BARCELONA, Spain, AUGUST 1. SZAKADATI gives some candid answers from his vantage point of sitting behind the desk of the largest continental sport organization in the world for the past 14 years, revealing a depth of compassion for athletes and their future rarely seen among other sport executives.
Viewing the Arab Spring uprisings and wars presently unfolding in various nation’s capitals directly on the other side of the Mediterranean in close proximity to Europe, and as a consequence, now seeing hundreds of top athletes leaving the Middle East to train and compete in Europe, Szakadati gives his assessment of the welfare of the athletes, the economics driving the issues and other emerging threats to sports.
SW: From sitting behind your desk with the issues you’ve faced, what were the main concerns with LEN and sports in general in Europe?
Laszlo Szakadati: I have to mention three main points here, which concerned me a lot. The first one was the financing. To be straight here, when it comes to generating income…to gain more sponsorship, to sell the aquatic sport disciplines in a proper manner, in my view this was a failure.
Second. LEN always struggled with the overall World competition calendar. In spite of always being flexible and collaborative, our spots and our dates were regularly overtaken and overlapped by other significant or non-significant competitions.
Third. The cancellation of the 2012 European Swimming Championships in Antwerp, Belgium was also a big setback. Although these were subsequently hosted by Hungary and the Netherlands, the impact and the profit was not the same anymore.
SW: In your time at LEN, you helped successfully integrate into LEN three countries that were recently at war with each other in the Balkans.
Then, there was the construction of the new 50m pool complex and facilities in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many credit you for helping to make it the most successful, European post-war integration project because of the many swimming competitions that were fast tracked and the numerous aquatic events for families, for all age-groups and abilities, that all three sides currently share without incident together.
What are the important issues that concern you? Explain.
Laszlo Szakadati: Thank you. Yes, that situation concerned me a great deal. Let me start off with the economic crises. We feel it and it is filtering down everywhere.
First it was only at the top. Now it’s getting closer and closer to the bottom. This is like bleeding from several wounds. When I read the news that a city like Detroit is going bankrupt, it is shocking. And generally everybody is suffering everywhere. But the worst is, that nobody is telling the real truth and you hear non-sense explanations and excuses all around. In my humble opinion, contrary to the predictions, the worst is yet to come economically, and we have to expect dark times for several years.
War threat. In reality it is a linear consequence of all the above. There is tension everywhere in the World. There are ongoing conflicts because of existing and imaginary dictators, religion, civil, ethnic, natural sources, territories, poverty, etc. Add all this and multiply those with the other crises, and it is like we sit on a tinderbox! Enough to get a spark…
Lack of human relationships. With all these problems, unfortunately human beings are walking and passing by each other without one word, without proper communication. There are no feelings anymore, nor sentiments or care for each other. We are slowly becoming like senseless robots, repeating daily routines. Is this really the bright future?
SW: Consequently unemployment is rising?
Laszlo Szakadati: Well, this is also naturally coming with the given circumstances. The unemployment among the young generation was never so high, at least not in Europe. Do you know how many talented world-class musicians are sitting on the street corners playing for pennies? Or how many talented painters and photographers are working in vain… only to pay the rent? And in the meantime the actual and future pensioners fear for their pensions. I’m sure in the mean time in certain countries, these funds have vanished already.
The Hard Truth: Lack of Jobs for Olympic Athletes a Major Problem, By Steven V. Selthoffer, Chief European Columnist, Swimming World, October 18, 2012.
So, all in all I don’t want to sound pessimistic and I wish somebody will prove the contrary, but, honestly I can’t see things being bright in a distance of the next 15-20 years.
SW: What are the things that you see on the horizon that are threatening the sport?
Laszlo Szakadati: Wow! Big question. There are a few.
First. Current trends of television audiences. Most probably much of this was never revealed or discussed in detail or as a priority. Because for one reason or another, nobody around was interested. They should have been.
But if one looks at the analysis of TV audience figures from 2006 to today (related to European Swimming Championships, European Water Polo Championships and European Short Course Championships) these show a sharp and dramatic decline.
Obviously, there may be various explanations and excuses, related to certain circumstances, but this is not the space to enter in to details. However, nobody can argue with the fact that this is not good for the aquatic sports.
It’s time for someone to make a thorough study. The alarm bells are ringing…
Second. Lack of sponsorship — LEN struggles to get new sponsorship deals. FINA struggles to get new sponsorship deals.
One thing is certain, none of these organizations can say that a “Big One” (a major new sponsor) hit the roof (has signed on) in over the past 20 years!
If you look at Championships (World or European) we always have the same companies displayed. Which in my opinion is very modest.
If you think, that the market is already saturated by sports sponsorship combined with the fact that the TV audience metrics are decreasing, it is not the best prospect for the future.
Third. High costs. Unfortunately the costs to stage World or European Championships are increasing from one production period to the other. In some cases, budgets are hitting unrealistic figures, and given the fact of the economic crises, the question will be always there: “Who can still afford to host these events?” “Will these events really be profitable?” Those are key questions.
Fourth. Calendar congestion. The many events that are staged over a calendar year, and the lack of a sensible approach based on what is in the best interest of the swimmers to produce world-class times and the need to harmonize the various international calendars, certainly does not help. These problems can only continually harm the athletes and sports in the long term.
Fifth. Fierce competition with other sports. If you look around and see other sport disciplines… What they did for development… How much more innovation they brought in… How much more courage they had to change things… Adapting and empowering their executive teams to change and to market the sport better to supporters, sponsors and TV… certainly aquatics is not among the first tier.
Today, as other disciplines “boomed” over the years and established themselves in certain key market positions, the time to do something and have a “slice of the cake” is becoming less and less.
So we better not wait. Time is definitely running out…
SW: Are there other things that complicate matters?
Laszlo Szakadati: Yes. This one in particular. There is a real lack of innovation. Aquatics (swimming) has always been a very traditional sport. And in my experience it takes a significant amount of time to get through the bureaucracy with new proposals, changes, or any innovations. This is without a doubt putting a halt on keeping up the pace with modern times. And it hurts us competing with other sporting disciplines.
Doping. Luckily now, this is not a major issue. But, one has to be extremely careful and ever vigilant. Just look at cycling and one can immediately understand how such cases can undermine the entire movement and good will and destroy the image of the sport. So, in my opinion this needs maximum attention!
End of Part 2
Part Three will continue tomorrow. Szakadati talks about the conflict between LEN and FINA, sport politics and the marginal influence of the athletes in sports.