The Olympic Games: Are we in a happy place?

Are we in a happy place?
Are we in a happy place?

How are you feeling? It’s a question worth asking of pretty much any follower of horse sports these days.

The annual FEI Sports Forum is now behind us and how each of us feels about the much-vaunted plans for change will pretty much depend upon whether you’re an equestrian purist, and also whether you’re a “glass half-full” or “glass half-empty” type of personality.

If you’re the optimistic type, you accept that change is needed in the key Olympic disciplines, with a view to broadening their appeal and allowing the creation of the so-called media-friendly packages.

The rest fear the entire exercise will potentially “dumb down” the sports and pose a threat to countless decades of tradition.

The Sports Forum was, from all accounts, a success.

No key decisions were made, but the conversation has started and I don’t believe this is a debate that rests only in the upper echelons of the sport.

The opinions of grass-roots participants and those who simply enjoy watching horse sport are just as valid as those at the pinnacle of competition.

The FEI set up an online discussion platform ahead of the Sports Forum to allow conversation about the issues, and it is surprising just how little it has been used at this stage. People are generally quick to venture an opinion on Facebook and Twitter. Why not offer your views in a forum where the people that make the decisions are actually watching?

At the time of writing, more posts have been made in respect of the non-Olympic disciplines and para-equestrian sports than Jumping, Eventing and Dressage combined.

So, let’s recap what we know so far: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted in changes late last year that amount to a major Games shake-up. The number of events and athletes are now capped, but at the same time there is more flexibility in the programme than ever before.

This flexibility means that events are not necessarily guaranteed a permanent spot in the Olympic programme. This is hardly likely to pose much of a headache for the top-tier sports such as athletics and swimming, but it is certainly an issue for those further down the ladder, including the three Olympic equestrian disciplines.

Nothing is guaranteed any more, and every Olympic sport is looking at how it can grow its appeal. The consensus seems to be that shorter events that can be more effectively packaged for the media are crucial in this recipe. Events need to be simple to understand, presumably in the hope of drawing more fans.

We must not forget that the Olympic movement, for all its fine ideals, is for all intents and purposes a business. It is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that relies on the sale of television rights, tickets, and other sponsorship arrangements to earn its coin.

I should also add that 90 percent of its profits are returned to the sports and national Olympic committees around the globe.

Whether we, as individuals, agree with the view that media coverage is an accurate barometer of the success of any given discipline is pretty much irrelevant. The IOC has decided this is a key measure and we must simply get on with it.

The crucial importance of television, internet and press coverage in determining each sport’s future inclusion in the Olympic programme was spelled out to delegates at the Sports Forum.

Delegates were lucky enough to hear from the sports director of the IOC, Kit McConnell, who traversed a range of issues around the radical Olympic reform programme, called Agenda 2020.

McConnell’s presentation included a look at television, internet and press figures for equestrian sport.

The implications of those measures were stressed by FEI President Ingmar De Vos, who spoke to delegates after McConnell.

McConnell, he said, had made it very clear that these will be, more than ever before, the parameters on which sports will be evaluated for future Olympic programmes.

“We need to understand that these are also the parameters that become more and more important in our own sport,” De Vos added.

So, how are the Olympic equestrian disciplines faring in all this? Well, we actually know the numbers – because McConnell gave them to us.

Media exposure is considered a crucial measure.
Media exposure is considered a crucial measure.

In his presentation to the forum, he gave delegates a rundown, showing that the IOC is, indeed monitoring these numbers.

It transpires that, during the 2012 London Olympics, Jumping racked up 62,038,000 viewing hours, well ahead of Eventing with 32,072,000 and Dressage with 25,686,000. Jumping’s maximum television audience was given as 37,069,919, compared with 17,738,025 for Dressage and 12,825,000 for Eventing.

The television coverage of equestrian sport reached all continents and covered 70 territories.

Interestingly, the numbers evened out when looking at internet figures. Jumping registered 36,325,581 page views on the most popular websites, slightly behind Dressage on 42,389,289, and slightly ahead of Eventing on 34,625,476.

