I’m a late adopter of LinkedIn, only joining this summer as a means of promoting Sport inc. Compiling my profile, I paused for just a second before deciding not to include my inglorious 52 days as interim chair of the British Basketball Federation back in 2018.
On Sunday, as the T20 World Cup neared its climax and the grid at Interlagos swarmed with mechanics preparing F1 cars for the grand prix, I flitted in and out of YouTube to check on the GB women’s basketball team playing away to Estonia.
They lost when they’d been expected to win, and only two games down the long winding road to Paris 2024 it seems Britain will once again be without an Olympic team.
I tell you this not because GB has any inalienable right to elite basketball success, but because this sport provides a stark reminder of all that can go wrong in a system that sews together ruling bodies in each of the home nations that make up the United Kingdom.
As fans we might assume that everyone in the governing hierarchy of sport would want its national teams to thrive. Too often, though, petty jealousies and power-plays hamstring Britain’s athletes.
My brief time at basketball followed a stint as interim chair at the British Equestrian Federation (BEF), called in to deal with the aftermath of the departure of its chief executive amid allegations that the representatives of the various equine disciplines within the sport had bullied her.
I found that the BEF was kept on starvation financial rations by its various member bodies as a means of exerting control.
The beleaguered CEO of British Basketball called me when faced with a financial crisis bought on by similar coercive behaviour from its members – in this instance in the shape of the governing bodies for England, Scotland and Wales.
Devoid of UK Sport funding because the men’s and women’s teams were too lowly ranked to be likely to qualify for Tokyo 2020, the BBF was pretty much out of cash and its three member nations gave every indication of not caring. Pathetic really.
The losers, of course, were the players. Britain’s men typically ply their professional trade abroad, European teams offering greater rewards than those in the British Basketball League can muster.
Bringing them together to play for GB was an exercise in shoestrings and goodwill, hardly conducive to succeeding against much better funded opposition.
Looking the other way
Three years on and little has changed, bar a welcome £1.35 million investment from UK Sport (UKS) that will help pay for the British teams in their long shots at Paris.
However, the money will only be released if British Basketball and the home nations can bury their differences and agree a collective plan. Don’t hold your breath.
Toni Minichiello, the athletics coach who I’ve jousted with a few times down the years on track & field matters, has dug in admirably as the BBF’s current chair.
But with the home nations continuing to look the other way, it is no surprise that GB’s men are a lowly 42nd in the world rankings and its women 21st. The UKS money won’t be enough with the governance structure still broken.
I realised the futility of the basketball cause when I tried and failed to open the eyes of both Sport England and UK Sport to the reality of the situation that their inaction was perpetuating.
My fear is that other second tier sports get caught in the no man’s land between Sport England’s focus on activity levels in the general populace; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s thirst for Commonwealth Games success under their own flags; and UK Sport’s Olympic medal ambitions. Just talk to British Volleyball, for example.
Surf’s new turf
Surfing is one of the new Olympic sports that debuted this summer. There were no British athletes in Tokyo, but UK Sport has provided a pot of ‘progression’ funding to develop surfers with the potential to qualify for Paris or Los Angeles.
British Surfing is the recipient of this money. Indeed, this is basically the only reason for its existence. Already, there are said to be tensions with the home country bodies who comprise its membership. So unnecessary, if true, especially given the scale of the sporting task ahead.
There are examples of sports that have found workable solutions to the home nations vs GB conundrum. Britain’s Olympic hockey teams, for example, are effectively the responsibility of England Hockey. Similarly, GB Badminton is not much more than a front for Badminton England to deliver players for the Games.
Shifting a sport to such a model relying heavily on England is fraught with difficulty, however. Just consider Britain’s inability to construct a men’s Olympic football team.
This might be a blessed relief for Premier League managers eager for their young British stars to be spared yet more summer competition, but it is hard otherwise to see who wins from the standoff between the BOA and the national football associations, in particular the Scottish FA.
I’m all for a bit of home nation rivalry on the field of play. In fact, I’ll happily take a lot of it. But that’s where it should begin and end.
Custodians of sports who set ambitions for elite athletes at any level below the highest available internationally do them a massive disservice – not to mention their fans and every young kid with a dream of reaching the top.
Rise and shine, the football’s on
It was only once I’d sat alone on one side of a bar in downtown Eugene, Oregon, just as dawn was breaking, to watch Palace v Leicester that I realised the bargain that NBC had struck in securing Premier League TV rights for the USA.
On the other side of the room a group of locals clad in Arsenal shirts were enjoying the final moments of their 4:45am kick-off just as a crowd of others in Chelsea and West Ham kit were arriving for their 7:00am match.
NBC pays around $150m (£111m) a year for the rights to all 380 Premier League matches. The League is currently negotiating a new deal and the incumbent broadcaster is in competition with rivals.
The Premier League is expected to enjoy a sharp uplift in its rights fee. With the number of American viewers said to average over half a million a game. Although the audience in my Oregon bar is a reminder that averages can be misleading.
Are the Aussies team of the year?
The four uniformed Emirates cabin crew were glued to their mobiles, seemingly oblivious to the swashbuckling batting in front of them. This probably wasn’t the image that the ICC wanted broadcast to a global TV audience at the height of this weekend’s T20 World Cup final.
Nevertheless, as the UAE and Oman constituted the third venue for this tournament after Covid put paid to both Australia and then India, cricket’s ruling body can congratulate itself on a triumph in the face of the pandemic. The crowd at the final was skinny at the start, but well over halfway to filling the 25,000 capacity Dubai International Stadium by the finish.
The right side of decent in the circumstances.
Australia’s final victory after being rolled over by England in their opening match puts them in the running as one of the teams of 2021 across all sports.
I’ll be returning to this question in the coming weeks, but want to see how Red Bull’s F1 title charge and South Africa’s final rugby union fixture of the year against England pan out first.
ECB chief executive Tom Harrison learned the hard way this week that it’s futile to try and stick to a pre-prepared script at a select committee hearing.
More on parliament and sport in a future Sport inc.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com