Format changes in the key disciplines could be in place for the next World Equestrian Games, FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos says.
De Vos, who ended his New Zealand visit on Wednesday, provided a potential time-frame for the implementation of changes which the FEI hopes will result in tighter and easier-to-follow formats that are likely to win greater favour with broadcasters.
Proposals for format changes got their first public airing late in April during the FEI Sports Forum, in Lausanne, Switzerland, where delegates were urged to embrace changes aimed at creating more media-friendly packages at major events in the drive to grow audiences.
De Vos told Horsetalk he was pleasantly surprised by what he described as some of the “out-of-the-box” thinking aired during the Sports Forum as delegates examined the formats of several disciplines, particularly the Olympic trio of Eventing, Dressage and Jumping.
The starting point has been a series of proposals developed by the technical committees within each discipline.
“I would like to be very clear,” said De Vos. “This is not about the Olympics alone.
“This is a process that we are undertaking for all our games and championships. It is about the future of our sport in general, not just about the Olympic Games.”
Delegates, he said, watched good presentations from the media and consultants on the need for change, and why the equestrian community needed to make its competition formats more interesting, exciting, and easier to understand, especially so at top-tier events. These elements were crucial in building larger audiences and lifting television exposure, he said.
De Vos said it was about securing the future development of equestrian sport and attracting new fans.
“I was very happy with the proposals that came out of the technical committees. They were very out-of-the-box. They were very exciting. They were not conservative.
“I think we had a very good debate at the Sports Forum. It was a very good brainstorming session, but there were no conclusions.
“I think it was an eye-opener for a lot of people and I see that today in our community there is an openness and much more preparedness to consider important changes for our sport to make it more attractive.”
De Vos said there appeared to be two fundamental conclusions that came out of the forum.
“On the one hand we have the easy fixes, that you do with improvement of graphics on television and maybe look at introducing some nice apps … explaining it better.
“And on the other hand – and it is more complicated – we have to look at competition formats in order to make then more exciting, more attractive, easier to understand.”
That process began 18 months ago, before the World Equestrian Games, when it became clear the FEI had to do something, he said.
“That is good because we believe, in the end, to avoid too much confusion with the public, that we need to have consistent formats that people can understand.” It was not sensible, he said, to have differences across the likes of the Olympics, world championships and continental championships.
Consistency in formats was the goal, he said.
“So what is going to happen now? On the one hand we are working on some technical improvements to cover the first chapter, which is making the coverage better through technical developments, new graphics, music …
“With regard to the formats, I believe it is such an important discussion about the future of our sport that we really need to understand how far our national federations, our members, are in favour of some of the proposals.”
He said a survey would soon be launched, possibly as soon as next week, to seek the views of all national federations, with some general as well as very specific questions about the future.
Federations will be asked, among other things, about their views on the importance of increasing the number of nations represented at major events and whether controls needed to be placed on the number of participants attending the World Equestrian Games. There would also be quite specific questions seeking views on the structure of team and individual competitions, and the future of drop scores.
“Based on that feedback and analysis, the FEI will likely dedicate a session at the General Assembly in Puerto Rico in November,” he said.
Further discussion was then likely at next year’s Sports Forum, with the likelihood of some specific proposals for change going before the FEI General Assembly late in 2016.
Approved changes would likely be in place for the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Canada and the 2020 Olympics.
So what does De Vos say to those who resist change?
“Nothing has been decided,” he said. “But I am not sure that this resistance is supported by the majority of our national federations.
“For those who don’t want to change the formats … I do not agree because the current formats clearly have their weaknesses.” They were not conducive to attracting bigger audiences and did not accommodate an increase in the number of nations participating.
It was, he said, made very clear to delegates at the forum, particularly through the IOC’s sports director, Kit McConnell, that television audiences and popularity in the media, social media and the internet were parameters on which sports were judged.
Reach was crucial, he added, saying that television rights were influenced by the number of nations competing in individual disciplines.
