There had to be a few catches in the out-of-court settlement between the FEI and Jan Tops’s Global Champions League. Last week we started to find out what they are.
In a flurry of get-togethers by those who have seen the two former adversaries’ new Memorandum of Understanding, Tops and FEI president Ingmar de Vos jointly met the media, FEI secretary-general Sabrina Ibanez met the European Equestrian Federation (EEF), and the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) met the FEI to thrash out their various “issues” with the way jumping seems to be heading. These included the apparently favourable treatment of the Global phenomenon in this new era of cooperation between the Tour and the FEI.
Not everybody is upset about exactly the same things. But the abiding themes are that jumping is geared more and more towards the mega rich, and that the FEI’s resolve to protect the Nations Cups has weakened.
Things have certainly come a long way from the FEI’s original MoU from 2007 with the Global Tour – which included a clause that its then eight shows would never run the same weekends as FEI Nations Cups.
The IJRC say there is still a “gap” between their position on the Global league and the FEI’s. Steve Guerdat and Kevin Staut declined to compete in Global league last year, so as to throw their weight behind Nations Cups.
“Pay cards,” while hardly new, are central to the business model of the Global tour. You only have to look at FEI archived results to see the regular participation of some not-very-highly-ranked riders who don’t compete in anyone else’s five-stars. It is understood pay cards cost tens of thousands of Euros per Global event.
The self-perpetuating skewing of rankings points where participation is not truly “open” is an inevitable result, making it harder for those not wedded to the Tour to retain their overall positions. The Italian federation is expected to offer a completely fresh approach to rankings at the FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne on April 10-11.
The really hot potato is the new weighting of Tour invitations towards its own Global league team-members, presumably a condition of the legal settlement. Eighteen league teams are declared this year, an increase of 50 per cent on 2016’s launch season.
The Tour/League has 15 shows, of which only the first two are in the Americas (Mexico City and Miami) with a total purse of 23 million Euros. A rumoured two million Euros is charged to each league team per season. That is very serious money indeed.
De Vos told last week’s media briefing that the FEI had long applied a similar invitations concession to CSIOs, to account for Nations Cups team members; the principle was the same. The Global league has agreed not to apply pay cards. But as no rider below the top 15 in the world rankings will now be invited on the Tour unless also in the league, aren’t people still paying to play?
The other worry is the robustness of the now sponsor-less Nations Cups. Last year the FEI said the Nations Cups were its most important product. Last week De Vos said the FEI needed to “respect anti-trust legalisation” and not give unfair anti-competitive advantages to the FEI’s own products.
A long briefing document on various issues was circulated recently by Henk Nooren, the top Dutch trainer, Theo Ploegmakers, president of the Dutch federation, Soenke Lauterbach, secretary general of the German federation, and Spain’s chef d’equipe Marco Fuste.
They felt that the FEI hadn’t exactly bust a gut to find a new Nations Cup sponsor to replace Furusiyya.
The Nations Cups also seem to have taken up a hefty chunk of the IJRC’s five-hour session with the FEI. Staut said after that marathon: “We aim to defend the values of our sport as we love it. Our sport offers irresistible moments, but we live in a world governed by money and politics. Certainly money has its good sides. We are not against the Global tour, we would simply like to defend other circuits and find a healthy balance, to have a sport that is accessible to all, and avoid giving full power to a circuit where financial concerns are very present.”
In similar vein, Nooren and his co-signatories said: “It is naïve to think that in today´s equestrian sport only talent counts. Riders need excellent horses and working relations with owners, breeders and sponsors.
“Still, the FEI should enable every rider to have a reasonable chance to pursue his goal as a top athlete. If we move on all fronts towards the image of a super-expensive sport, available only for few, we will soon lose our credibility as a serious sport and there is a clear danger that the sport cannot grow and that the breeding and trading will dry up.”
One controversy has at least been partially defused – a suggestion that jumping shows worldwide “harmonize” entry fees up to the level of North America’s.
Ludger Beerbaum, Staut and Guerdat posted videos on social media to explain why ramping up the costs of competing younger horses will damage the unique relationship between European jumpers, producers and breeders. In Europe, entry fees are not related to prize-money; if they were, they could treble at two-stars alone.
Late last week De Vos said that proposal came from the Association of Jumping Organizers; harmonization was not a FEI initiative and he personally didn’t favour it. Harmonization has now been dropped as a formal topic from next month’s Sports Forum, though show organisers are expected to revive it during the open debates.
Last week both Tops and his Global co-owner Frank McCourt emphasised that in this digital age, jumping must evolve in the face of so many other leisure offers for spectators. Riders can now earn significant prize money thanks to the Tour, as in other sports. They also emphasised that about 30 per cenr of league riders this season are aged below 25.
“We are doing everything the best for the sport. I am very happy the FEI agreed with our vision and 99 per cent of the riders I speak with are fantastically happy,” said Tops.
McCourt added: “I’ve never seen change occur where everybody is happy – it takes time to adjust. This [legal agreement with FEI] was done in the context of a legal matter because we wanted to grow our sport, and we had a disagreement. Within that context an agreement was reached, and happily, because we wanted the FEI to be involved.”
Last December, the IJRC had sought their recent session with the FEI to discuss the Olympic format changes. In the end there was an awful lot more on the agenda. I was interested to hear that the IJRC again impressed their opposition to national federations who don’t field any competitors or stage any shows having equal voting rights at the FEI General Assembly. The one-minor-country, one major-vote-thing has long been a “thing” of mine. I don’t think, constitutionally, that it can be changed, but let’s see where it goes….
There is certainly an irony of the FEI seeking to broaden opportunities for the younger horse countries by dumbing down the Olympic format and trying not to appear elitist, while simultaneously buying into “pay to play” at five-stars.
There isn’t an antonym for “dumbing down.” Though strangely jumping could well be said to be “dumbing up” at the moment.