June 28, 2006

Following the Money, 2006

More than a year ago I wrote a series of posts titled "Following the Money" that examined the breakdown of Sport Canada's overall contributions to all recipients, and the percentages allocated to Olympic sports. I went looking for the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 numbers on the Sport Canada website so that I could update the charts I did then.

Regular readers and people who work in the Canadian sport system will know that Canada's sport funding partners have recently made a change in their funding strategy. The old strategy, sometimes described as "a mile wide and an inch deep," was to distribute funds to a large number of sports in more or less equal measure. The "inch deep" part of that metaphor comes from the recognition that the total number of dollars available is fairly small, so a wide distribution means less for everybody — and perhaps not enough for anybody.

The new strategy adopted by Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee is intended to target funds where they will give the most benefit and are being best used. For high-performance funding, that means giving more money to sports with a high probability of future Olympic success. A few weeks ago I wrote about the Canadian Sport Review Panel's allocations for summer sport high-performance funding and assessed how the highest-ranked sports have done. Here I want to take a look at funding in the broader picture and take a look at the new strategy in the context of the past decade.

Figure 1

Figure 1 — Sport Canada funding contributions, 1995-2005 (click to enlarge).

Figure 1 (inset) shows the updated chart of Sport Canada contributions, divided into more or less the same categories as last time. I made a few minor adjustments; for example, I made Olympic and Paralympic sports into a single category. For the most part, that's because it's actually not easy to separate them. National Sport Federations (NSFs) like Athletics Canada get funding for Olympic and Paralympic programs, but the Sport Canada summaries just provide totals.

The first conclusion we can draw is that the Sport Canada budget has seen a strong increase — about 160% — over the past decade. Aside from the International Events category, which tends to wax and wane depending on which events Canada is hosting in any given year, every category has seen a steady increase. The Olympic/Paralympic Sports category represents the total funding given to NSFs for Olympic and Paralympic sports, plus a few multi-sport organiations (MSOs) dedicated to high-performance sport, such as the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee. That amount has increased from $21M to $51M since 1995-96. The contribution to the Athlete Assistance Program, which goes directly into the hands of national team athletes, has similarly increased from $10M to $20M.

That's all very good news for Canada's elite athletes, and for sport in general.

Figure 2

Figure 1: Distribution of Olympic sport funding, 1995-2005

Figure 2 — Sport Canada funding distribution for Olympic and Paralympic sports, 1995-2005 (click to enlarge).

Figure 2 (inset) shows more detail about the Olympic/Paralympic Sports category, and the results were somewhat surprising to me.

Here the plot shows the distribution of funds to Olympic and Paralympic sport organizations. Each bar shows the Sport Canada contribution as a percentage of the total in the Olympic/Paralympic Sport category each year. (Recall that the total has increased from $21M in 1995-96 to $51M in 2004-05.) What this should show us, then, is whether any recipient or group of recipients has been recieving a bigger or smaller piece of the (growing) pie.

I've identified specifically a small number of NSFs for summer and winter sports in the chart. For summer sports, I singled out the NSFs responsible for the twelve top-ranked CSRP sports on my previous report card. Remember that these eleven NSFs fielded teams that won eleven of Canada's 12 medals in Athens, and the CSRP is predicting that they will be responsible for 17 of 20 medals in Beijing. For winter sports, I have broken out the four NSFs responsible for the Own the Podium program's top-priority sports.

The surprising results show that these "have" sports have not significantly changed their share of the total contribution. The eleven summer sports in question took in 33.1% of the total Olympic/Paralympic funding in 1995-96, and 35.6% in 2004-2005. The high point of 36.8%, curiously, was 2000-01, which also saw a big increase in the total funding. The top four winter sport NSFs saw 14.2% of the total in 1995-96, and 14.5% in 2004-05. The highest percentage (16.0%) was allocated in 1997-98.