Citing the Olympics as an example, he said: “It is clear that when you talk about selling television rights … national broadcasters will prefer to buy the television rights in sports events in which they participate.”
De Vos said the Olympic reform agenda provided confirmation of the FEI’s strategy. “We are very positive about it.”
De Vos said he was encouraged that the United Arab Emirates, whose FEI membership was provisionally suspended by the FEI Bureau on March 12, had come to the table for talks.
The bureau imposed the suspension over what it said were horse welfare concerns and non-compliance with FEI rules and regulations. A month later the Emirates Equestrian Federation lodged an appeal, which it subsequently withdrew as a requirement of being allowed to enter talks.
UAE representatives travelled to FEI headquarters last month for a round table discussion that De Vos did not attend.
“I did, together with the secretary general, welcome the delegations,” De Vos said. “I made a very short statement inviting them to come to a solution. But I believe this was a very technical meeting.
“This was between experts … for the UAE to understand exactly what the FEI wants them to do. I think they took note of it, and understood it, and then went back to the UAE to work on the homework we gave them.”
Commentators have expressed the view that the UAE’s original decision to appeal had pointed to a lack of contrition, but De Vos believes the Middle Eastern nation has a clear understanding of the situation and what needed to be done.
“I cannot speak for the UAE, but the fact that they are now at the table, that they withdrew their appeal, and they asked the FEI to meet to see what needs to be done is for me clearly proof they now understand the situation and they are prepared to address it.
“I think it is a postiive move that they withdrew the appeal and have come to the table. It clearly illustrates for me that they understand there is a problem they need to address, and they need to work together with the international federation to come to a solution.”
So what is the path back for the UAE?
De Vos said the UAE had been provided with details of the problems as the FEI saw them. It was now up to UAE officials to come up with a plan that satisfied the FEI that rules would be applied and that ongoing compliance was ensured.
“It is up to them to come with a plan as to how they are going to address it. We identified the matters that they need to addess. It is up to them to come up with a solution … in the end the plan must come from them.”
There was no deadline, he said. “For me, there is no time-frame. I can understand that they would like this to be resolved as soon as possible, but for me it is clear that we are not going to hurry. We want it to be a good plan, and a solid plan, and a credible plan. And it will be measured,” he said, saying that key performance indicators would likely be put in place.
If the UAE delivered a good plan, then clearly progress would be quicker, he said.
“Our headquarters are not going to propose to the bureau … the lifting of the provisional suspension until they are happy with what is proposed.”
Would events run by the UAE under less stringent national rules be covered in any agreement?
“In my view, yes, because horse welfare is the responsibility not only of the FEI but also of national federations, and not only at international events but also at national events.
“We will need to understand what they are going to put in place for the national events also, and please do not forget that certain rules, such as those with regards to rest periods, not only apply for international events but also national events.”
In the week leading up to the FEI Bureau meeting which resulted in the UAE’s suspension, Britain’s Daily Telegraph published a story that cast doubts over the veracity of results recorded for a dozen or so endurance races in the country. It was found that slabs of results appeared to mirror those of previous races staged in the region.
De Vos said that matter, which is currently being investigated by the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit, played no part in the bureau’s suspension decision.
“We are an international governing body and we need to follow very clear procedures. And the decision of the FEI Bureau to suspend the UAE National Federation provisionally was based on very clear evidence of non-respect of rules which have an important impact on horse welfare … in this case it was very specifically on non-respect for rest periods.
“The other investigation is still ongoing, so the bureau could not take any decision based on the outcome of that because this has not been finalised. It was not at all part of the decision.”
So is this not another potential keg of explosives that could derail any agreement with the UAE?
“I think, in the end, I would be surprised if the bureau would lift the suspension when the other matter was not yet clarified.”
World Equestrian Games
The FEI will likely take on more responsibility over the staging of future World Equestrian Games, De Vos says.
The findings of a consultant’s report, presented to delegates at the Sports Forum, found that WEG had become too costly and too complex. The consultants urged the FEI to have greater input.
