Sports governance - the year in review 2018/19

Published 24 May 2019 By: Tom Bruce


In a rapidly changing world, sport is increasingly subjected to technological, socio-economic and geo-political developments. This presents significant challenges but also great opportunities and those that govern sport must anticipate and respond to those challenges and opportunities head on.1

In this article, we reflect on some of the major governance events, and significant themes, of the last twelve months both in the UK and on the world stage, as the involvement of both public authorities and private interests in sport continues to disrupt traditional governance models.

Looking forward, we then consider how sports governance will need to adapt to keep pace with developments in new formats, technology and the standards of governance and integrity expected of domestic and international federations.

1. A Code for Sports Governance

As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games appear on the horizon, UK Sport (UKS), the governing body responsible for funding Great Britain’s elite athletes, is naturally determined to build on the historic successes of London 2012 and Rio 2016. With a budget of £550 million for the Tokyo funding cycle, effective governance of the UK’s national governing bodies (NGBs) is under significant public scrutiny. The Olympic Games will provide UKS with a tangible opportunity to measure, via medal success, the impact of the mandatory governance reforms introduced in 2017. The introduction of the Code for Sports Governance2 (the Code) brought with it sweeping change to the governance structures of UK NGBs. Now that the dust has settled, we can better analyse the impact of this "gold standard" of sports governance.

Promoting engagement

Codifying sports governance at the elite level of sport in the UK was an ambitious project that set about overhauling a largely unstructured and organic regime. One of the immediate outcomes of the Code was that it prompted many NGBs to commission wholesale reviews of their governance processes. In doing so, most NGBs appear to have taken the opportunity to lay down foundations to improve the credibility, integrity, accountability and transparency of their organisation and the relevance of their constitutional documents. The Code has also encouraged many NGBs to consult widely with their key stakeholders and members, creating a greater sense of engagement. Despite these achievements, UKS has faced a number of challenges from NGBs over the mandatory nature of the Code and its enforcement.

One size fits all?

Enforcement of the Code is intrinsically linked to funding; NGBs must comply with the Code or lose their funding. When Table Tennis England had its funding withdrawn in 2017, it was apparent that the Code would be strictly enforced regardless of the governance needs of the NGB. This approach has caused problems for some NGBs. In 2018, two ex-directors of the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (the BBSA) accused UKS of bullying and intimidation3 in the light of UKS demanding that the entire board of BBSA step down as a condition to continued receipt of funding.4 BBSA acknowledged that it had governance issues, however the limited options it had available when UKS demanded change is significant. The lack of choice NGBs face when put in this difficult position only serves to highlight the leverage UKS wields over NGBs. Whilst the governance overhaul has in our view largely been positive, if NGBs' autonomy is slashed and they are forced into a tick box exercise in order to maintain their funding, their values and cultures will be undermined. Especially as NGBs risk losing sight of their core members’ concerns and needs in a bid to satisfy the demands of the funders.

Distribution of funding: a new order?

It is also important to consider the views of the public and how it wants to see the distribution of funds in sport. Success at the top level of sport is great but its value is diminished if local communities receive little benefit from public funding. Over the past few years, UKS has been subject to a great deal of scrutiny due to concerns for athlete welfare and the overwhelming focus on winning medals. The uncompromising strategy of funding being solely linked to medal potential has always been fiercely defended by UKS.5 Due to the level of public funding being committed, it is no surprise that both UKS and the government want to see medal success. However, NGBs come in a variety of shapes and sizes and a blanket approach does not suit all. There is a danger that by focusing on the podium, some of the "smaller" sports and community projects are swept aside.

In response to opposition of its approach, UKS carried out an extensive consultation with the public, stakeholders and government as to how it could best allocate funding.6 In a significant change to its strategy, after Tokyo 2020 there will be a three-tier funding structure:

  1. Podium;

  1. Podium Potential; and

  1. Progression.

The Progression tier is designed specifically to enable sports and athletes to take the first step towards the performance pathway and involves a long-term investment over up to 12 years.7 This is to be welcomed. Looking forward, the new tier ought to encourage sustainable change as it should help the governance reforms made at the elite level of sport trickle down to grassroots bodies.

2. The IAAF

Many will be aware that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been undergoing wholesale governance reform over the past few years in the wake of damaging scandals surrounding doping, corruption and athlete welfare. Its 2019 Constitution (the Constitution) was introduced in January 2019.8

A new model for International Federations?