There has been a slight shift towards winter sports overall of about 2%, with the decrease coming out of summer sports.

So what does this all mean? Is targeted funding just a myth?

Well, maybe. There are a couple of confounding factors here. The first is that several of these "high-priority" NSFs have somewhat split personalities. For example, Canoe Kayak Canada gets funding for sprint canoe-kayak, which is a CSRP 1A sport, and for slalom canoe-kayak, which is in category 4. The Sport Canada contribution represents the total for everything, so an increase in sprint funding might be masked by a decrease in slalom funding.

A more fundamental difficulty with these numbers is that they represent contributions for domestic programs, including grass roots development, and not just for high performance sport. In many cases the high-performance budget dwarfs other contributions, but in other cases it does not.

However, the results still surprised me. I expected to see the top-priority sports taking a bigger share of the pie over the last two funding cycles. I think what we're seeing here is the fact that Sport Canada has mostly avoided having to make the tough decisions because of the overall increase in its budget. When there's more money to go around, they can increase budgets for the high-priority sports without having to make a lot of painful cuts elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how the targeting strategy plays out when budgets start shrinking again.

June 23, 2006

Happy Olympic Day!

This week at the IOC Executive Meeting, there was no announcement about the scheduling of swimming finals at the 2008 Olympics. Or rather, there was an announcement that the decision will be delayed for two months.

The IOC also signed a new agreement with the International Paralympic Committee. The agreement runs through 2016 and ensures that the Paralympics will continue to be held in the same host city as the Olympics, as they have been since 1988. The IOC also approved substantial increases in funding for the Paralympics in 2014 and 2016.

The big news of the week was that the list of candidate cities for the 2014 Winter Olympics has been shortened to three.

Salzburg, Austria, Sochi, Russia, and Pyeongchang, South Korea have been selected from the field of seven to complete a full Candidature File and host an evaluation visit.

Geography — physical geography — plays a big role in the Winter Olympics, so the selection of the right location is pretty important. Looking at the Report by the IOC Candidature Acceptance Working Group (PDF, or get a PDF of the conclusions only), it seems pretty clear that the Executive made the right choice.

As long as I'm talking about bidding again, the USOC is working on the selection of its candidate city for 2016, entertaining five pitches from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia.

I've got an early prediction on this one, by the way, if you're interested. The US candidate is a near lock for 2016, as long as the USOC doesn't make a stupid choice. This is primarily a function of geography — political geography. The Europeans will be shut out, since London has 2012, and the Americans haven't hosted the Summer Olympics since 1996.

There's one wild card in this prediction, and that's South Africa. Although Durban has not formally decided to bid, I think that might make for an interesting race. Durban will have some facilities in place because of the 2010 World Cup, and there is building political momentum behind a first-ever African hosted Olympics. Rogge himself has encouraged African countries to bid. The president of the South African NOC, Sam Ramsamy, hails from Durban, and is a member of the IOC Executive — a privilege that no American currently holds.

June 18, 2006

The Times of Finals

There's an international uproar brewing over the schedule of events in Beijing in 2008. You may have read about it at Timed Finals, where Scott Goldblatt has been doing an excellent job following the story and laying out the issues.

The outline of the story is this: NBC has suggested that the finals in swimming (and perhaps a number of other high-profile events) should be rescheduled from late afternoon to early morning. That would mean that they could be broadcast live in United States primetime, meaning a bigger audience and more advertising revenue for NBC.

As Scott also reported, a few Australian sources are today stating that this is a done deal — the IOC is "set to announce" that the swimming schedule in Beijing will be modified in accordance with NBC's request.

My prediction is that this announcement will not materialize, at least not for a week or so. That's because the IOC Executive Board meeting doesn't start until Wednesday, and concludes on Friday. It's possible that the Board has made a decision already, or that sources inside the IOC already know how it's going to turn out, but the stories I have read are not all that convincing. My guess is that the decision has not yet been made, and statements to the contrary are just speculation fueled by outrage at the possibility.

