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Showdown in the penalty area: An opportunity for change in sport?

Will the need to seek state aid due to the COVID-19 pandemic encourage sports unions to implement good governance principles?

According to press reports, work is underway at the Ministry of Sport on a bill to aid the sports sector, including financial support, as sport is one of the sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cancellation of league matches, events and tournaments is causing heavy losses for all participants in the sector. The state is willing to help because the situation is exceptional.

But in extreme conditions, it is worth keeping an eye on certain fundamentals. Should the implementation of good governance principles be a condition for sports organisations to obtain state aid?

In late 2017, under Witold Bańka, the Ministry of Sport and Tourism drafted the Code of Good Governance for Polish Sports Governing Bodies. This initiative followed the release of a study entitled “Analysis of the activity of Polish sports unions in Olympic sports,” which found that the governance of Polish sports unions left much to be desired, in such areas as strategic management, management of resources (including finances), and transparency of operations.

Consequently, the code drafted by the ministry included basic commandments for good governance in sport, covering these and many other areas. The code cites fundamental values and provides guidelines to be followed by sports governing bodies: efficiency, professionalism, planning, integrity, transparency, and responsibility.

The code contains detailed directives for internal organisation and competencies of sports governing bodies, strategic management, transparency of operations, and financial management. It explains how oversight and internal controls should be conducted, as well as disciplinary liability in sports institutions. It sets standards for unions’ responsibility for the growth of the disciplines they manage, training of staff, and cooperation within the sports community.

One of the basic principles set forth in the code is engagement in sports management by all stakeholders in the sector. According to the code, “An element of effective management of the organisation must be reflection on proper cooperation with stakeholders. … Creation of the right tools, communications channels and practices strengthening cooperation with stakeholders within the union may support the process of management of Polish sports unions. Thus the management board of the union should first correctly identify these groups, and then develop communication and cooperation with them.”

This is not a unique concept invented by the ministry. Promotion of “stakeholder inclusion” is one of the European Commission’s priorities in the area of sport. In Poland, apart from football, whose institutions have been seriously addressing issues of human rights and good governance for a long time, this aim has so far been pursued weakly.

Will the current difficulties force sports governing bodies to pursue greater openness and dialogue with stakeholders and respect for their rights? These organisations should pursue dialogue first and foremost with the players’ community, which for some time has been organising strongly and beginning to assert players’ rights. But the stakeholders with whom sports organisations should cooperate also include coaches, judges, sponsors, and enterprises operating on the broader sports market (media, equipment and clothing manufacturers, agents and so on).

When publishing the Code of Good Governance for Polish Sports Governing Bodies in 2017, the ministry explained that although the code is not binding, compliance by sports organisations with the fundamental rules set forth in the code would be a condition for these organisations to seek state funding. If the ministry lives up to this rule, the crisis in the sports sector sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic may also offer an opportunity to raise the standards of governance in Polish sport.

Stanisław Drozd, adwokat, Sports Law practice, Dispute Resolution & Arbitration practice, Wardyński & Partners