Racing splits 2: When civil war rages

By Andy & LJH

CalendarWednesday, September 24th, 2008

 
 

With the threat of splits and breakaways a constant background noise in Formula One, Brits On Pole is taking a three-part look at how other sports have been affected by civil wars, and what the effects might be on F1. In part two, we examine how other sports have fared. You can read part one here.

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During the run-in to the 2008 season, American open wheel racing unified when the breakaway Indy Racing League swallowed the remnant of its parent, the Champ Car World Series.

For years the rift had separated drivers, teams and fans, weakening open wheel racing in the world’s most valuable media market.

But it’s not just motorsport that’s suffered from a house divided – cricket, darts, boxing, snooker and even chess have trod, or are currently treading, the same path.

To get an idea of what might happen to F1 – and see what sends sports over the brink into civil war in the first place – it’s useful to look more closely at these past splits in other sports.

Take darts, the consummate pub game that began, in the 1970s, to emerge from smoke-filled public bars and seedy clubs into the wider public consciousness.

The poison arrows of darts

Some 30 years down the line, darts remains hugely popular and a television staple. But it is not unified. An almighty row that kicked off in 1992 has left a legacy that includes two separate players’ rosters, two governing bodies and two competing world championships.

Like the CART/IRL split, the roots of the division can be traced to disagreements over how the sport should develop. As darts became more visible a few players started to consider turning professional and this encouraged the foundation of the British Darts Organisation (BDO) in 1973.

By the turn of the decade people were starting to make their living from the sport and it was attracting pots of sponsorship cash and television coverage. But when the growth stalled in the late 1980s, players blamed the BDO. Eventually 16 of them, including every single active world champion, defected to set up the World Darts Council.

The 1993 Embassy World Championship went ahead, but it was the last unified tournament. The WDC might have had the players, but the WBO had the tournaments, most of the telly deals, and the right to decide who could call themselves a darts player.

Three years of threatened bans, arguments, and expensive legal contests ended in a peace deal – but not in unification.

Even now, the sport suffers from horribly complex player eligibility rules, arguments over the competing prestige of different titles, undercurrents that still mar World Championship tournaments, the splitting of prize funds and arguably the ending of the careers of several household names.

Fast bowlers and fast bucks: cricket’s breakaway series

The split in world darts, while primarily about the direction of the sport, would not have happened without the influx of money, publicity and popularity that television brought. And it’s far from the only sport to have creaked under these pressures.

Some handle the stresses better than others. Soccer neatly restructured itself by creating new elite leagues across nations and continents. Cricket, on the other hand, suffers periodic bursts of uncertainty on the subject.

In the late 1970s Australian broadcasting mogul Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket shook the sport’s establishment by making professional cricket a viable source of income for the world’s best players. Undeterred by bans and legal threats, WSC played two seasons, and would have played more had officialdom not waved the white flag.

In many ways, from an increase in one-day play to the adoption of floodlights and safety helmets, WSC moved the game forward – but at a price, as the scars of the dispute took many years to heal.

And now, after 30 years of relative calm, a new split threatens thanks to the phenomenal growth of the game on the Indian subcontinent – particularly the new, short-form, Twenty20 variety.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) is relatively new, vastly well-financed and supported as only a south Asian cricketing nation knows how. Its unofficial, non-sanctioned rival is the privately run Indian Cricket League (ICL). Each could be worth a billion dollars to its organisers.

The rivals have already squared off in the Indian courts, and the implications are rippling throughout the international game like a six hit into the village pond as players from other nations find their better paid IPL commitments clash with domestic and international ones – or risk bans to play in the non-recognised ICL.

Organisers of the Twenty20 Champions’ League – a new tournament pitting together the best club sides from Australia, England, India and South Africa – have already announced that teams fielding players who also have ICL contracts will not be allowed to take part.

And a shower of money can have other effects – such as the likely impact on the England dressing room of the millions sloshing around for a very small number of players thanks to Texan philanthropist Sir Allen Stanford’s determination to use Twenty20 to revitalise West Indian cricket.

