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Will Fifa force through a biennial World Cup?

I’ve developed an imperfect theory about the start of the American professional football season. In a cosmopolitan city like New York, the diversity of National Football League kits worn around Manhattan has a half life of one week. The entire season lasts a relatively short five months, which usually means that by Halloween, there are already clear-cut Super Bowl favourites. Last weekend, I noticed people wearing jerseys for Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars, and even the New York Jets. For Americans, hope springs in the autumn.

The NFL is back: any given sunday © AP

The short arc of the NFL season is likely to impact another line of business: sports betting. This season, 26 US states have legalised sports wagering with another five likely to come into force by the end of the NFL calendar, up from 18 in 2020. Gambling operators, data licensing companies, and other stakeholders believe live, “in game” betting may be favoured by NFL fans, compared to the odds for match results that become easier to predict (and less lucrative) as the season progresses. We will explain in this issue of Scoreboard, but first, a dispatch on the battle over football’s (or soccer’s) World Cup. Do read on. — Sara Germano, US sports business correspondent

Send us tips and feedback at scoreboard@ft.com. Not already receiving the email newsletter? Sign up here. For everyone else, let’s go

Will Fifa force through a biennial World Cup?

France win the 2018 World Cup: peak performance © Reuters

Fifa, international football’s governing body, led by president Gianni Infantino, has a radical proposal: stage the men’s World Cup every two years, instead of four.

The idea is to double Fifa’s money by more frequently holding an event that makes an estimated $6bn in revenues from broadcasting, sponsorship and ticketing.

As detailed in this FT Big Read, Arsène Wenger, the venerable former coach of Arsenal who is now Fifa’s chief of global football development, is leading the lobbying effort. 

Wenger wants to reorder football’s packed season in a way that would create a regular summer window for more frequent international football tournaments (see graphic below).

How the football calendar could change with a biennial World Cup. World Cup to be played two weeks earlier

This was news to Uefa, European football’s governing body, as well as domestic leagues, clubs and many current players. Aleksander Ceferin, Uefa’s president, said the idea would “kill football” and threatened to boycott the World Cup. 

Fifa responded this week by releasing the results of a survey of fans it commissioned.

So what happens next? 

Infantino needs a simple majority of Fifa’s 37-member ruling “council” to secure changes to the so-called “international match calendar”. But even those close to Fifa’s president suggest that, for a decision this momentous, he needs more political cover. That likely means securing the support of a large majority in a vote of Fifa’s 211 member nations.

World Cup trophy: double your money © Bloomberg

On Tuesday, Uefa’s 55 national associations gathered to plot their next move. None spoke up for a biennial World Cup, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. There was concern that it would steal space from other events such as the Women’s World Cup, youth tournaments and the Nations League, a new European national team competition. 

The problem for Uefa, and others opponents, such as Conmebol, South America’s governing body, is that there does appear to be plenty of support elsewhere. This is particularly the case across Asia, Africa, and smaller countries that will welcome the windfall of World Cup cash that would flow down to them.

The biggest losers may be Europe’s richest clubs. There would be less space for their lucrative summer tours, such as the International Champions Cup, a pre-season tournament held across the US and Asia.

International Champions Cup match in Melbourne, Australia: what about us? © Getty Images

That contest is run by Relevent Sports, a group owned by Stephen Ross, the US billionaire who also owns NFL team Miami Dolphins

Last year, Ross was lobbying Uefa and top clubs to make the ICC an “official” competition – one that would be taken more seriously by fans, players and broadcasting companies. 

Fifa executives saw Ross’s lobbying for the ICC, alongside this year’s attempt to launch a breakaway European Super League and private equity cash flowing into domestic club leagues, as a threat to their primacy.

Infantino and Wenger are moving to defend the time and money allocated for national team contests. This battle of club versus country will shape the future of the sport for decades to come.

NFL data rights deal reveals future of US sports betting

NFL: data drive © AP

What do two men with a famously antagonistic relationship, the founder of Barstool Sports internet media company Dave Portnoy and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, have in common?

They’re ensemble characters in a modern-day drama around American football and the burgeoning US market for sports betting.

Since the US Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports betting in 2018, 32 states and the District of Columbia have clamoured to pass legislation legalising the practice. More than 45m Americans are expected to gamble on the NFL this year, up 36 per from 2020, according to the American Gaming Association. 

Two companies, Switzerland-based Sportradar and London-headquartered Genius Sports, have rapidly expanded their businesses in the US and look set to profit from the rise of sports betting. They license official data rights from major sports leagues like the NFL and Major League Baseball, then sell it to gambling platforms and media companies.

In August, Genius secured the exclusive rights to NFL data for a reported $120m per year. It was a gargantuan sum that sparked concern about a spiralling bidding war for data rights.

