An engaged audience and a set of sporting luminaries marked by their diversity made the YAA’s ‘Business in Sport’ panel event a lively affair.
The event, run by the York Alumni association and hosted by Greg Dyke, took place under the auspices of law firm Howard Kennedy. It proved an invaluable opportunity for York graduates to chart the current climate of the sector; to plumb the depths and breadths of the panel’s sporting experience.
In the chair was Nicky Roche (CBE), history graduate and member of the Board of UK Sport. She presided over two recent York Sport Presidents, namely Sam Asfahani, senior specialist for NBA marketing in Europe, and Cass Brown, Sport Team Executive at Cancer Research UK.
Also on the panel was Edward Gillespie (OBE), who ‘spent most of his time at York touring the many racecourses in the area’, which might not have served his Politics degree particularly well but saw him go on to manage Cheltenham Racecourse for 32 years.
The four York members were joined by Howard Kennedy representative, family and sports lawyer and chairman of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, Lois Langton.
The event was hosted by Greg Dyke, former Chancellor of the University, ex-director General of the BBC and Chairman of the Football Association for ‘two and a half very long years’.
Each of the panellists had powerful reflections on their own place in the sports industry.
sports law and Sports Fashion
Langton was keen from the outset to dispel a myth about her job title – sports lawyer – claiming that references to ‘sports law’ were nothing more than a ‘media myth’. She saw the preponderance of the moniker as a mere barometer of the proliferation of individual lawyers working independently in the sector. Her job, as she saw it, was to ‘keep sportspeople on the back page’ and to ensure that ‘messy relationship break-ups don’t affect their clients’ professional careers’.
Asfahani’s role at the NBA incorporates some intriguing specialisations, foremost among which comes in the ‘fashion of sport’. For Asfahani, the image of the NBA is very much aligned with ‘urban USA’ and ‘hip-hop music’; these were ideas key to his portrayal of the culture of basketball, the second most popular sport worldwide, in various territories.
Gillespie meanwhile emotively depicted the challenges posed by the foot and mouth outbreak to racecourse management: “I think the only thing that the government could remember from 1963 was that they closed racing down.
“They must have lost the files on all of the other things they did. We were very much swimming in the opposite direction to public opinion at Cheltenham and became somewhat of a cause celebre. We couldn’t cancel the event ourselves because it would have bankrupted the company.
“That is the only time I’ve been advised to bring a machine detector into work because they thought we might get something nasty in the post. It’s also the only time I’ve needed to directly counsel members of staff. The impact when certain huge sporting events don’t happen, and the chain is broken, is huge.”
Sports charity: a ‘cut-throat’ game
Cass Brown described the ‘surprisingly cut-throat’ charity side of sport, drawing on her own experiences at Cancer Research UK, who are scrambling to get ahead after ‘losing a significant part of our market share’ last year.
On the same day as Lord Coe’s decision to end his involvement with Nike, it seemed apt that the panel were challenged on the relationship between politics and sport. Should the two meet?
“Sport and politics will always meet,” according to Cass.
“Sport is quite rightly a national interest and people-focussed, from grassroots levels to the elite. Clubs and associations must be democratic. It’s essential for members to have their say and take hold of their stake in decisions.”
Langton echoed this sentiment, drawing on the example of England’s game against France, played in defiance of the Paris attacks, as a resonance of sport’s ‘powerful voice’.
Sport on TV
A member of the audience then raised the issue of televised sport and the dwindling of live sport available on terrestrial channels.
Asfahani stated: “All decisions that take sport off free-to-air are decisions made by rights-holders to make more money. The changing ways in which people consume sport will never change the ways in which it can be commercialised.
“But, the move to new media has opened up a new world of second-screen engagement, mostly through in-game betting, which undoubtedly favours our key target market, which is 16 to 25 year olds.”
Dyke’s involvement in selling TV rights at ITV and his role in setting up the Premier League has changed the landscape of sport indelibly. He mounted the example of cricket as a sport that has put all of their eggs in one basket with Sky, which, according to Dyke, has seen levels of involvement in the sport ‘collapse’.
He suggested that a balance needed to be struck between maximising income and keeping some of the sport free-to-air to keep the public interested. For Dyke, “sports that sell their soul for money can find themselves in trouble”.
Another alumnus, proudly sporting his Langwith College colours, pressed the panel on the seemingly impervious quality that sport takes on in response to scandal. Does the game just carry on regardless?
Not for Asfahani, financially speaking at least. He avowed that protecting ‘brand image’ is perhaps the most important part of marketing a sport, and the profit line takes a big hit when controversy engulfs. He cited the NFL’s ongoing problems with domestic violence, as a result of which viewing figures have dropped, as a case in point.
From a horse racing perspective, Gillespie underline the sport’s thorough approach to its own issues around gambling that has ensured the sport on show remains ‘credible’. Any problems have been ‘weeded out and dealt with very seriously’.
the future of sport
It’s about Asfahani’s personal ambition to become the first person to represent Great Britain at American Football and Lebanon at rugby union. It’s about Gillespie’s memories of hitting three consecutive boundaries from the last three balls of a game at Lord’s and still ending up on the losing side. It’s about Brown’s memories of the University of York’s record-breaking Roses whitewash last year.
Nicky Roche believes that those with Sports Science and Management degrees have “some edge” when it comes to a career in sport, while there is still plenty of credence to someone who can deliver the goods on events and with contracts.
Despite the murk and grime that much of sporting governance is caked in, there is at least hope to be found for the future. This was finally embodied by the two Santander Elite Sports Scholars, who were presented their awards by Greg Dyke.