Columnist Ed Warner discusses chess, funding fringe sports and what makes a solid sporting body chief executive.
Where do you draw the line between games and sports? Mine is at the door of the pub, so ruling dominos, bar billiards, space invaders and darts out of the sporting firmament. I realise of course that this will have Ally Pally adherents lining me up against a backboard and aiming at my treble twenty.
What though of mind games? Sport England and UK Sport don’t entertain them (much as I confess I enjoy playing mind games with both to challenge evident group think). Their definition of sport involves physical activity. None of the public money they disburse has gone the way of darts to get the nation moving or win medals, nor to Esports – space invaders’ grandkids.
Someone though will have to be in charge of the half a million quid that the Prime Minister has just pledged to the English Chess Federation to expand the community game and increase the number of English grandmasters. Rishi Sunak may have created headlines, but a one-off £500,000 won’t go very far. This looks very much like a politician’s whim whose impact will swiftly wither unless repeated annually.
Chess has a future?
Whim or not, the pledge may strengthen chess’ case to be considered a sport, with much at stake financially and promotionally. For years, this game and others have fought the tax authorities for the VAT exemption that sports enjoy, all the way up to the European courts.
You shouldn’t be surprised either that there are some who call for chess to be included in the Olympics. The Olympic Esports Week in Singapore in June included ‘blitz chess’. The tournament was won by a 23 year-old, Russian-born grandmaster, Alexey Sarana, who only switched nationality to Serbia in March.
The IOC’s development of Olympic Esports may be a cunning wheeze to keep Esports out of the mainstream Games, although I suspect they will be bled in over time. So chess has a pawn at least in this complex game in which a plethora of sports vie for their slice of Olympic limelight and riches.
The market for sport sponsorship is as tough as I’ve known it in my sixteen years in the industry, especially for the myriad of assets sitting outside the gilded inner circle of mega brands. The Olympics has consequently become an even glitzier Holy Grail for those sports eager to solve their financial problems. An unhealthy dynamic for all concerned.
Far too few sporting bodies are self sufficient. Over-dependence on either public funding or the ‘wrong’ corporate partners can lead to perverse behaviours that aren’t in the long term interests of their players and fans. Chess would do well to say ‘thank you’ to the PM, but be wary of the T&Cs.
No Can do
Such cruelty in the timing. Alberta declared it won’t host the 2030 Commonwealth Games on the eve of the movement’s Commonwealth Youth Games in Trinidad and Tobago, bringing these CYG a spotlight they wouldn’t otherwise have had, but entirely for unsporting reasons.
This though could be a blessing in disguise for CGF chief executive Katie Sadleir, With no host for the next two editions of her flagship Games, the slate is truly blank. There can be no temptation now to cobble something together for 2026 and then revert to the established model that has proven financially unsustainable.
Doubtless mired in negotiations with erstwhile 2026 hosts Victoria for compensation, Sadleir would do well to consider an open invitation to parties to propose novel structures. From my own experience of major events budgets, I believe a Games model can be created that would be far leaner, still exciting and engaging for athletes and fans, and definitely more appealing to potential hosts.
You gotta role with it
A reader asks whether there are any governing bodies that I think are doing a good job in developing long term strategies to address changing consumer habits and the dominance of wall-to-wall football. His question drew me up short. I’ve not been able to come up with even a short list. But I do know a good number of sports CEOs who I rate very highly, indeed are role models. Perhaps the only way to square this is to conclude that governing bodies face an impossible task, however excellent their chiefs may be. I’m not prepared to accept that though, and will return to the subject in the coming weeks. More thought needed.
Only three months late, I’ve cottoned on to the existence of the Professional Footballers’ Association’s new PFA Business School. It is an initiative of CEO Maheta Molango, who is two years into the role and is transforming outside perceptions of the players’ union. The school’s courses, accredited by the University of Portsmouth, serve a twin purpose: to tool professional footballers for working life post-retirement from the pitch, and to increase the number of former players in leadership roles within the game.
LOLZ of the week
LOL #1 Sanjay Patel, Managing Director of The Hundred, and soon to depart the ECB, interviewed on Sky about the competition’s current season:
“I think we’re all set for the final year… the third year, sorry!”
We can but hope. By the way, the ECB is advertising for a Managing Director, Professional Game who is capable of “navigating a complex stakeholder landscape” and can “unite people behind a compelling vision.” This could be the appointment that defines perceptions of the ECB’s new leadership. Deadline to apply is 20 August.
LOL #2 Tom Brady, NFL GOAT, becomes a minority investor in Birmingham City:
“The goal that Tom has committed to is to make Birmingham City a respected leader in nutrition, health, wellness, and recovery across the world of football.”
LOL #3 Nike’s ad pre-tournament said it was USA v the World. Well, Sweden managed to beat America on their lonesome at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Still, at least the US team is confirmed as among the top sixteen on the planet.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com