Members of Rzeszow’s political elite and the European Volleyball Federation (CEV) were some of the high-profile guests attending an illustrious press-conference organised in the Polish city’s Town Hall less than two weeks ago.
What was interesting about the meeting was that it was exclusively dedicated to the local volleyball club Asseco Resovia and its main priority for the season – the CEV Men’s Champions League. Club owners, coaches, players and even the deputy mayor all revealed their desire and ambition to leave a mark in the competition. But most importantly, this meeting supported the rumours that Rzeszow is interested in organising the Final Four of the League’s 2014-2015 edition. The rumours were additionally fuelled by statements such as the one by the club’s Vice-Chairman Bartosz Gorski who indicated that reaching the Final Four will be Resovia’s ultimate goal.
Having qualified for the Final Six last year, Resovia is, if not one of the favourites, then at least a team very likely to reach the competition’s penultimate stage. Therefore, from that perspective Resovia deserves to be in the Final Four. What raises questions, however, is that if given the green light Poland will be hosting the event for the fourth time in the past eight years. The case with Poland is not an isolated one – it is part of a bigger concern that the geography of the potential Final Four hosts is very narrow and CEV is not giving other countries any opportunities to become hosts. In fact, only six nations have hosted the Final Four since 2002 and only three of the last thirteen editions took place outside Poland, Russia or Italy. Then, one might ask, why is the governing body for volleyball in Europe favouring the three powerhouses to such an extent and why is it not giving any Final Fours to the others?
In reality, CEV is faced with two options: either to 1) award the Final Four to a country/club with a sufficient fan base, proven abilities and a good reputation for organising volleyball events in an economically viable way; or to 2) let a new-to-volleyball country host the event, aiming to popularise the sport, widen the game’s geography and invest in the development of a larger fan base. Each alternative has its advantages and disadvantages but to even attempt to compare the two policies, we need to get familiarized with CEV’s official procedures for determining the Final Four host.
Clause 1.4 of CEV’s Champions League Competition Official Regulations document states that:
“Any National Federation (with or without team(s) participating) interested in organising a Final Four for men or women shall apply in written to CEV…
The respective organiser of the FINAL FOUR tournament may be:
a) a ‘neutral’ organiser, i.e. a National Federation having no team in the competition respectively where the results of its teams are irrelevant for the decision to organise the FINAL FOUR. In this case, the organiser will be determined before the Drawing of Lots for the League Round.
b) a National Federation with a team participating in the competition. In this case the team is directly qualified after the LEAGUE ROUND…
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The organisers in case of option b) will be determined and announced only after the end of the LEAGUE ROUND…
Only teams qualified for the playoffs can be retained as organisers of the FINAL FOUR tournament.”
This extract contains a couple of key points. Firstly, the event can indeed be organised in a country without a club involved in the competition. The only such case in the past years was during the 2008/2009 season when the Final Four was in Prague. We will not have a ‘neutral’ organiser this year because otherwise it would have already been announced. Furthermore, the excerpt from the official regulations makes it clear that the only countries that cannot host a Final Four are the ones who have teams in the competition, none of which are qualified for the Playoffs. This often rules out important potential organisers such as Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, etc. But the most important point from this passage is that National Federations must apply to CEV themselves, i.e. the initiative is on behalf of the various national governing bodies and not on behalf of CEV. Especially if there is little or no interest in organising the Final Four, CEV has very few options; and in some years there may possibly be only one application and CEV would have no choice but to award the organisation to the sole applicants. Which maybe also explains why in the women’s competition two cities have taken turns organising the Final Four in the last 4 years.
But let’s assume CEV can somehow successfully ‘encourage’ neutral countries to submit an application or that the official regulations can be changed so that clubs can organise the Final Four regardless of their standings in the group stage. Then what is the feasibility of awarding hosting rights for the Final Four to a relatively ‘non-volleyball’ country? Is the belief that such an event will serve as a catalyst for the popularisation of the sport in a country realistic? The advocates of this view point out as CEV’s weakness that volleyball is not advertised enough in the most attractive markets in Europe – namely, the continent’s biggest economies: the United Kingdom, Germany and France. They say it is no coincidence that the sports with the largest media presence globally (e.g., association football, tennis, swimming, athletics) are very popular in all three countries.
In the UK for example, there is no professional volleyball league and the sport has no media exposure whatsoever. This means that Volleyball England needs to invest a lot of money in popularising the sport. However, they can get money only if they meet the targets set by Sport England – or essentially, they have to start winning Olympic medals or significantly increase the rates of participation. Such an impasse can be solved when another factor breaks the deadlock. Such factor can be the ever increasing immigration from Eastern Europe and Asia that brings people who love and play volleyball. However, without the power of the media, immigration by itself cannot change the popularity levels of the sport. Another factor may indeed be a potential hosting of a major volleyball event, which according to those pro-popularisation is the only way forward.