De Vos said the 2014 incarnation of WEG in Normandy, France, made a profit, and studies had shown positive economic benefits not only for the region, but France. The economic benefit for the country was put at nearly €300m and for the region at €180m.
It was positive, he said, that stakeholders – national federations, athletes and spectators – overwhelmingly backed the concept of a multi-disciplinary equestrian games.
“On the other hand, it was also identified that we need to better control these Games from a cost perspective.
“If we want to find bidders for these Games, we need to be able to provide a very clear finance plan and package of what we expect the organising committee to deliver.”
Establishing a clear budget was crucial, and this was possible only if potential bidders knew beforehand how many horses and athletes were attending. This was also important from a media perspective to be able to have a clear package of what they could expect from the Games.
The lesson from Normandy was the need for integration and the one-venue concept – not having different venues spread over the city or region.
“So we need to control costs, we need to control the number of athletes … but that is not only in the framework of the World Equestrian Games, but in all our products.
“We need to look at how we can make our products even more attractive and more interesting for media television and audiences.”
The FEI had already made progress in some of the areas highlighted by the consultant’s report, he said.
Before Normandy, the FEI would allocate the Games to an organising committee, sign off the schedule and lay out some technical requirements, but other than that was not greatly involved.
The FEI had ultimately worked closely with the Normandy organising committee in delivering those Games, he said.
“I think we took on a lot of responsibility. Do we have to do that more in the future? Yes, probably. It is our event. An organising committee organises one edition and then disappears, and we have to live with the legacy.”
So is De Vos confident that more potential hosts will put up their hand in the future?
“Yes, I think so.” They key, he said, was providing clarity around requirements and good information on the potential for economic return. “We have already had a lot of interest shown for the 2022 Games.”
A decision on the FEI’s future with SportAccord, the international union of Olympic and non-Olympic sports, will likely be made in conjunction with other members of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASIOF), De Vos says.
The FEI suspended its membership of SportAccord after president Marius Vizer launched a scathing attack on the International Olympic Committee when he opened SportAccord’s annual General Assembly in Sochi, Russia, six weeks ago.
The FEI was among a string of international sporting governing body to cut ties with SportAccord, including the great majority of federations with a presence at the summer Olympics.
Vizer subsequently resigned last Sunday.
“What we do will be in consultation with ASOIF,” De Vos said. “We need to have more clarity around what is really the role of SportAccord. What are their goals and are they in line with the goals of ASOIF and our membership?
“We need to redefine the relationship of the Olympic federations with SportAccord.”
De Vos said the anger over Vizer’s remarks stemmed not only from the content, but the manner in which it was done. He did not believe the views expressed had been signed off by SportAccord’s board and certainly not by its General Assembly.
“We believe that before a president starts to make such important declarations he should at least have the support of his board and even, in this case, from the General Assenbly.
“None of these points were raised with us or with the General Assembly, so he spoke on his own, not as a representative of the federations.”
De Vos said he had major misgivings over the way in which Vizer addressed IOC president Thomas Bach, who was present. “I mean, we are civilised people and we need to talk to and communicate with each other with necessary respect. In a democratic organisation, before you make these kinds of declarations, you need to have the support of your members.”
So is there a future for SportAccord among Olympic sporting federations?
“I think that is exactly the question that needs to be answered. It is always good to have the sports united – the Olympic and non-Olymnpic – but the goal and the purpose of the organisation must be very clear and it should certainly not be used to serve personal interests or to try to split the organisation.”
De Vos said he spoke last week in Rome with ASOIF president Francesco Ricci Bitti, where they shared the view that there was a need to come up with a common position.
“I think it is important for ASOIF to make clear what position it takes with regard to SportAccord and, again, I believe as Olympic federations we should do this together.”
De Vos flew out of Wellington after meeting with officials from Equestrian Sports New Zealand. He was heading across the Tasman Sea to meet with officials from Equestrian Australia.