It's the most wonderful time of year
And there's A Lot Going On: F1, F2, soccer sell outs, golf super leagues and modern pentathlon is out of the Olympics.
Welcome to the latest edition of SSWOS, the Sick, Sad World of Sports, where sports is the mechanism by which we learn about the depths of shithousery and assholery and dipshittery of the human soul.
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I’m breaking from the usual format this week because there’s been a slew of stories, most of them small but coincidentally relevant to the themes of previous newsletters, so consider this an extended version of Very Normal Things.
Max Verstappen: F1 world champion
There’s no way you could be reading this and not have heard about the finale of the F1 world championship.
I don’t have a strong opinion about what happened. To me, one of the interesting things about sport is watching people deal with (almost entirely self-imposed) pressure and the constraints of (almost entirely self-imposed) rules where the stakes are extremely low1. And that’s what we got: a series of quick decisions by people doing their best under highly visible circumstances that led to a very specific and highly dramatic result.
Much of the Discourse has been hand wringing about how sporting the decisions made by race officials in the final laps of the grand prix were. Personally, I think if you’re going to invoke sporting integrity in your newspaper column, you have no business being a sportswriter unless you want to cater exclusively to idiots who are looking to get angry about something to fill their yawning voids in their lives2. The best takes, of the handful I bothered to read, were from Alex Kirshner and Martin Brundle.
While I may not have a strong opinion about the incident itself3, I do have a number of contextual takes.
The power and success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series was on full show. There is a huge number of new fans of the sport, particularly in the US, directly as a result of the documentary-slash-propaganda and this year’s championship finale only served to bring them out of the woodwork. This in turn triggered a lot of tweeting and writing from people who would not normally venture an opinion on the machinations of F1.
Despite the Discourse, I think this is exactly the kind of chaotic drama that will ensare this audience moving forward. If anything, the Discourse aids and abets this by giving the audience a side to take, engaging them when it could otherwise be resolved with a “shit happens”. Of course, the provisioners of the Discourse know this and don’t really believe anything they write except insofar as it keeps them employed. People generally don’t care about the minutiae of rulebooks, except as it can be used to support their pre-existing world view, otherwise all professional sports would have ceased to exist decades ago.
For the couple of spot checks I’ve done, F1 hasn’t really been ratioed for what happened on Twitter. I find this surprising, as any other controversial refereeing in any other sport is met with a tirade of online fury. For the most part, people seemed so shocked by what happened, they are unable to form a reaction other than “what the fuck happened there?” To be fair, it’s one of the biggest sports moments I can remember.4
The main action item will be for F1 to introduce the Green-White-Checker finish from NASCAR. If the stated and well known desire is to finish under racing conditions and not behind the safety car, then this should have been implemented long ago. It’s stupid that it hasn’t been.
A secondary item will be to address the way that team principals are allowed to communicate directly with the FIA race director team. It’s not clear to me why this is a two-way system. The resultant lobbying, made more grossly obvious by its broadcast, is too much even for me5. What about the integrity? Shit.
Finally, I called F1 generally boring. Sorry. That was off the mark this year.
The grace, the beauty of sports
Oscar Piastri: F2 champion
Please bend the knee to our Aussie king.
Piastri won last year’s F3 championship, although it was not clear if he was necessarily the fastest driver on the grid when compared to Theo Pourchaire and others6. Piastri’s absolute domination of the field in F2, which included 2022 Alfa Romeo F1 driver Guanyu Zhou, puts that to bed. Piastri is an Alpine academy driver and will be their official test driver next season, disappointingly missing out on a race seat while we wait for Alonso to retire again. Given the historical comps for Piaistri’s rise to the top, it is undoubtable that he is a talent and will have a bright future.
Soccer sells out
…would be a great headline but that happened decades, if not centuries, ago. Two main stories this week, following on from our discussion of private equity involvement in sport:
The deals are structured differently. CVC is buying future returns from broadcast deals in exchange for cash now. CVC would not make this deal unless they were going to make out like bandits but they understand that the clubs are greedy enough to take the money now at the expense of their long term earnings. Inevitably, I think that money will find its way to the transfer market and will largely cancel out within Spanish leagues but may provide Spanish clubs a greater advantage on the European stage.