But let's back up a few steps. First of all, who really has jurisdiction over the scheduling of competitions? The Olympic Charter, Rule 49, deals with the Technical responsibilities of the IFs [International Federations] at the Olympic Games:

1. Each IF is responsible for the technical control and direction of its sport at the Olympic Games; all elements of the competitions, including the schedule, field of play, training sites and all equipment must comply with its rules. For all these technical arrangements, the OCOG [local organizing committee] must consult the relevant IFs. The holding of all events in each sport is placed under the direct responsibility of the IF concerned.

2. The OCOG must ensure that the various Olympic sports are treated and integrated equitably.

3. As to the schedule and daily timetable of events, the final decision lies with the IOC Executive Board.

Rule 49 starts out giving all responsibility for the technical arrangements to the IF (meaning FINA, in this case). Of course, it makes a lot of sense to let FINA set the competition schedule, since their resident technical committees have much more sport-specific expertise than BOCOG or the IOC. On top of that, though, somebody has to be responsible for rationalizing the schedules for all the sports — allocating days to sports, avoiding venue conflicts, and even making minor schedule adjustments to ensure that concurrent finals are avoided as much as possible. My reading of the intent of Rule 49 is that this is the responsibility given to the IOC Executive; not overhauling the daily schedule, but making sure that the swimming schedule as defined by FINA fits within the overall Games programme.

However, the letter of Rule 49 clearly gives the Executive the power to modify the FINA-sanctioned competition schedule as dramatically as they want to, and for any reason they choose, even if that modification has a significant impact on the athletic competition.

I don't really have an opinion on whether swimming a final in the morning is better or worse than swimming a final in the afternoon, or whether it gives anybody a particular advantage. I'll defer to Scott and the other experts on that question. However, there is no doubt that this change will have an impact on the competition.

In many Olympic swimming events, athletes have to compete in event finals on the same day as heats or semi-finals. Rescheduling finals to the morning, therefore, means reshuffling an already-crowded schedule, and will lead to new and unanticipated conflicts. Some swimmers who compete in multiple events will now be faced with the prospect of racing a flat-out personal best in the morning — and then turning around to race in qualifying heats later that same day. This is not a big issue for the superstars, who cruise through the advancement anyway, but will have an effect on athletes who need their best performances just to reach the finals.

At any rate, I am not qualified to decide whether racing finals in the morning instead of the afternoon is a good thing or not — but the IOC Executive members are not qualified, either, and certainly NBC Sports executives are not. I agree with Scott and most of the people who are covering this story that modifying the competition schedule to suit NBC is a bad idea.

Of course NBC has a lot of influence with the IOC, and there is no getting around that. The US television broadcasters pay enormous sums to the IOC for the rights to broadcast the Olympic games. NBC paid more than $3.5 billion for the rights to the 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008 games; they added another $2 billion for 2010 and 2012. That's somewhere between half and two-thirds of the money that the IOC takes in for TV and multimedia rights. It's not surprising that NBC's opinions and requests carry a great deal of weight with the IOC.

NBC might also have a legitimate feeling that they overpaid for the 2008 contract. An oddity of the bid process, as I pointed out before, is that the IOC tenders the Olympic broadcast rights before the bidders know the identity of the host city. NBC signed the contract for the 2008 games sometime in 1998. Beijing was not selected as host city until 2001. The heads of NBC Sports know that the Beijing Olympics will not be as lucrative as, say, a Toronto Olympics, because the time differences will mean a lot of tape-delayed broadcasts. I don't think it's surprising or unethical that they are trying to use their financial power to make the best (for them) of a bad situation.

It's interesting, though, to ask yourself this: why does the IOC sell television rights before selecting a host city? This article proposes one answer:

Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president who advised the IOC on this year's rights deals, says that … "The decision [on the host city] is made on the merits, not based on U.S. television interests. … The reason why bidding took place before the selections was to take that factor (US television money) out of the games selection process."

