Jumping into controversy

Disagreement over television rights threatens to split the equestrian world. Genevieve Murphy reports
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No signs of disharmony were apparent in the arena at Gothenburg, where Nick Skelton gave a marvellous performance to win the Volvo World Cup final on Everest Dollar Girl. Behind the scenes, however, it was a different story.

An ever-growing group of people are now fuming at the sale of television rights by the sport's international governing body, the FEI, and its marketing consultants, World Equestrian Promotions. As well as the worrying threat of Volvo withdrawing its annual £3.5m sponsorship, there has now come a virtual ultimatum from the organisers of World Cup contests, who find the present situation intolerable.

It is hard to believe that the FEI could have been so blinkered that they failed to anticipate these ramifications in January, when they sold the rights for all major equestrian championships to a German commercial channel, DSF. All the established arrangements were thereby thrown out of the window.

The story became even more ludicrous when Volvo thought that they had bought back the television rights for their own contests, only to find that they were still owned by DSF. These rights had been sold twice, leaving Volvo and DSF feeling that they have both been, at best, badly misled. The two companies are now united in their hostility towards the FEI and its marketing consultants. There is serious talk of litigation.

The organisers of World Cup contests (including some of the qualifying tournaments) stepped into the fray at the weekend, when they had a meeting with the four members of the FEI Bureau who were present in Gothenburg.

A press release was issued on Monday, after the organisers had expressed their grievances to the Bureau members present: Franz Pranter of Austria, William Steinkraus of the United States, Peter Cronau of Germany, and Spain's Jos Alvarez de Bohorques.

According to the press release, which was signed by Jacinte Giscard d'Estaing, who runs the Paris Horse Show, they had told the Bureau members "that the organisers cannot organise any finals under the present television conditions, which do not satisfy the sponsors." They are looking for nothing less than the re-establishment of the status quo.

The problems are not confined to World Cup contests. Those responsible for the European Show Jumping Championships, to be held at St Gallen in Switzerland in September, are expected to join the battle shortly.

Until the goalposts were moved, the St Gallen organisers could have counted on Swiss television to transmit the championships free of charge. A rights fee would have been paid to the FEI and, under reciprocal arrangements with the BBC and other networks, it would have been offered to a number of additional countries.

The Swiss network has since learnt that it will have to pay £175,000 to DSF for television rights. They have retaliated by saying that they will charge DSF a substantial fee for producing the necessary signal.

If these negotiations end in stalemate - and the championships are therefore not shown on television - there will be a furious response from St Gallen's main sponsors: Mercedes, Swiss Credit Bank and Zurich Insurance. It would also be a serious loss to the equestrian world.

So the hierarchy of the FEI needs to find a solution to these problems with some urgency. If they fail, the reverberations will be felt in every corner of the sport. Volvo, who are by far and away the biggest sponsors, would be impossible to replace - especially if the whole sorry story ends in acrimonious litigation.

Etienne Allard, the secretary general of the FEI, could not be contacted over the Easter weekend. Let us hope that he was preparing a way to dig the federation out of its present hole.