Under the Constitution the latest structure for the governance of the IAAF was introduced and the Integrity of Athletics was established.9 At the heart of these reforms, the Constitution:

  1. seeks to provide a greater voice for athletes in the decision-making process;

  2. creates a timetable for achieving gender equality in IAAF's decision-making bodies; and

  3. introduces independent anti-doping, integrity and disciplinary functions.10

The reforms seek to level out a previously uneven playing field, providing those with seemingly little influence within the governance structure a much greater voice. They seek to create a robust framework designed to be a leading example of excellent International Federation governance for decades to come.

The IAAF has been clear from the start of the review that separating powers and placing time limits on leadership roles would be essential in renewing public trust in the IAAF. Accordingly, the Constitution has redefined the roles and responsibilities of Congress, the Council and the Executive Board, including;

  1. separating political and governance roles from these which manage or implement decisions; and

  1. devolving powers to eliminate the ability of any one person, such as the President, to act alone.11

Integrity and independence

Independent of the decision-making authorities, now sits the Athletics Integrity Unit (the Integrity Unit) and the Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal). The Integrity Unit is responsible for managing all doping and non-doping integrity matters and it operates with its own board and staff separate from the IAAF.12 The creation of the Integrity Unit sends a clear message that doping in any form will not be tolerated, and this is a position that the IAAF will look to build on in the coming years. In its first year of operation, the Integrity Unit implemented 120 disciplinary proceedings across the sport, releasing details into the public domain of 109 cases.13 Similarly, the Tribunal is a major step in building public confidence through public disclosure and creating effective transparency. It hears and decides all breaches, and imposes sanctions as set out in the Integrity Code of Conduct.14


Finally, one of the keystone reforms is an aim to achieve gender parity on the IAAF Council by 2027, with the first female Vice President to be elected in September 2019.15 Arguably these targets are not ambitious enough, in terms of timing. However, the IAAF has published a comprehensive framework to achieve this goal, and it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for a sport that has struggled to represent women at the leadership level.

3. Intervention

One of the wider themes dominating international governance has been the increasing willingness of international sports bodies and governments to intervene, in a variety of different situations, arguably replacing the traditional notion of "autonomy" amongst sports bodies with "earned" or "supported autonomy".16

Doping scandal drags WADA’s integrity into doubt

Since the IAAF suspended the Russian Athletics Federation’s (RusAF) membership in 2015, the scandal has continued to dominate headlines. Perhaps most notable is the dynamic between the IAAF, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Last year WADA reportedly came to a secret compromise in order to reinstate Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) in a decision that caused outrage amongst athletes and national anti-doping agencies.17 The IOC agreed with this decision, despite conditions of reinstatement not being met, prompting searching questions of its integrity, Remarkably, the IAAF has continued to uphold the ban on RusAF despite facing ten appeals from Russia.18 Lord Coe stated that the IAAF had set its own evaluation criteria and that the independent task force would continue to monitor the situation until satisfied the conditions had been met.19 By setting out stricter conditions, the IAAF has distinguished itself from the criticism that has been levelled at WADA. In sticking to the principles outlined in its governance strategy, the IAAF has strengthened its reputation and shown a clear zero tolerance policy towards doping.

IOC maintains ban over AIBA

Meanwhile, the IOC has maintained its strict ban of the Association of International Boxing Associations (AIBA) following a number of governance issues.20 However one has to question whether AIBA is just a scapegoat, used to set an example on the international stage. There is, arguably, a very different approach being taken by the IOC to RusAF, on the one hand, and AIBA on the other. AIBA is attempting to implement governance reform and whether this is achieved to the IOC's satisfaction before Tokyo 2020 remains to be seen. Whilst setting high standards for AIBA, it is curious that the IOC was willing to support WADA’s decision to lift the ban on Rusada.

FIFA's Normalisation Committees

One of the most significant forms of intervention has been deployed by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and its use of "normalisation committees". Normalisation committees appear to be imposed by FIFA on member associations when they exhibit signs of corruption and/or governance issues. FIFA then takes control of the day-to-day running of the association in order to reform it directly. This is an extraordinary show of power by a governing body and one that has proved highly controversial. Within the last year FIFA has imposed normalisation committees in Ghana, Malaysia and Namibia. FIFA's mandate to exercise such powers has been questioned as, despite undertaking an extensive reform process itself, FIFA has been unable to shake off allegations that it has not gone far enough in tackling its own underlying governance issues. Normalisation committees might therefore be interpreted as a resounding commitment to good governance, or an abuse of power.