In other words, the IOC doesn't want the IOC delegates selecting the host city to be swayed by the potential impact on broadcast revenue. They get NBC to sign on the dotted line first, and then ask the delegates to select the host city "on the merits."

That's all very noble and everything, and if I believed that the host city election was an important IOC function with some kind of integrity that needed protecting, then I guess it would be a good idea to keep NBC out of it.

It turns out that I don't believe any such thing. But putting my own views aside for now, let's think about the logic of this situation. In order to limit NBC's influence on the host city election, the IOC forces them to bid on the 2008 Olympics without knowing where they will be held. Then the IOC chooses Beijing, which has the completely predictable outcome of making NBC unhappy. So to make NBC slightly less unhappy, they're willing to allow some influence on the schedule of the competition.

So in other words, although it would be wrong to let NBC influence the selection of the host city, it's OK to let NBC influence the sporting competition itself.

Does that seem backwards to anybody else?

June 14, 2006

UltraAmateur Sport

A few months ago I agreed to become a member of the organizing committee for the Medavie Blue Cross Canoe Challenge. The Canoe Challenge is a charity event that has raised over a million dollars (Canadian) for the IWK Health Centre Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Atlantic.

The Canoe Challenge is an interesting example of a very popular kind of event, the sport-based charity fund raiser. The basic structure of the sport-based charity fund raiser is as follows. Individuals or teams sign up for a sporting event in support of a good cause. They go out to their communities looking for sponsorship. They bring their sponsorship money to the sporting event. They "compete" against other individuals or teams. There are token prizes for winning the competition, and more substantial incentives for raising the most money.

If you're trying to raise money this way, it's good to round up as many participants as you can possibly squeeze in. As a rule, charity events are based on sports that are either very popular among adults, or relatively simple to master. No, scratch that. The sport doesn't need to be mastered; in fact, being an expert is really contrary to the basic spirit of the event. The sport does have to be simple to pick up, though. Ideally, most people can do it without any serious preparation. Slow-pitch softball, volleyball, dragon boat racing … these are all good candidates for a charity sporting event.

War Canoe racing at the Canadian national (club) championships

And that's what makes the Canoe Challenge an interesting example: paddling in a war canoe is actually quite difficult. Most adults trying it for the first time are extremely uncomfortable, and the chance of capsizing is fairly high. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, here's a picture of war canoe done well (this was not taken at the Canoe Challenge).

There are fourteen paddlers, plus a coxswain, in a boat. The paddlers kneel on one knee and use large paddles to generate a great deal of power. When the boat is full, there isn't much room to move. The boats are not particularly streamlined, but much more so than a dragon boat or a typical recreational canoe. They are also relatively fragile. The event is raced almost exclusively in Canada, over 500 or 1000 m, which takes approximately two or four minutes. The boats themselves are loosely derived from the War Canoe of the North American First Nations.

The War Canoe is so difficult, in fact, that the Dartmouth event is (to my knowledge) the only charity war canoe race held anywhere in the world. Lake Banook is the logical host site for this unique event; the lake is home to three competitive flatwater canoe clubs, and the Halifax regional municipality contains five more. The relationship between the Canoe Challenge and these supporting sport organizations is another interesting aspect of the event. Due to the technical nature of the sport, the organizers lean heavily on the canoe clubs for equipment and expertise. The clubs derive a small financial benefit from their involvement, but on balance they feel that their contributions are not fully recognized. One symptom of the divide between the two groups is evident in the name of the event — Medavie Blue Cross has quietly rebranded the 2006 version as the Canoe Challenge, dropping the unfriendly-sounding "War" that identifies the type of boat.