But before implementing such a policy, national federations need to ask themselves two questions: 1) can such a one-off event deliver the expected outcomes; and 2) is it rational or even possible from an economical perspective to organise such an event. The first question can be answered when analysing the effect of the London 2012 final between Russia and Brazil. It was the biggest volleyball event ever broadcasted in the country and it had only a marginal impact on participation rates (viewership rates are not even considered as the only possibility to watch volleyball games is through online streams). The current shape of the market in the sports industries hints that the answer to the second question is also a ‘no’. Nowadays, the largest part of the revenue generated from sporting events and competitions comes from selling broadcasting rights – for example, according to Deloitte, they account for almost 50% of all football clubs’ revenues in the English Premier League; in Spain and Italy it is even more. However, maybe with the exception of Poland, this is not the case with volleyball. Very few TV companies include volleyball in their programmes and it is only because the nation or a local club has a chance of winning a medal. Sometimes even that is not a good enough reason, hence why countries like the USA or Germany may win a medal in a World Championship without a single game shown on national (or, in fact any) television. For club level competitions the situation can only be worse. And inevitably, when there is no media exposure, corporations will be reluctant to become sponsors and invest money. All of this means that the matchday revenues (from the sale of tickets and consumer goods) form a big part of the total revenue from volleyball events and competitions, and are hugely relied upon to cover the organisational costs. On the other hand, although matchday revenues have a bigger percentage share of the total revenue with comparison to other more commercial sports, they are miserable compared to, for example, the ones of tennis and football events in terms of total figures. Therefore, full match attendance is essential and very often insufficient to cover the organisational costs of an event such as the volleyball Champions League Final Four. So if a new candidate host nation wants to cover its costs and not suffer financially, it must ensure that there will be enough public interest to fill the capacity of the sports halls. However, this might prove extremely difficult, clearly illustrated by the case of last year’s edition in Ankara. Then, the hall was half empty when Halkbank were playing and almost completely empty when Halkbank were not playing.
All these facts and examples indicate that if you are not a country where volleyball is one of the more popular sports, hosting a Champions League Final Four will be a costly endeavour. Either the host club needs to have a large budget or the government needs to be inclined to spend public money for organising such an event. The latter is, of course, unimaginable if the sport is not popular. And so this puts CEV and all the volleyball governing bodies in most of Europe in the Catch-22 situation where to become popular the sport needs to have the potential to generate money; but to generate money, it needs to be popular. Hence, in the fight of agency against structure, CEV’s chances to re-shape the environment in the sporting industries around Europe and especially in the biggest economies are slim. It is true that new markets are often emerging (the latest example is Turkey) but it is very often at the expense of the collapse of already established ones (e.g. the demise of the Greek market).
Therefore, Europe’s volleyball governing body decides to adopt the safer, more rational and economically feasible (at least in the short-run) practice of giving the Final Four hosting rights to proven candidates instead of possibly investing considerable amount of money in a risky venture for the reaching of utopic outcomes. The disadvantage of this course of action is that the wider economic and/or political environment may cause an already established market to decline (similarly to what is happening with club volleyball in Italy in the past two years) or even diminish. And then when there are no new markets emerging volleyball may shrink even more as an industry. Revenues (and hence profits) will be reduced causing the cutback of player, coach and staff wages (hence, volleyball will become a less attractive career choice). This in turn will deteriorate the overall quality of the game and make it less attractive and popular for the people. Whether such a gloomy scenario can actually materialise is highly unlikely, although the potential threat is indeed existing. And CEV may not even be able to do much about it. The effect of the commodification of sport which has been occurring globally in the past decades makes rich clubs richer and poor clubs poorer, as well as thriving sports more thriving and languishing sports even more languishing (in relative and not absolute terms).
In this case, maybe the right decision is to give more power and freedom to eager investors, for it is probably the only way to bring more money to the industry. Organisations, businesses and institutions like the local authorities in Rzeszow can only aid the development of the sport and it will be foolish from CEV to overlook such an opportunity, especially when there are no other candidates willing to invest; thus, it will be of no surprise if Resovia wins the right to host the Final Four. And such an outcome should be happily embraced by the volleyball lovers (and by the neutral fans in particular) as they will be sure to watch a competitive team in a competition which will be organised and broadcasted in the most professional way.
List of CEV Champions League Final Four Host Countries