Challenge accepted! A reader last week asked what the most investable sports worldwide are from the perspective of a sovereign wealth fund such as Saudi Arabia’s PIF. He had rugby union in mind, but wanted a long train journey to dredge up others. A return trip on Avanti West Coast to the first Ashes Test gave me the necessary thinking time.
Imagine yourself in the investors’ shoes. You’d likely want to buy dominant positions in sports, have the ability to host at least one flagship event for each in your own territory, burnish the credentials you claim for societal change (think gender and disability), make individual superstars phenomenally wealthy (or wealthier) to tie them to your cause, not look like a complete financial mug to the watching world, and enjoy yourself in the process. Not so hard when your wallet’s like Croesus’s.
Rugby could certainly fit the bill. CVC has built a collection of stakes in rugby competitions around the globe, but Covid may have stymied whatever grand plan lies behind the private equity player’s investments. Its string of minority positions leaves it attempting to cajole a notoriously political sport that remains very short of cash.
CVC’s profitable foray into and then out of F1 is a reminder that its ultimate objective is to turn a profit. PIF could take it out, pumping more cash into the sport to secure far greater influence than CVC currently enjoys. Air condition stadia effectively and showcase competition in Saudi would follow. The professional women’s game could be swept up in the process, ensuring its financial viability in all major playing nations.
Boxing’s long fractured structure is the opportunity to create a globally recognised roster of undisputed champions across all weight classes. Either back one existing sanctioning body, or establish an entirely new one headquartered in Riyadh. Unifying bouts could all be held in Saudi, which has already shown its appetite for big fight nights. If there is one sport where money really does do the talking, it’s the noble art.
Last week I flagged the attractions of sovereign wealth investment into athletics to create a thriving circuit and bankroll World Athletics, which could do with a few bob. I think this could be mirrored in swimming and gymnastics. Secure these three sports and create eye-catching event series and you would have your hands around the heart of the Olympics. Not a bad position if you harbour ambitions to host the Games.
The rebel International Swimming League, bankrolled by Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin, has stalled because of the war. Its three years of events provide a template for challenges to the structures of traditional Olympic sports, and could be revived by fresh investment if World Aquatics resisted direct overtures.
One of the beauties of these sports is their diversity. But more targeted statements of intent could be made in this regard.
Netball remains a sport very predominantly played by females, although Commonwealth-centric and far from globally established. It is unlikely ever to be part of the Olympics because of its gender bias and the Commonwealth Games do not have the same pinnacle appeal. With money and marketing muscle, Saudi could create a flagship tournament that swiftly outranked all others in the sport, and facilitate investment across a broader geographical footprint to grow the game over the long term.
And what of tennis? Last week I flagged Andy Murray’s belief the Saudis are coming for it. Why not start solely with the WTA, a tour more in need of investment than its male counterpart? A chance to elevate its profile, starting with a very hefty bump up in prize money and the creation of the richest tennis tournament in the world, in Saudi, just for women.
My final weary thought on the train back from Birmingham is that Saudi Arabia could help loosen the International Paralympic Committee’s financial dependence on its Olympic counterpart. Theirs is a hugely unequal relationship which to my mind, after many years of working in this field, holds back the development of Para sport.
The Saudis couldn’t own the IPC, but they could secure heavyweight sponsors, stage competitions, fund other ones overseas and, in time, offer to host an entire Paralympic Games untied from the Olympics, should sporting politics for any reason dictate that’s the right way to go. If you think that’s unsavoury or impossible, remember that Saudi Arabia is a member of the IPC like any other nation.
Back at Euston, I can’t say writing the above gave me any pleasure, but all of it could happen.
They don’t like cricket
“Dad, you did see Harry Brook make his Ashes debut after lunch, didn’t you?”
“Dad, but you were there when Root and Bairstow took it to the Aussies after tea?”
“Bonkers today. Best day ever at the cricket!” was the message from my mate in the raucous Eric Hollies Stand last Friday. A few blocks round in slightly more sedate surroundings I couldn’t disagree.
Why then did I spend the odd lull in the first day of the Ashes staring at row upon row of empty seats in the hospitality section of the South Stand opposite? As conspicuous as that centre block at Wembley that’s deserted for much of the second half of every match at the stadium.
It’s all very well accepting a hospitality invite to the cricket – after all, it’s vital to the economics of the event – but do you realise the sport doesn’t end at 1pm?
With touts doing a brisk trade outside Edgbaston, maybe the ECB should take a leaf from Wimbledon’s playbook and allow the seats of sozzled and/or uninterested corporate clients to be re-filled by genuine fans for a token few quid as the day wears on.
Party like Pep
The brains* behind fledgling travel website Great Scenic Journeys (clue: it does what it says on the tin) have launched two competitions. The Open Top Bus UK Cup, sponsored by Ticketer, pits iconic bus routes against each other in knockout rounds with a final in August.
The first round includes a fierce local derby between the Jurassic Coaster and the Purbeck Breezer (whose route includes a ferry section, which could see it edge this tie). Geordies and Saudi tourists might like to vote for Toon Tour which takes in St James’s Park. Other club drive-bys are available. You can read more here.
Or how about nominating an unsung local team to celebrate a triumph with their own open top bus parade? You might think the Dog & Duck 2nd XI has earned a spin around the streets of Little Piddlington, perhaps. Or Crabville’s 1st XV a drive along the local esplanade. Great Scenic Journeys has one such parade to award. Feel free to email me your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pass them on
*Those brains have the surname Warner. I’m always happy to shamelessly promote good ideas from readers, friends and family. Just ask!
Sharks and the piggy bank
Buried in an interview puffing one of her sponsors, this comment from Emma Raducanu jumped out. All else was flim flam.
“What I have realised in the past two years, the tour and everything that comes with it, it’s not a very nice, trusting and safe space. You have to be on guard because there are a lot of sharks out there. I think people in the industry, especially with me because I was 19, now 20, they see me as a piggy bank. It has been difficult to navigate. I have been burnt a few times. I have learnt, keep your circle as small as possible.” Emma Raducanu in The Sunday Times
Someone should have a quiet word with them about bovine biology. Birmingham 2022 is still trying to milk its giant bull almost a year on from the Commonwealth Games.
Now you have a chance to vote on the statue’s name as it settles into its New Street Station home. I expect all loyal readers to vote for Ozzy here now!
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com