Big swinging egos: The World Chess Championship

Money and egotism run amok both have a lot to do with the shambles that has surrounded who can rightfully claim to be the world chess champion since 1993.

That was the year when title-holder Garry Kasparov and his official challenger, Englishman Nigel Short, declared the prize fund for their match wasn’t enough and set up their own short-lived Professional Chess Association.

The pair were removed from the world rankings by FIDE, the governing body for chess, which ran an official title match of its own, won by Anatoly Karpov.

And when Kasparov crushed Short the two strongest players in the game’s history were both able to claim they were the reigning world champion.

The PCA was gone by 1994, victim in part of the disapproval of commercial sponsors. But disagreements over prize funds and qualification methods meant it took until 2006 for the title to be finally reunified under FIDE’s auspices.

Even now, the after-effects are still being felt in the complicated rules for the forthcoming 2009 title match.

Boxing’s alphabet soup

When it comes to rampant egos, boxing could teach even chess a thing or two. The sport has a staggering variety of sanctioning bodies, most often set up because someone thought they could do a better job of running things than was currently being done.

Like motorsport, although for entirely different reasons, boxing’s image often needs all the help it can get. Certainly it attracts a comparable level of sanctimony from those people who don’t believe it should be regarded as a sport at all.

To fight its corner, it fields an ‘alphabet soup’ of different sanctioning bodies. The WBA (World Boxing Association) is the oldest, founded in 1921 out of the ashes of the American National Boxing Association. The WBC (World Boxing Council) was founded in 1963, the IBF (International Boxing Federation) in 1983 and the WBO (World Boxing Organisation) in 1988.

This situation has many of it roots in disagreements over rules or in personality clashes, and can make motorsport look positively civil. The WBO was created after Puerto Rican and Dominican businessmen stormed out of a WBA convention in protest at the rating system, while the IBF was the child of a former president’s decision to strike out alone after failing to take overall charge.

The result is confusion for supporters, the devaluation of titles, and a lack of credibility for the entire sport when frankly mediocre fighters are proclaimed to be world champions. Boxers long past the point of sensible retirement are able to win championships, and the widespread name-calling and corruption allegations damage the image of the sport generally.

Conversely, unification bouts can provide exciting fights with an accessible narrative and great box office potential. And it is arguable that a single sanctioning body would not produce enough fights to keep fans entertained.

Snooker’s un-civil war

A lack of confidence in the men in charge (and they are men, overwhelmingly) is another problem sadly familiar to racing fans where issues of age as well as of judgement are starting to impinge increasingly on the sporting agenda.

It’s instructive to consider how fading management authority and the aura of behind-the-scenes politicking caused lethally costly and divisive problems for snooker.

Once one of the most popular TV sports in the UK, the rot began in 1997 with the sacking of Jim MacKenzie, chief executive of the World Professional Snooker and Billiards Association (WPSBA), who was subsequently reappointed and then sacked again.

The next few years passed in a haze of allegations about expenses and financial misbehaviour, reports that were commissioned but never published, manifold libel writs and tournament bans.

Legends of the game, administrators, journalists and commercial managers fought out behind-the-scenes power struggles, banned each other for life, reinstated each other again, turned to the courts, and resigned claiming their jobs were un-doable.

During this period the loss of revenue from tobacco sponsorship was costing the sport dearly, although a BBC television contract eventually brought guaranteed revenue which in turn offered the stability the game needed to get its house in order once more.

But fans saw fewer events and fewer players taking part in them. And snooker had taken a lengthy time-out from the public consciousness in order to conduct this internecine warfare.

That’s an option unlikely to be available to F1: should it descend into civil war, it would be one fought out in the glare of the public spotlight. So far, of course, the talk of splits and breakaways has been nothing but talk. In the final part of this series, we’ll look at what might happen if the talking stopped and the fighting began.

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