You can read the background on the Sportradar-Genius duopoly in a FT deep dive here.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: Portnoy’s complaint © Getty Images

The fervour for US sports data might best be explained through a deal brokered last week between Genius and Penn National Gaming, which operates bookmaking for Portnoy’s Barstool.

What’s unusual about their tie-up is that Barstool doesn’t have an official relationship with the NFL. In 2015, media entrepreneur Portnoy was arrested at NFL headquarters for protesting Goodell’s handling of the New England Patriots “Deflategate” scandal, for which the six-time Super Bowl champions were sanctioned for using under-inflated footballs.

For those reasons, Barstool is unlikely to enter into business directly with the NFL, but it underscores the utility of firms like Genius. Barstool users can bet on football games on their own platform without directly engaging with the league itself, said Jed Kelly, senior equity analyst for Oppenheimer.

Tom Brady, New England Patriots and deflategate: caught in the act © Reuters

Because of the short nature of the NFL season — at most, 17 games per team compared to more than a hundred in professional baseball — likely Superbowl winners emerge quickly. That makes unpredictable “in-game” wagering more attractive than, say, betting on which franchises will make the end of season playoffs.

One gaming industry executive told Scoreboard to be sceptical of the value of “official” data, pointing to the fact that legal betting in Las Vegas operated without it for decades before the 2018 Supreme Court judgement. 

Bullish analysts like Kelly have a different take. He said: “The Penn announcement implies that official data and the speed advantage is critical to supporting a large live betting market.”


Emma Raducanu: smash hit © Via Reuters
  • Britain’s Emma Raducanu won the US Open’s women’s singles title, the first time a qualifier to a tennis Grand Slam has gone on to claim the championship. Sports industry analysts believe the 18-year-old is set to be a global superstar sure to attract growing sponsor interest. She currently has just two endorsement deals, with sportswear group Nike and racket maker Wilson.

  • Manchester United swung to an annual loss as the pandemic kept fans out of stadiums and prevented the English Premier League football team from taking part in lucrative pre-season tours. But the club is confident of a return to revenue growth, allowing it to invest in players this summer including the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo.

  • Lawrence Stroll, the Canadian billionaire owner of the Aston Martin Formula One Racing team, is investing between £150m and £200m in a new manufacturing headquarters. The much-delayed project is part of an ongoing effort to push the team up the grid to compete for championships. It lies a lowly seventh of ten teams in the current F1 team standings.

  • The Chinese government clampdown on video gaming, such as regulations that stipulate citizens aged under 18 can only play online for three hours a week, will make it hard for professional esports players to train for next year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou. At that event, esports are due to be showcased alongside traditional disciplines such as swimming, athletics and cycling.

  • Sports investment firm RedBird Capital Partners is in talks for a minority stake in LeBron James’s media company, SpringHill, according to The Information. The two already share common interests, as the Los Angeles Lakers star and RedBird each have minority stakes in Fenway Sports Group, the ownership vehicle behind the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC.

  • Simone Biles joined some of her US Olympic gymnastics teammates in testifying before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to denounce the FBI’s handling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case. Biles said law enforcement turned “a blind eye” to their initial reports of abuse. An FBI agent assigned to the case was fired this week, and Nassar is now serving an effective life sentence for sex crimes.

  • The Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld a four-year ban against disgraced athletics coach Alberto Salazar, who in 2019 was sanctioned by the US Anti-Doping Agency on doping violations. The Nike-backed coach trained Britain’s Mo Farah to double gold at successive Olympics, though the court found no evidence of wrongdoing by any of Salazar’s trainees. Last month, Nike told its employees that a building named after Salazar at its headquarters will be renamed.

Transfer Market

Michael Holding bowling in 1980: mic drop © Getty Images
  • Michael Holding, the former West Indian fast bowler, announced he was retiring from cricket commentary. Widely regarded as the voice of the sport, the Jamaican sat down for a Lunch with the FT interview earlier this summer in which he railed against racism and the rise of short form cricket competitions like the Indian Premier League. “I’m happy to be called an old fogey,” he said at the time. “They can go on about me.”

  • Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, has been appointed to the board of the Czech lottery operator Sazka bidding to win control of the UK’s National Lottery. The former chair of London’s 2012 Olympic committee is seen as someone who can burnish the company’s British credentials ahead of a lucrative contract decision later this year.

Final Whistle

In the pantheon of Peak America, this highlight from a Miami Hurricanes college football game last weekend deserves to be on the all-time list. A stray cat found itself clinging to the upper deck and was saved by a group of quick-thinking fans who brandished a US flag to break its fall. Flags, football, felines: ‘Murica.

Miami Hurricanes match: Cat-astrophe averted © @globalnews

Scoreboard is written by Samuel Agini, Murad Ahmed and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team

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