This year's (War) Canoe Challenge was held on Saturday in miserable weather. Each team was entitled to two practices in the weeks leading up to the event. Only about two-thirds of the teams availed themselves of the opportunity, meaning that ten crews showed up on Saturday having never been in the boat. For the challenge, the crews were limited to twelve paddlers, and the coxswains — who need very specialized skills — were provided by the organizers. Each team races twice over 200 m, with the top teams by aggregate time advancing to a final.

As the organizer of the sporting competition central to the event, I would give it a "B" grade. After a slow start, the races ran roughly as scheduled. About half a dozen crews capsized, but nobody got hurt. About the same number of crews declined to participate in their second race, although that number would have been lower if the weather had been more pleasant. I think the competitors mostly enjoyed themselves, in spite of the conditions. The equipment made it through mostly unscathed.

I also introduced a few new ideas, which I think were quite successful. One of those involved Olympians Canada. Five representatives of the Most Exclusive Club in the Nation participated as honorary coaches for the five teams that raised the most money. I think that this really added something unique to the event. The Olympians threw themselves into their roles with great relish and became enthusiastic members of their assigned teams. Well, four of them did, anyway — I had too much on my plate to really do a good job in my coaching role.

The teams raised $116,000 for the two beneficiaries.

June 04, 2006

More Wishful Thinking and Free Publicity

Last week there was another one of those stories that pop up from time to time, the ones that claim "sport X wants to be in the Olympic Games!" Of course sport X is a pastime that may or may not even be a sport, which means that the story gets quickly propagated as an "odd news" bit and gets a bunch of free publicity as a result. The last one I saw was poker.

Last week's version has it that gaming (video gaming) is "pushing" for "Olympic recognition." I know I am only fueling this ridiculous story by publishing the link, but I can't help myself.

[Ted] Owen, who runs the Global Gaming League (GGL), a media company focused on the lifestyle and culture of gaming, is currently talking with the Chinese government in hopes of bringing competitive video gaming to the 2008 Games as a demonstration sport. … Owen, though, said he believes gaming's worldwide appeal - especially to a younger audience - could be the biggest boost to the Games since snowboarding. "People aren't watching [the Olympics] as much anymore," he argued. "You need to bring younger viewers back if you want to keep making money. To do that, you need to embrace non-traditional sports. They did it with snowboarding — and look how the popularity of that has surged in the Games. Video games deserve to be seen as a non-traditional sport. … They would bring something to the Games that [that age group] engages in and everyone understands."

There are so many things wrong with this whole thesis that I don't know where to start. I think I'll just stick to the administrative impossibilities:

  • The official sports for 2008 are cast in stone at this point. The programme for 2012 was selected last summer. You may remember that. There was quite a lot of publicity about it.
  • Ted Owen thinks that "The only reason they [the IOC] haven't done an exhibition sport in the past several years is no one has brought a good one to them." He is incorrect. The IOC placed a moratorium on demonstration sports at the winter or summer Olympics starting in 1996. There will not be any demonstration sports in 2008.
  • The GGL is not recognized as an international federation (IF) by the IOC and therefore has no standing (unlike other Olympic outsiders like DanceSport, Mountaineering and Climbing, and Wushu). Getting recognized is not trivial — among other things, the GGL would be required to "apply the Olympic Movement Anti-Doping Code and conduct effective out-of-competition tests." I'm not trying to cast any aspersions on gamers here, I just don't really think that the GGL has thought carefully about all of the burdens that go along with being on the inside of the Olympic movement.

I try not to get into discussions of whether "sport X" is or is not a sport, or "deserves" to be in the Olympics. Most people who do so end up making idiots of themselves rather quickly. Here's Exhibit A. Jason includes a list of sports that have "as little or less merit as being regarded as official sports." I assume he means that they deserve to be in the Olympics even less than gaming. I personally don't buy that argument for even one of the sports (actually disciplines or events, in some cases) on his list. But regardless, if you want to get your sport into the Olympics, surely you've got to have a more compelling argument than that.