Athletics: The hard sell and hard-to-sell

Norman Fox examines a sport with unrealistic expectations; A game called sponsorship: As track and field fights falling interest, basketball welcomes the masters of marketing
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THE International Amateur Athletic Federation's luxurious headquarters are in Monte Carlo. Where else could their rich, autocratic Italian president, Primo Nebiolo, feel at home, apart from Rome? Under his supervision the sport continues to give the impression of being supremely confident that it will never want for money. But then Monte Carlo is not the ideal place from which to view the real world in which athletics is suffering from declining interest and falling income from sponsorship.

It had to be in Monte Carlo, where Nebiolo announced that prize money at next year's Grand Prix final in Milan would be increased by $1m to $3.4m [pounds 2.2m]. Then last week in Paris he said that there would be two more grand prix events, in Tokyo and Moscow. It was as if he had ignored the fact that Mobil, which had sponsored the circuit since it started 10 years ago, was no longer going to be involved and that no other sponsor had come along. "At the moment we don't know where the money is coming from," an IAAF spokesman said, though tough negotiations with Mercedes and Nokia are understood to be continuing. The IAAF has also so far failed to reach agreement with the European Broadcasting Union for a contract after the present one expires next year.

Parting with the grand prix circuit was, as Mobil's vice-president, Jack Mann, recalls, a messy business. He insists that his company would have been happy to stay in the sport but Nebiolo had asked them to triple their commitment of$2.24m a year. The clear impression Mobil gave was that athletics was deluding itself, demanding more money when the product was becoming repetitious.

Professor Peter Radford, executive chairman of the British Athletic Federation, is accused of not living in the real world, but he is realistic enough to know that the sport is drifting downwards financially, and though the BAF has a diligent promotions man in Ian Stewart, the job is infinitely harder than it was when Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett attracted full houses and the sport was not haunted by controversy.

Over the past year athletics in Britain has lost at least pounds 370,000 (the official figure has not been announced) and loyal sponsors have disappeared. Although the sport has done well to ensure that all the major events have sponsors until the end of next season, the amount the current principal backers, Bupa, McDonald's and KP, are putting in is not as much as the sponsors of a year ago. Athletics in Britain is suffering the long-term consequences of having set up six international outdoor and three indoor events each season on the basis of having made about pounds 11m out of a rush of sponsorship interest that followed the 1984 Olympic Games. The cost of putting on those events has greatly increased while income has fallen.

Getting sponsorship for international athletics is difficult enough but lower down the task is worse. The longest-serving of the British backers, Guardian Insurance, last month bowed to the wishes of a new marketing manager and announced that they were to alter the thrust of their promotional work and were not intending to renew their sponsorship of the British League after 1996. That gives the League time to find a replacement but it will not be easy, since television coverage of the grass roots of the sport is minimal and is likely to remain so.

One of the problems is that most of the major companies associated with athletics, including shoe and kit manufacturers, prefer to link themselves with individuals (Linford Christie, for instance, is said to receive sponsorship worth pounds 500,000 a year from Puma). There is a growing reluctance to pour money into a sport that this summer has not once managed even to half-fill a British stadium and received more publicity over the Diane Modahl drugs case than the achievements of its top performers. And with television threatening to pull out after having to show meetings without the stars, potential sponsors are looking carefully at value for money.

Events with some special televisual appeal, like the London Marathon, have slightly less trouble. The last major sponsorship deal for British track and field was a pounds 1m investment by McDonald's in 1993. Significantly it was set up by the deposed former promotions officer, Andy Norman, who was, and remains, on good terms with Nebiolo. Two years later the sport is pleading with the government to change the rules of the National Lottery, which only provides for capital projects, to give pounds 10m to prepare for the possible hosting of the world championships in 2001.

Unless British athletics is seen to stop squabbling, leading athletes stop making unrealistic financial demands and the federation becomes less remote, there is little chance of receiving lottery money. And without that, declining sponsorship is not going to cover the costs of running a sport that runs away with more money than it receives.