Ironically, given that Athletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona were happy to throw the structure of the sport into the shredder earlier in the year, notionally after the pandemic had undermined the razor thin margins on which they were keeping a lid on their ever ballooning debt, they are the only three clubs that seem to be opposed to this capital infusion. Presumably this is because it undercuts their own power within the institution of Spanish soccer - they came up with their own plan that was ignored - and the Iron Law of Oligarchy remains undefeated.
Silver Lake is buying equity in the new Australian Professional Leagues organisation, one-third to be precise, which means they will get shares of any future profits Australian soccer might generate (!).
It’s not that these deals are automatically bad, it’s that I have very little confidence that the money will be wisely spent. On balance, it’s better to have your investor in-house and sharing the risk but I can’t see how the clubs and the FFA will spend the $140 million in a way that will meaningfully affect the course of professional soccer in this country. Clubs have promised that the money will not be withdrawn or spent on players, but really, come on.
Inevitably, there will be a movement in a few years for La Liga and APL to buy back their equity or buyout their partners and then we will see how badly they have screwed themselves.
In the meantime, a relatively minute spending on marketing would probably go a long way in Australia.
Do you remember Super League? It’s back! In golf form.
I missed this earlier in the year - mostly because it’s about golf - but man it hits a lot of very familiar, resonant beats.
…the Saudi-backed Asian Tour is fully capitalized, has a prominent face in Hall-of-Famer Greg Norman and has a schedule that will attract players worldwide thanks to lavish appearance money and purses.
But even with that formidable resume, many people I talk to suggest that it will take a lot more money, and they can’t see the Saudis pouring millions of dollars into golf for what might take 20-plus years to create any real movement.
The response is a simple one: the Saudi’s are buying legitimacy on the world sport stage, whatever the cost, and they are willing to pay what is required to succeed.
The details are light on. Most seem to suggest that the Saudi money will reformat the Asian Tour, sign up a bunch of top golfers and launder the image of Saudi Arabia.
The larger tension here, between the power of the Saudis’ money to adjust the world‘s view so they’re not international paraiahs and can maintain their kingdom without outside influence, against the ability of (largely European and American) incumbent authorities to resist in order to maintain the status quo and not dirty their hands with blood money, will be repeated ad nauseum across the globe and in different spheres of influence until either the Saudis run out of money or we all just accept it and move on. I’m betting on the latter.
There’s also a Premier Golf League, which seems to be a different thing again.
On top of that, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said PGA Tour defectors would be barred from competing in the biennial Ryder Cup against Europe.
“If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the U.S., they’re going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the Tour,” Waugh said in May. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don’t know that we can be more clear kind of than that. We don’t see that changing.”
Maybe once we have something more concrete and I’ve learned more about pro golf (ugh), I’ll do a deeper dive.
Baseball locked out
I don’t have a super grasp on the nitty-gritty of American baseball labour relations, other than what most people would know: it is extremely fractious with a long history of players (largely successfully) lobbying for greater freedoms in the way they go about their work despite the best efforts of owners (and sometimes the US government).
Defector has a pretty good summary of how we’ve historically arrived here and The Athletic has covered the bickering between which side’s proposals would generate better competitive balance. I’m going to guess that neither proposal would really get to the bottom of tanking and the fact that games go on forever, which if we were to list baseball’s real problems are number one and two7.
The weird thing is that MLB has completely scrubbed any reference to current players from their website and other media. While they are perhaps rightly concerned that they can’t use the name or likeness of players while they are locked out, it is simply a bizarre state of affairs. It has to be fun to turn up to your job at MLB.com each day and turn out meaningless content to satisfy… who exactly?
Some bits to read
Football fans spending millions on club crypto-tokens - You love to see otherwise extremely wealthy organisation bilking fans for even more money for made up bullshit crypto with extremely dubious benefits tacked on to cover for the scam it really is. It’s going well.
