Why is the FEI so keen on reforming horse sport?

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Can the success of horse sport at the 2012 London Olympics be topped in Rio de Janiero?
Can the success of horse sport at the 2012 London Olympics be topped in Rio de Janiero?

Yes folks, it’s hard to believe that we’re only a few months away from another Olympic extravaganza, brought to you compliments of the IOC and the frantically busy Rio de Janiero organising committee.

Horses will fly into Rio de Janeiro Airport and then journey along a special biosecurity corridor to the Deodoro equestrian venue, where they will strut their stuff in Dressage, Showjumping and Eventing.

Biosecurity measures are in place to keep diseases such as glanders and equine piroplasmosis at bay – and all the mosquito suppression planned will undoubtedly be handy in minimising the risk from the zika virus.

An Olympic year is always a big year for horse sport, with the top equestrian nations keeping a firm focus on their medal prospects.

But 2016 takes on even more significance, as the FEI gets down to the business end of instituting major reforms aimed at adding a bit more fizz to the Olympic spectacle. These changes won’t be in place for Rio, of course, but make no mistake: they’re coming.

It almost goes without saying that reforms at the pinnacle of the sport will have major flow-on effects across all levels of equestrian competition.

Much has been made of the need for making the disciplines easier to understand. There has been much talk about the need for competitions to be packaged tightly in a media-friendly way. The disciplines apparently need more exposure and more followers, broadening their appeal.

No-one can doubt the determination within the FEI to bring about these changes, but such a process will inevitably pit the purists and traditionalists against those with the reformist agenda.

Early in April, delegates from national federations will meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the FEI’s annual Sports Forum, where these proposals will get another airing. Indeed, some fairly concrete proposals will be up for discussion.

But I want to rewind several years to discuss precisely how horse sport came to be debating the very foundations of some if its most popular disciplines.

Some believe it stems solely from the Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms passed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) late last year.

Yes, those reform proposals have added impetus to the reform movement, but in reality the whole issue goes back some years earlier for horse sport.

The Olympics are enormously costly to stage, but they place cities and countries on the world stage. They are also extremely lucrative for the IOC, with broadcasting rights, sponsorship, licensing and ticket sales raising billions for each Games held – winter or summer.

The IOC likes to share the joy with all the sports that make up the Olympic movement. Once upon a time, the IOC would take one slice of the pie and divide it up evenly among the sports. This was the case up until the mid-1990s, at which point each sport was receiving about $US1.5 million.

Not surprisingly, some top-tier sports got grumpy over this arrangement. They felt they deserved a bigger share for getting more television viewers and filling more Olympic seats.

The IOC decided that the higher profile sports would get a greater share, and I doubt anyone has much of a problem with that.

Hundreds of schoolchildren saw eventing and horses up close for the first time at London 2012.
London’s Greenwich Park provided a perfect backdrop for the Olympic equestrian events.

Athletics and swimming came to occupy the top tier, with other sports falling into some sort of orderly fashion beneath them across five categories – A to E. This arrangement has lasted some years.

These categories provide some broad insight into how each of the disciplines is viewed within the Olympic movement.

Equestrian sport was in Category C, which seemed about right in the overall scheme of things.

But as the new millennium dawned, there remained some disquiet around the way the pie was divided. This kept building until 2010, when agreement was reached to review the groupings. It is understood that not all sports entirely welcomed the move.

Around the time of 2013 SportAccord in Russia, international sporting bodies got their first inkling of changes to the way the pie was to be divided.

The news was not good for equestrian sport. Under the plan, gymnastics joined swimming and athletics in category A. Category B was occupied by basketball, cycling, football, tennis, and volleyball.

The Category C sports were named as archery, badminton, boxing, judo, rowing, shooting, table tennis and weightlifting.

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

Category E gathered the modern pentathlon, golf and rugby on the bottom rung. This category appears mostly reserved for the demonstration sports that come and go from the Games programme.

Most sports stayed put, but equestrian sport, hockey, and handball were among those to suffer a fall in ranking.

So, why did equestrian sport suffer such a fate, especially after the successful showing of equestrian sport at the London Olympics? The FEI asked the question, but the answer has never been publicly aired, as far as I am aware.

