fashioned Mr Bigs (and it is always a Mr Big), have run into old-fashioned problems.

The usual remedies were suggested – codes of ethics, independent directors, term limits and so on – and everybody left happy that rugby union (and it really could have been any sport) had learned the lessons from football (and it really could have been any sport) and went to try the wine at the Chilean rugby tour stand.

And there is nothing wrong with that at all. It is good that there is more than cauliflower ears and warm beer in the game now; Chile is a welcome addition to the family and its wine is lovely.

But more recent events have brought home just how essential it is for any sports authority to remember the unfashionable stuff, too.

The massive influx of money into sport, as it transformed from pastime to powerhouse, has not corresponded with an improvement in governance.

While the growth of sport as a business has meant sports hacks have had to learn the basic principles of a balance sheet, English football’s historic sex abuse story has taken those of us who have tried to keep up the tsunami of scandal a long way away from the fans-with-laptop days.

The stories I have heard from former footballers who were abused as boys by coaches and scouts have left me deeply troubled.

My wife overheard half of a harrowing conversation I had with one victim on the phone and asked me afterwards if I felt “out of my depth”. I said I think we are all out of depth on this one and struggling for something solid to grab hold of.

That is really what the governing bodies are supposed to have provided. They are the ones who should have given these victims the protection they needed.

The Football Association is under the microscope now but no sporting authority should be feeling too complacent. A dam has burst but we are still waiting for the deluge.

The picture that has already emerged is devastating enough. At time of writing, half the police forces in the UK are investigating fresh leads at nearly 100 clubs around the country. Hotlines for victims have been inundated with calls and while the vast majority of them have been football-related, largely because of the sheer scale of football’s youth system, other sports are being implicated.

Quite simply, sport, like much of UK society, just did not think about child protection until 20 years ago and then took another ten years before it got to a place parents today take for granted.

Think about that for a moment: we are talking about the 1990s, in a rich, western democracy.

These crimes happened on sport’s watch at the same time broadcast technology and globalisation were turning our parochial games into the global businesses they have become.

Training child protection officers, running criminal record checks and providing help for victims of historic abuse might not be as exciting as breaking China, launching a new digital offering or even rolling out swathes of hi-tech artificial grass but if sport gets this wrong, the game is up. 

The demands on governing bodies and federations have never been greater but some are more fundamental than others, and looking after the next generation of players is one. Let us hope they really have risen to this challenge and never stop trying to be better.