I'm not so sure this Coyotes thing is going to work - Interesting to see an American franchise struggle with what look like problems that are normally the preserve of European clubs.
Shooting fed trying to introduce semi-finals to Olympic programme - I actually think the current format works well, as competitors are slowly eliminated in the final and then eaten alive by the pressure, as the women’s 10 metre air pistol demonstrated at the most recent Olympics. There can’t possibly be much more unmet demand for shooting that we need more than we already have? On the other hand, given everything is available via streaming, the impetus may be to maximise the amount of content produced (to minimise the amount of attention spent elsewhere) without increasing the number of athletes or facilities required.
Teqball held its World Championships - Sitting at a nexus of volleyall, soccer and table tennis, I can’t decide if Teqball is actually interesting or just a weird money grab by… someone? Presumably they’re angling for Olympic inclusion at some point. Who knows. It looks slick though.
It finally happened: modern pentathlon, boxing and weightlifting are provisionally out of the Olympics.
Weightlifting and boxing’s problems have been documented and the respective federations have promised to get right on it. The IOC alleges issues with doping, governance and finances and this is the kick up the ass needed to get them to sort their shit out.
Modern pentathlon has been lumped with these two but for different reasons. To quote from the UIPM press release:
President Dr Bach said: “The UIPM must finalise its proposal for the replacement of horse riding and the overall competition format, and demonstrate a significant reduction in cost and complexity and an improvement across the areas of safety, accessibility, universality and appeal for young people and the general public.”
IOC Sport Director Kit McConnell added: “[UIPM] are now going through a process of looking at alternative options that’s framed around making sure the 5th Discipline increases the accessibility to the sport around the world.
The inclusion of quotes from senior Olympic officials8 to me says that the UIPM and IOC are singing from the same song sheet: horse riding is inaccessible, expensive, not a draw and the UIPM has to respond by changing its format to generate a better ROI or it’s gone9.
To the extent that they’ve commented, the athletes have taken the completely opposite reading. The IOC has thrown modern pentathlon out because they haven’t resolved the fifth discipline and that this reflects poorly on the UIPM’s administrative capabilities.
These are the same people who believed denials from random IOC officials that any direction was ever given to the UIPM from the IOC to change the sport. These are the same people who did nothing to stop the current adminstration from being re-elected and did little to stop the congress from passing a motion to end horse riding. They are not smart and they are not paying attention.
In between kicking the tyres on which national federations are real, their side of the debate is slowly shifting to actually meeting the UIPM/IOC on their chosen battleground: how accessible is horse riding really? That equestrian is in the Olympics suggests its fine. A quick glance at the kind of people who ride horses at the elite level suggests another story.
The UIPM has a year to land on a new format before it has to go back to the IOC for approval to be included in the 2028 games (2024 is not in doubt). Once removed, pentathlon will be very unlikely to make a return so this is critical for the UIPM to get right if it is to survive into the 21st century.
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The distribution of tens of millions of dollars is low stakes compared to, say, the outcome of political processes that will decide whether large numbers of people will live or die. As observed many times here, the way those decisions get made are similar and often made by the same calibre of people.
Yes, this would be most of them.
Gut reaction was “that’s a bit shit” but it was a weak one.
Perhaps even stretching as far as back 2008 when a much younger Lewis Hamilton won his first title with about four turns left in the Brazilian grand prix when Timo Glock’s car failed, elevating Hamilton a position and seeing off Felipe Massa. Perhaps the powers-that-be would’ve preferred a dramatic and more sporting ending of this nature but I doubt it would have had the same resonance because it lacked someone or someones to get angry at.
Partly because there’s only so much complaining one wants to hear from the multi-millionaires on the grid and on the pit wall.
This may be because Pourchaire ruled himself out of the title fight on the first lap of the final race, leaving Piaistri a relatively unchallenging path to the championship.
Problem zero is freefalling attendances with no end in sight.
And that former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch is a vice president of the UIPM…
Come on down, cricket.