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Running on fumes
The financial mess at UK Athletics plus a double dose of doping
I’ve largely kept my counsel on the shambles at UK Athletics since I left in 2017 - at least in public - but press reports that the governing body is at risk of collapse have flipped my switch. Five years encompassing five chairs and six CEOs (some permanent, others interim), unnecessary politicking, pursuit of vanity projects, timidity and simple sloppiness have laid it low. All entirely avoidable.
Journalists have used dramatic language to describe the financial challenges that UKA faces, including talk of unpaid coaching staff and a possible redundancy programme as a remedial action. Whatever the actual facts behind the headlines, it does seems that the organisation is running on fumes.
And yet in 2016 UK Athletics had reserves of £4.5m which had been built up steadily over a decade. Our events team was heading into the hosting of two World Championships that sold a million tickets and beat budgets to the benefit of their public funders and UKA itself (a true rarity for a major champs in any sport).
Athletics’ governing body does not enjoy any membership fees (see last week’s Sport inc. for the British Cycling comparator). These accrue to the four grassroots athletics bodies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its revenue instead comes from UK Sport (to fund Britain’s elite teams), staging events and sponsorship. The latter hangs off the success both of those events and of GB athletes.
In my time, our financial model revolved around the delivery of profitable, high profile athletics competitions, broadcast on terrestrial television, that were of sufficient quality to generate rights fees from TV and to pull in event sponsors. We even built an in house team to do this, replacing an expensive outside agency whose hefty fees leaked money from the sport.
I spearheaded a bitter battle to secure a 50 year rent-free deal to use the London (Olympic) Stadium, providing the venue for those events and major global championships. The result? A clear profit of comfortably over £2 million a year from events, with sponsor income a bonus on top. All to reinvest in athletics.
The CEO through my tenure as UKA chair, Niels de Vos, made clear on his own departure from the role that the first thing the new leadership should do was negotiate an early renewal of our broadcast deal with the BBC. This was worth around £3 million a year, with the Beeb picking up all production costs on top. I gave the same advice to those who chose to ask.
This fee was the vital oil in the financial machine for events. And yet the existing contract - for whatever reason - was allowed to run down and expire. We will never know what deal might have been struck. Granted, it was likely to be at some lower value than before. But the BBC now only foots the bill for production costs, and that’s it. Smart negotiating.
At a stroke, the model was destroyed. One of my early successors, still pre-pandemic, was clearly windy at the prospect of having to sell tens of thousands of tickets for the London Stadium each year. He asked what I thought he might be able to negotiate from the landlord (effectively London’s mayor) and/or the owners of West Ham United FC as a one-off payment to tear up UKA’s lease and walk away. Instead he wanted to focus on holding events at a revamped Alexander Stadium in Birmingham post the Commonwealth Games.
I was dismayed at this lack of ambition (remember we’d had a million bums on those seats in one summer alone), but nevertheless figured such a deal could be worth £25 million to the other players at the negotiating table. It would remove the hefty cost and time of reconfiguring the venue each summer and free up West Ham to host lucrative pre-season tournaments.
Post-pandemic, I heard a number of just £15 million was being mooted in discussions. But whoever leaked over the weekend that this year’s Diamond League meeting might lose as much as £500,000 (witness the effect of having no TV rights fee) will have wounded UKA’s negotiating position still further. Perhaps fatally. West Ham, whose own ownership future has a degree of uncertainty, will now feel that full control of the stadium is likely simply to fall into its lap gratis.
Vanity projects? Try the development of a Performance Innovation Centre at Birmingham which The Times reports is massively over-budget. Why this outlay when UKA’s athletes already access the elite facilities at Loughborough University and money is so tight? You can read the newspaper’s full report on UKA’s finances here
The politicking I cited earlier involved the four home nations athletics bodies wanting a bigger say in the running of UKA, attracted no doubt by its perceived riches. How foolish they must feel today after they won their scrap and are now much more directly responsible for its crisis. Seats on a board are only fun when the going is good…
Ironically, the latest CEO, Jack Buckner, was two decades ago one of the architects of the structure of the sport that the home nations were railing against. For many years his name raised hackles in certain traditionalist athletics circles. But there is no doubt that he has track & field at heart as a former elite athlete. He is also in decent odour with UK Sport, having overseen British Swimming’s medal success at the Tokyo Olympics. This is likely to prove critical right now as UKS is the most likely white knight.
British Swimming was separated from its grassroots sport in 2014 to enable the unencumbered pursuit of medals after a poor haul at London 2012. It does little but deliver the elite aquatics programmes that UK Sport funds. Buckner is clearly familiar with this skinny governing body model, which may well presage UKA’s own future.
If UK Athletics can’t bear the risk of using a huge London venue; if it can’t see its way to rebuilding a profitable event model; if the only thing it has to sell is sponsorship of the GB team outside of the Olympics and Paralympics; if it has no membership fees - where else can it turn?
I believe there is a commercially viable opportunity for professional athletics in Britain. But I fear that the precipitous slump in UKA’s finances means that UK Sport is likely to encourage it to take the lowest risk route out of the crisis as the price it extracts for shoring up the governing body.
Athletics may be about to join the majority of Olympic sports that exist primarily to provide thrills for the nation at the Games: Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth. Thankfully, a year out from Paris, there is an exciting crop of young talented athletes to distract us from the shambles.
Those responsible for this scandalous situation are not those currently in charge. And there remains a core of dedicated, long-standing staff at UKA - a number of them my friends - who have deserved better. If you sense I’m pissed off, you’d be right.
The kindest cut
Whenever an athlete receives a reduced doping ban I immediately look to see what benefit the reduction will give them in their competition programme. The latest is US high jumper Inika McPherson. A 16 month ban after arbitration rather than the original two years, backdated to last July, means she will now be available to compete in next year’s US Olympic trials. This is her second career violation. USADA chief executive Travis Tygart is one of the world’s leading anti-doping zealots. Wonder how he feels every time USADA’s sanctions are reduced on appeal?
Rhetoric in the red corner; data in the blue
The UKAD sanctions register shows just two professional boxers serving doping bans in Britain - the latest being Amir Khan - and no amateurs. Media reports also suggest Conor Benn has been provisionally suspended. Victor Conte, ringmaster in the notorious BALCO doping scandal, recently retweeted a Boxing News editorial applauding criticism of any promoters continuing to work with fighters who have failed drugs tests. Ten years ago Khan had himself to defend his links with Conte who by then had entered his reformation age.
If you haven’t read Game of Shadows by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada on BALCO, in which Conte is the central character, you really should.
Green pitches and red tape
Last week’s Sport inc. on the bureaucracy tying up grassroots sport created an outpouring of empathic complaints. One secretary of a cricket club in the shires is aghast at the time and paperwork required to enable parents to help out for an hour or so each week for a summer of youngsters’ activities. No-one is dismissing the importance of safeguarding, but perspective is vital:
“The ECB bureaucracy is crippling. Every year we’ve run it, we’ve had to break the ECB rules to make it happen…..and yet the kids have had great fun, developed some cricket skills and their parents have paid the ECB money…..but each year the scrutiny gets heavier & heavier.”