Our guest on this episode of the Fair & Square podcast is Ed Warner, sports leader, writer of Sport inc. a book and now a weekly Substack blog as well as a regular columnist in The Times newspaper. Ed is also chair of leading FX exchange LMAX and two investment companies while his previous roles included chair at Grant Thornton UK, Air Partner and Panmure Gordon.
As former chair, for more than a decade, of UK Athletics and separately World Para Athletics, and current chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby, Ed speaks to our host Adam Batstone about the role of money in the world of sport. The wide ranging discussion touches on topics from governance to disabled sport, women’s sport and innovation and the pressure which leads some athletes to dope.
Ed highlights that while there are many sports played worldwide it is football and the Olympics which are the clear global giants in commercial terms.
‘When you go into the marketplace to find sponsors, backers, anyone prepared to put money into the sport you’re operating in a completely different league if you are not top end football or the Olympics,’ he says.
In terms of putting money into sport the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia have recently grabbed the headlines and Ed believes they are here for the long haul and the move is more to do with diversification than sportswashing and reputation management.
He thinks in the next 20 to 30 years the football world cup and the Olympics could both be hosted by Saudi Arabia and suggests they might also seek to back niche sports such as giving a platform to disability sports, disability rights and disability awareness to create a potential force for reputational change.
Effective sports administration is crucial for any sport to flourish and Ed suggests there is often a collision between professional staffers and those who sit above them on boards and govern them. He described himself as an enthusiastic amateur when he joined UK Athletics as chair in 2007 and he learned on the job with no one to teach him and he doesn’t think that situation across many sports has changed which can mean unstable and unproductive boards for a professional executive to manage.
Ed thinks broadcasters have an important role in promoting sport, but, with a few exceptions – such as Barry and Eddie Hearn championing sports from snooker to fly fishing and darts – broadcasters will always rather buy rights for sports with strong existing followings – such as cricket – rather than build an audience almost from scratch.
Ed mentions the England and Wales Cricket Board working with television to develop The Hundred family-oriented format as one interesting development and said at wheelchair rugby they were always looking at ways to collaborate to make an event attractive to those in an arena and on television.
Ed’s book has the subtitle ‘Why money is the winner in the business of sport’, and Ed tells Adam that sportspeople who cannot get funding may feel pressure to seek other ways to try and achieve their goals, such as doping.
‘I have never had sympathy for those that get caught cheating, however I can be sympathetic with understanding how they got to that position.’
Ed concludes by highlighting that sport has the ability to provide inspiration to young people to be active leading to a healthier nation and reducing the cost of the NHS. But he thinks it is important to find the balance of funding elite athletes to provide that inspiration and spending on grassroots sport to ensure there are opportunities for everyone to participate.
‘If you said to me I have a pound to spend on grassroots and a pound to spend on the next Mo Farah I will spend it on grassroots. Because the next Farah, if he is that good, will find a sponsor but if that pound for grassroots isn’t found there will be no outdoor gym in that deprived neighbourhood,’ he says.