What we do know is that the review of groupings launched in 2010 was to be based, at least in part, on data from the London Games, with several sources confirming the following criteria: 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).

It is hard to determine whether these were the only criteria on which the grouping were based. However, it seems clear enough that, despite a highly successful London Games for equestrian sport, the numbers did not fall in its favour.

I don’t doubt that the move from C to D resulted in a fall in Olympic revenues for the FEI, but the world governing body would have been equally concerned about the wider perception of equestrian sport as a result of the downgrade.

I can understand the general consternation arising from this downgrading of equestrian sport. Horse sport fans are unlikely to be impartial judges, but even now it’s still hard to fathom why we couldn’t maintain our Category-C footing alongside the likes of archery, badminton and shooting.

Brazil's National Equestrian Centre, site of the 2016 Olympic equestrian events, at the Deodoro Cluster in Rio.
Brazil’s National Equestrian Centre, site of the 2016 Olympic equestrian events, at the Deodoro Cluster in Rio. © Ismar Ingber

However, I’ve only just sketched in the background. Let’s draw in the foreground.

IOC president Thomas Bach made it clear in mid-2013 that he wanted a comprehensive review of the Olympic movement, with an eye to the future and a determination to rein in the costs of staging the Games.

It became clear that the IOC wanted more flexibility around the staging of the Games and the sports involved.

That culminated in December 2014 with a vote on a raft of reform proposals during the 127th session of the IOC in Monaco. There, 96 IOC members unanimously backed a 40-point reform package.

The reforms restricted numbers attending the summer Games to about 10,500 athletes and 5000 accredited coaches. The number of events were capped at 310. This is all entirely sensible, given the desire to keep down the cost of running the summer Games.

However, the recommendations also introduced more flexibility in the programme, allowing for the inclusion of new sports within the Olympic schedule. It allows Games organising committees to nominate sports that might have regional appeal or significance.

So, it’s a simple case of maths. If the IOC is going to allow fresh sports into the fold – even for just one Games – and it wants to keep numbers capped at the same time, then clearly cuts will have to be made elsewhere.

And clearly those with the greatest concern will those closest to the bottom rungs of the Olympic ladder.

It is highly doubtful that equestrian sport will ever be dropped, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that sports may lose individual events, reducing their Olympic programme.

This possibility isn’t likely to keep athletic and swimming officials awake at night, but if you’re sitting further down the Olympic pecking order the picture may not be so rosy.

Could, for example, one of the equestrian disciplines be dropped in favour of baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, or wakeboarding? It would, of course, be highly unlikely in a host nation with a strong equestrian culture, but what if the Games were held in a nation with no great affinity to horse sport?

It is important to remember that staging horse sports are not cheap. Given the substantial costs involved in establishing a cross-country course, it is easy to imagine a Games organising committee eyeing it for exclusion in favour of sports that are far cheaper to stage, especially those with local appeal.

It is clear that the FEI will take all necessary and possible steps to protect the place of equestrian sport in the Olympic programme.

So, we roll into 2016 with the FEI clearly on a path to shore up the position of horse sport at the Olympics. Hence the drive for simpler and tighter formats in a bid to widen public and media appeal.

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

Delegates to last year’s FEI Sports Forum heard from the sports director of the IOC, Kit McConnell, who traversed a range of issues around Olympic reform.

He spelled out the importance of television, internet and press coverage in determining each sport’s inclusion in the Olympic programme.

The implications of those media-related measures were later stressed by FEI President Ingmar De Vos. 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.

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

Let’s look at McConnell’s figures.

It transpires that, during the 2012 London Olympics, Jumping racked up 62,038,000 television 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, London2012.com 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 much vaunted media-friendly packages 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 deciding on a benchmark against which their growth can be measured.

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.

That said, the FEI pushes ahead with its reform proposals aiming at making the disciplines easier to understand, with tighter competition formats to suit media coverage.

Just last week, the movers and shakers of the Eventing world gathered in London to try to get consensus on changes to the Olympic format.

No-one said this was going to easy. But I think we can all agree that the stakes are extremely high, and failure is unthinkable.

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