BeIn Sport's mission to contain BeoutQ

The apparent appetite of governments for involvement in sport highlights how intrinsic the industry has become to them, both from a commercial and a political perspective.

One of the more remarkable disputes that escalated enormously in 2018 and highlights this point is the unprecedented, ongoing conflict between Qatar-based international sports broadcaster beIN Sports (beIN) and the Saudi Arabia state-sponsored “BeoutQ”. BeoutQ obtains beIN’s content and distributes it via satellite on 10 live encrypted channels across the Middle East and North Africa, while also embedding apps within its BeoutQ boxes that stream premium sports and entertainment content from sports broadcasters, rights holders and entertainment studios from all around the world.21 BeoutQ does this without buying a single media right, which is wholly illegal.

This is a conflict that has its roots in fervent politics between two Middle East countries, but it is now affecting the whole sports and entertainment industry worldwide as rampant piracy is becoming normalised. FIFA and UEFA have been two of many governing bodies to question the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the commercial theft of broadcasting rights.22 Meanwhile, the World Trade Organisation has said that it will investigate the allegations of intellectual property theft23, and the US Government24 and UK Government25 have both strongly condemned BeoutQ and are investigating further. There are therefore signs that the issue is starting to be acknowledged however with no end in sight, it will be fascinating to see how this dispute unfolds as politics intertwines with sport.

4. What next for sports governance?

Autonomous governing bodies have long been at the forefront of developing rules that dictate the way sport is played and regulated. However, looking forward, they are facing the threat of new formats, often backed by risk-sharing partnership and collaboration from the private sector, creating new brands and franchises that disrupt traditional structures. Dynamic tournaments are demanding long term rights deals and creating lucrative commercial space for sponsors, corporate partners and broadcasting platforms. Athletes are seeking greater financial reward and recognition will increasingly want to take advantage of these innovative platforms. Whether this is the Big Bash or a rugby union Nations League, there is a danger that traditional governance structures and those that have typically run them are not able to adapt quickly enough to take advantage of these opportunities.

Global Leagues – a new order?

Unprecedented global coverage of sport and market forces are changing the way athletes compete and opening up accessibility to fans. FINA, the governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, was recently challenged by a new swimming league called the International Swimming League (ISL). ISL is a £15m, 4-day event financed by Ukrainian businessman Konstantin Grigorishin, designed to offer a greater spectacle for fans and more prize money to athletes.26 FINA said it would ban athletes from competing in its swimming tournaments if they participated in the ISL, but was subsequently forced to backtrack on this threat. This is a prime example of the challenges and opportunities facing traditional governing bodies and the need to act in an agile and entrepreneurial manner to stay ahead of the game.

Governance of e-sports

The commercialisation of e-sports and its growth in popularity has been rapid, with vast sums of money being pumped into sponsorship deals and the creation of e-sports leagues. Towards the end of 2018 the Premier League (PL) announced its partnership with Electronic Arts to create the ePL.27 Puma has joined forces with Cloud9, which is considered to be the most valuable e-sports organisation valued at $310m.28 This is the forefront of sporting tech and an area that appears to have limitless potential for growth. Governance and integrity will have to follow.

Challenges and opportunity

The need for governing bodies to demonstrate to the media, public authorities, businesses and other key stakeholders an exemplary standard of governance is a trend that is surely set to continue. The commercialisation of sport is driving accessibility, allowing unprecedented numbers of viewers, players and athletes to participate actively or interactively. As the boundaries of accepted formats of sports are challenged, so too is our understanding of traditional sports governance, which is so often hampered by vested interests. The focus going forward will be collaborative, quasi-autonomous governance that fosters inclusive and sustainable change, that is aware of and adaptable to developments in sport and society and that nurtures both the professional and amateur games.

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Tom Bruce

Tom Bruce

Partner and Deputy-Head of Sports - Farrer & Co

Tom is an experienced sports lawyer known for his personable approach and outstanding client service. 

Tom is embedded in the sports sector and works closely with sports clients on a wide range of corporate, commercial and governance matters. He advises Governing Bodies, commercial sports organisations and clubs and is a "go-to" adviser for a number of high profile clients on governance matters (including the Code for Sports Governance), joint ventures and structuring international sporting events.

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