The Value of Athletes

I was approached by different athletes suggesting that the picture below would worth a post. It shows the podium of the 2018 World Cup series. If you zoom in, you can see the prize money given by the IOF to the top FootO athletes of 2018. €100 for 6th place overall, €200 for 5th, €300 for 4th and €400 for 3rd. Tove and Karolin were smart enough to cover up the reputation damaging sums of €1000 and €500 given for their outstanding performance through 2018.

world cup podium 2018

It just does not look right. It is simply shameful, as one athlete said. Even no prize money would work better than showing these sums to the world.

For comparison, here are some numbers for the 2019 overall prize pool of three international federations. Interesting to note that all three have increased the sums over their 2018 prize pool.

  • Orienteering (IOF):       €12 thousand
  • Skyrunning (ISF):        €187 thousand
  • Biathlon (IBU):         €7,000 thousand

The prize fund for the FootO World Cup was increased for 2019 from €5000 in 2018, but the IOF contributes only €1,500, that is less than 1% of its external revenues, and around 0.15% of its total budget to the €12,000 prize fund.

Although the IOF earns good money from broadcasting the performance of top orienteers, there is absolutely no visible intention to share the profit with the athletes.

In 2018 100%, in 2019 88% of the prize fund comes from a contribution imposed on the organisers of World Cup races. The organisers have to pay this extra fee over and above of all other IOF imposed costs like the sanction fee, anti-doping fee, TV production costs, and the likes.

The information on the Skyrunning prize fund is a bit patchy. It is unclear how much different sources contribute. What is clear that individual races of the World Series must have at least a €6,000 or a €10,000 prize fund in addition to contributing to the overall prizes. They also have to offer free entry and accommodation to the top 10 runners.  No obligation on live TV, though. A very different approach from another non-Olympic sport. They clearly try to attract the top athletes.

The IBU prize fund of €7million rewards a large number of athletes. IBU pays this over and above the €4 million planned as participation support to athletes. Of course, IBU plays in a different league, but it is remarkable that the €7million represents approximately of 1/4 of their external revenues of TV rights, sponsors and funds from the IOC.

If the IOF would follow an approach similar to IBU, approximately €45,000 to €50,000 would be paid to the athletes based on the planned net proceeds from sponsors, TV rights, Live Orienteering, and IOC contribution. If we consider the event sanction fees as external revenue, like the IOF leadership does, then €100,000 to €110,000 would be the prize fund following IBU’s approach.

What is behind the IOF’s rather different attitude towards sharing the proceeds with the best athletes?


A matter of attitude

Prize money used to be a contentious topic throughout the history of modern sports. It does not fit well with the amateur ideas of the late XIX century when modern sport was born. Yet, over the past two decades or so, with the commercialisation of the sport, there has been a growing recognition that if one tries to sell sport, they must share the proceeds with the key component of commercial success, the best athletes.

The thinking of the IOF leadership appears to be squarely anchored in the XIXth century while they dream about reaping the commercial benefits of modern sport. Just recently there were two marketing managers searching for sponsors, lots of money spent on the development of the pay-per-view service under Live Orienteering, and a relentless push for live TV broadcast that is believed to be the Holy Grail to open up the flood of sponsor revenues.

Most notably, even in the unbelievably positive 2018 budget, where the IOF expected €375,000 only from sponsors, €0 was planned to be shared with the athletes.

One may get the impression that the IOF leadership believes that all the profit from these commercial activities should be spent on the office and IT developments. Apparently they do not see top athletes as a valuable component to commercial success.


A rational approach?

One may argue that the IOF leadership took a very rational approach by not sharing the financial benefits with the best athletes. After all, one of the important feature of orienteering is that athletes really love this sport. This is in stark contrast with many other professional and Olympic sports. Top orienteers without exception enjoy going to competitions, enjoy the demand of new events, enjoy travelling the world while engaged in our beloved sport. They are not only willing to sacrifice a lot for this love, but also willing to put up with a lot, at least for the time being. This includes being “sold” by the IOF to sponsors, TV and Live Orienteering audiences while not receiving any share of the profit.

But this is not likely to last long. A commercialised sport requires a lot from the athletes over and above strict sporting performance. At a minimum, they have to be available for interviews, press conferences, and ceremonies,  even when they should rest or when they may prefer to celebrate on their own terms. The obligations may go as far as being required to participate on events (say a World Cup final), even if there are more interesting alternatives. Remember, attending and performing well on a single skyrunning event may pay as well as a podium performance in the overall World Cup.

Another argument is that it does not matter if orienteering loses some of the top athletes to other sports where they can earn at least some contribution to their living expenses. Because of the nature of orienteering, nobody will notice difference in performance if the top 10 switched sports. This is not a 1500m event where one can compare current performance with historic. In addition, athletes currently ranked outside top 10 are likely to make more mistakes, hence providing more excitement, more entertainment to paying audiences. Difficult to argue against this on a rational basis. It is simply painful, if you love this sport.


Time to change

It is an old adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. But if the piper is not paid, nobody can blame him for playing tunes of his liking, attending to other parties, or not playing at all.

It is time for the IOF leadership to start to warm to the idea that their dream of a more commercialised orienteering works only if they share the benefits with the top athletes, the key contributors to any commercial success. Instead of spending on hopeless projects like all singing, all dancing IT developments, they should start to think about the value of our top athletes.

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