Sport governance needs immediate shake-up

Author: James Earl

This article was originally published in The Brief, which is published every weekday by The Times.

Sam Allardyce’s demise as England manager has given him the dubious honour of having the shortest career in the post – albeit with the best-ever winning percentage – and allegations of improper conduct have been made against eight current and former Premier League managers.

Beyond English football, the essence of sport has been rocked to its core in the past months.

Although successful for Team GB, the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games involved deep concern over allegations of result rigging, doping and corruption. Go back a few years and the catalogue of failures is greater still, with many of these appearing to lie at the doorstep of sport governing bodies.

The governance of sport is at a crossroads. Public confidence has been eroded by recent scandals. Meaningful and urgent changes are required to protect the precious public assets over which sports governing bodies preside.

Exactly what is wrong? Are today’s competing forces within sport – aspiration for success, evolution of performance enhancement techniques, the huge influence of brands and sponsors, governments who use sport as a geopolitical tool – simply unable to coexist? Are those that govern sport unable, or unwilling, to prevent these situations from happening? Should sport look to other industries for guidance?

Just as there is no single cause of the problems, there is no one solution, but governance is a good place to start. Sport governing bodies are different from those in other fields. As UK Sport says, they are “holders of public trust and guardians of something which is precious to millions”.

But with great power comes great responsibility.

Sport governing bodies have tough jobs and are required to wear many hats. Funding is generally declining and, where available, comes with an increasing number of strings attached.

Major championships are a prerequisite for many governing bodies, yet these are extremely costly. Funding demands require a governing body to work out how to balance the apparently conflicting objectives of generating revenue while administering a sport and fostering its growth. That conflict is not encountered in mainstream business.

Without doubt, sport is plagued by instances of poor corporate governance. It is easy to criticise, but it seems unlikely that the scale of corruption and deception uncovered in organisations such as Fifa and the IAAF would exist for such a sustained period in a public company.

Should sport governing bodies be subject to the same requirements as a publicly listed company? Should they have disclosure and reporting obligations that require public accountability?

In the UK, this happens to some extent already, via reporting requirements applied by UK Sport and Sport England in their funding arrangements with national sporting governing bodies.

From 2017, UK Sport will implement a “governance code for sport”, which will highlight areas of governance that national bodies must apply: transparency, integrity, financial probity and independence of thought.

One can only hope that initiatives like those being put forward by UK Sport become a blueprint for sports governing bodies around the world.

James Earl, Partner, Fladgate LLP (

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