The page views recorded by the website, were similarly even: 12,048,088 for Jumping, 11,888,714 for Dressage and 12,249,517 for Eventing.

Unique viewers across the most popular websites were given as 26,094,858 for Jumping, 27,089,692 for Dressage and 25,052,772 for Eventing.

What strikes me as interesting is the significant edge Jumping has over the other disciplines on television, but not online. Is, perhaps, jumping already delivering the media-friendly package and simple format that the FEI considers to be so crucial? Do Dressage and Eventing do better online because people have more choices in digital than they do with television in terms of what competitors or elements they wish to watch?

McConnell outlined press coverage in terms of the number of articles in the five leading publications in each country. Jumping was last in this assessment, at 370 articles, with Dressage registering 456 articles and Eventing 442. The coverage was across 49 territories, with 62 percent of all the press coverage recorded in Europe.

We can’t really say whether these numbers are good or bad. They form a small slice of an enormous pie. How big? Well, the London Games had 33 rights-holding broadcasters, and coverage was carried across 525 channels. In all, there were 99,982 broadcasting hours, with a potential audience of 4.8 billion. Remarkably, the actual audience was 3.7 billion – that’s 75 percent of the potential audience.

There were 81,541 digital broadcasting hours during London – a 715 percent increase on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Digital video views topped 1.9 billion.

If this all sounds like big business, you’re right.

Olympic marketing revenues for the four-year cycle culminating in the London Games (and including the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics) totalled just over $US8 billion. The lion’s share of that – $US3.85 billion – came from broadcasting. The Olympic Partner programme – the global sponsorship scheme – netted $US950 million, while domestic sponsorship arrangements brought in $US1.84 billion. Ticketing was worth $US1.24 billion, with licensing deals adding another $US170 million.

Ninety percent of that revenue goes to national Olympic committees around the globe, international sporting federations, and Games organising committees. The IOC retains the remaining 10 percent.

The IOC distributed $US519 million to international sporting federations after London.

The issue for all sports is trying to decide on a benchmark against which growth can be measured.

I’m not convinced there are any particular lines in the sand as far as the IOC is concerned.

I suspect it is more of a holistic exercise, but last year’s downgrading of the equestrian disciplines within the IOC following a review of how each sport sat within the classification system used to allocate a share of the Games profits to international sporting bodies was worrying.

Equestrian sport was dropped from category C to D, joining canoeing/kayaking, fencing, handball, hockey, sailing, taekwondo, triathlon, and wrestling.

The FEI raised concerns, asking the IOC why equestrian sport had been reclassified, especially given its fine showing at the London Olympics.

International Olympic Committee sports director Kit McConnell, right, addresses the  FEI Sports Forum, in Switzerland last month.
International Olympic Committee sports director Kit McConnell, right, addresses the FEI Sports Forum, in Switzerland last month. © Germain Arias-Schreiber/FEI

The answer is not entirely black and white, I’m led to believe.

It is understood that the criteria on which sports were assessed was based around television audiences (40 percent); internet page views and social media mentions (20 percent); general public appreciation (15 percent); spectator ticket sales (10 percent); press articles (10 percent); and universality (5 percent).

I think we can pretty safely take this to be a fair representation of how the IOC views the current media landscape, and where it feels the priorities lie, with television being king and online traffic now ahead of press articles.

We should not be surprised that the FEI therefore considers greater media exposure – and the need for media-friendly packages – as crucial to the future of Olympic equestrianism.

So, can equestrian sport look upon its London figures as a benchmark and improve on them at the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympics in Brazil? It could well be a challenge, in my view.

It’s hard to imagine a better Olympics for equestrian sport than London. The main venue at Greenwich Park was close to the heart of the Games and its time zone was much more friendly for the European market.

Rio audience numbers will likely see digital growth, as online reach continues to explode. But growing television audiences may prove to be more of a challenge for the equestrian disciplines with the tyranny of time zones.

It is, of course, a problem that will face all Olympic sports.

Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that we are not alone.

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