Thursday, July 5, 2012

Regulating the business of sport

The Bhupathi-Bopanna-Sania-Paes mess teaches us one lesson: We need an independent regulatory body to deal with conflict of interest when sport becomes business.
The very public bickering over the selection of the Indian tennis team to the London Olympics has been seen primarily as a clash of egos. With all the stars in the team well past their prime, their egos are bound to be far greater than their capabilities. But the unseemly drama has also served to brush under the carpet the larger issue of the relationship between business and sport. If we ignore the personalities and look at this episode in more abstract terms, it makes a strong case for a regulatory body, independent of the government, the associations and the players, that will ensure there is no conflict of interest in decision-making when sport becomes a business.
To recognise the case for a regulatory body, let us consider a hypothetical situation not entirely dissimilar to what has just occurred in Indian tennis. In this situation, there are five men players in a racquet sport ranked 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. There is also a woman player. The player ranked 2 owns a company that manages individual sportspersons. Players rank 3 and 4 are contracted to this company, as is the woman player. Add a member of the Union Cabinet with an important portfolio being the Chief Patron of another of the entrepreneurial ventures of the player ranked 2.

Players over selectors

The team for a major event is first selected by a committee that includes players of another era who served the country with great distinction and little arrogance. They choose players ranked 1 and 2 to be the doubles team. When 2 refuses, they ask 3 who also refuses. Player 4 is not considered as he is supposed to be injured though he is fit enough to get a wild card from the international federation. Finally, two teams are selected consisting of those ranked 2 and 3, and those ranked 1 and 5.
Whether these teams will actually win a medal is debatable. In a country where hope has always triumphed over experience when following sport, let us say they come up with as many gold medals as are available. But as far as the management of sport in India is concerned, two principles have been effectively laid down. First, players can, if they manage the media and the political space right, overrule selectors. And second, belonging to the right corporate body promoting sportspersons is a more effective route to the national team than impressing selectors.
Attributing this situation entirely to the actions of one set of individuals would completely miss the wood for the trees. The mess is the result of an unregulated commercialisation of sport. When sports, particularly the more individualistic ones, get commercialised, the benefits are unevenly distributed. Those at the top get a very high share of the economic gain. With a few individuals gathering the spoils, there is extreme competition for the few places at the top. The focus of the sport shifts from finding talent among the youth at large, to making stars out of those who are already seen to be talented. And in this intensive competition, corporate bodies that create stars gain a stranglehold on the players and, through them, the association.

Doling out largesse

The moral challenge in this situation should not be underestimated. In a country starved of success in globally-recognised sports, the stars get a great deal of largesse from the Central and State governments. This largesse extends to corporate bodies owned by the stars, and often includes the grant of significant amounts of land. It is not unknown for State governments to hand over land taken over from farmers to a sports entity. The stars then develop real estate interests, and it is not unknown for such a star to be a director on other real estate companies.
While this system benefits the individual stars, it does not do much good to sport. With little attention paid to finding new talent from the people at large, the talent pool becomes restricted. We then have to make stars out of very limited star material.
A country that accounts for a sixth of the world’s population has to make do with a former woman singles player demanding prima donna status on the basis of an occasional performance in mixed doubles, an event that none of the major players consider worth their while.

Regulatory body

Breaking out of this low level star trap will require multiple initiatives. The focus in sports policy must shift from developing stars from a limited talent pool, to picking up talent from the youth at large.
More urgently, we need an independent regulatory body that deals with the conflict of interests that arise when sport becomes a business. Basic norms, like current sportspersons not contracting other players in the same sport, will reduce the chances of a cartel being formed by a group of sportspersons to keep out a competitor.
The Bhupathi-Bopanna-Sania-Paes mess no doubt tarnished the image of Indian sport on the eve of the Olympics. But it did teach us one lesson: Since players have shown they can be as destructive in managing sports as other administrators, there is an urgent need to set up an independent regulatory body if we are to prevent malpractices from overriding all our sport. 

- Umesh Shanmugham

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