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David Owen: Transformed bidding climate gives Garcia report the air of a relic

FIFA shadows

From the vantage-point of today, the Garcia report has something of the air of the Dead Sea Scrolls – an important relic offering vital clues about how life was lived in a bygone era.

The 400-plus-page document was finally published by world football governing body FIFA on Tuesday after it was leaked to Bild, the German newspaper.

It was written just three years ago; yet so much has changed in the realm of sports mega-event bidding since then that already it seems a period piece, as much of its time as bell-bottom jeans or prog rock.

How outlandish to think, for example, that nine bidders (or 10 if you include Indonesia), among them some of the most powerful nations on earth, would fight like snakes in a sack to get their hands on hosting rights for an international sports competition.

Nowadays, property owners are lucky if they can inject any element of competition at all. Indeed, it almost seems that they no longer want to; FIFA has made the World Cup so big as to make you think that only the largest and/or wealthiest countries and/or clusters of countries could even contemplate holding it. The 2026 World Cup is nearly a decade away, yet already it seems almost certain to be staged by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The report’s datedness is also underlined by the fact that the body whose members it chiefly scrutinises – the FIFA Executive Committee – no longer exists; it has since been rebranded and expanded. Moreover, its replacement – the FIFA Council – is no longer the body that will decide where future World Cups will be staged; this responsibility now falls to the 200-plus member associations making up the FIFA Congress.

It is interesting in this context to note how opposed to this change top 2022 United States bid officials appeared to be when asked about possible reforms to the bidding process. Bid chairman and now FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati is reported to have suggested “not to expand the decision on the hosting of the FIFA World Cup to 209 member associations, since this would make monitoring for compliance almost impossible.

“Furthermore, this would also make it impossible to comply with the “no visit” rule Prof. Gulati suggested, given the number of friendly games and qualifying games being played and also considering visits of FIFA ExCo members to these countries for private purposes.”

As that statement implies, Gulati is also said to have urged “no visits by FIFA ExCo members or voting persons to participating countries, same as implemented by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) 15 years ago”.

Similarly, David Downs, the US bid’s executive director, suggested “no submission of the vote to the entire Congress. If the ethical conduct of 25 voting persons cannot be sufficiently monitored and controlled, Mr Downs suggested that this will be even more difficult with 209 voters”

Finally, of course, we all now understand – don’t we? – how it was the height of folly to decide to award hosting rights for two consecutive competitions at the same time, albeit for what I have always taken to be respectable commercial reasons.

Oh.

In fairness to the IOC – whose Executive Board recently took what it called the “principle decision” to propose awarding the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics at the same time – it only did this after the field had dwindled to two, so the circumstances are very different. In that sense, the move seems more akin to something I alluded to above: that apparent desire by today’s property owners to drain the event-allocation process of whatever vestigial element of competition that remains in today’s anaemic market for mega-event hosts.

Of course, while the realities of event bidding have changed dramatically in recent years, there are ways in which FIFA is likely to suffer from the shortcomings of the 2018-2022 competition for some time to come. Reputational damage is one obvious consequence, while the report offers interesting detail on how the eventual decision to switch the 2022 World Cup away from the searing Gulf summer will probably lead, four years later, to lower TV revenues than might otherwise have been expected from what now looks set to be the main home market for the 2026 competition, the USA.

The report cites minutes from FIFA ExCo meetings in March 2014. These state: “The [former] secretary general [Jérôme Valcke] informed the members that FIFA’s commercial partners did not have any major issues with the potential rescheduling of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and had not asked to renegotiate the current agreements. The TV partners in the USA and Canada did have some issues, as in the USA there would be a clash with the American football season, for which reason it had been agreed to extend the contract with FOX in exchange for an undertaking not to act against FIFA should the 2022 World Cup be moved to winter.”

The report continues:

“The minutes state that the Executive Committee then approved an ‘extension of USA English-language media rights agreement with FOX for 2023-2026’.

“Secretary general Valcke told the Investigatory Chamber that in exchange for FOX’s willingness to accept a potential rescheduling of the World Cup, “we agreed that we will extend with FOX for the same price as what they pay for 2022 plus inflation costs”.

“As a result, secretary general Valcke acknowledged, by rescheduling the World Cup “potentially we are losing money and we are making less money because we are not running an open process in the US market, giving a chance to other channels to bid for and we just extend with FOX for the same amount of money”.”

Given that the 2026 tournament will now consist of 80 matches, rather than 64, one feels entitled to wonder whether the agreed extension provides for the same price as 2022 per match, or the same price period.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938.