Supporting our young stars key to professional success

In 1960, long before Juan Antonio Samaranch pushed for the inclusion of professional athletes in the Olympics, the Games had possibly the most stringent definition of amateurism — namely that athletes who simply committed the thought crime of choosing to receive compensation for their sports performances at an indeterminate point in the future — were deemed to be professional.
Supporting our young stars key to professional success

Amateurism, a Victorian word, meant a commitment to no-pay-for-play, no salaries and no endorsements for its athletes. It was the British aristocracy’s way of keeping the unwashed masses at a competitive arm’s length — a state of affairs which never existed in ancient Greece.

Samaranch’s argument for the acceptance of the best professional athletes into the Olympic Games was two-pronged. He recognised that unless athletes were allowed to receive financial support from endorsements and competitions to cover living and training expenses, participation in the Games would swiftly decline. But the real motivation probably lay in the ability to push for greater corporate participation in the Olympic movement — most especially the record-setting broadcasting rights with television networks around the world.

The Games would be dead in eight years, according to those, like Olympic historian Bill Mallon, who opposed Samaranch’s stance on professionalism. But, if anything, his decision probably saved the Games from financial ruin. Today the Olympics are a multi-billion dollar show, more popular and more powerful than ever before.

Throughout the world today, how many large and profitable sporting organisations can we readily point to that are holding onto the outdated tag of amateurism?

Take, for example, the NCAA collegiate system in America, where college athletes are considered “amateurs” despite the fact that their sports programmes, administered by professional staff, generate an $8bn industry annually.

The scale is simply incredible. The biggest teams spend only 15% to 20% of their budget on scholarships for the athletes while spending 35% to 40% on staff salaries. It has turned athletic directors and administrators into high-powered executives that earn six or seven-figure salaries and sign million dollar contracts with corporate America — while the players stand to lose their scholarship as well as their eligibility to participate if they profit so much as a cent off their status as stars in a billion dollar industry.

In this day and age, can we still seriously condone taking advantage of elite high-profile amateur athletes in such a hard-nosed business fashion in any circumstance? And what about those same players who may develop chronic injuries playing sports, only to be abandoned once their career ends? Is this not another example of the hypocrisy resulting from a very profitable industry sitting on top of a supposedly amateur sports body?

The ideal of amateurism taints sports, because it doesn’t work in the sport’s best interests — acting instead to demonise players that have simply broken oppressive rules that work against their collective interests.

And yet, the solution in most cases isn’t very far away as long as there is a collective appetite for change, while safeguarding the integrity of the sport. Initiatives such as a “revenue share” allocation box, which athletes could draw upon for long-term injuries, career initiatives or even educational pursuits — or in the case of high-profile athletes, open access to endorsement and promotional deals.

Recently Paul McGinley spoke about the huge numbers of elite Irish players leaving the amateur ranks only to struggle or fail to make the grade in the professional ranks. He spoke about the lack of support they receive during this transition period.

Recognising the fact that the GUI or the ILGU in Ireland does a great job, in terms of developing their amateur potential, there is an obvious opportunity there to fill the gap for players in transition.

While many will point to the recent success achieved straight out of the amateur ranks by Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, their exceptional ability masks the fact that most amateurs will find the transition exceptionally tough or even too tough and hugely expensive.

So what can be done? Throwing money at the player alone is not a comprehensive solution as a player in transition, no matter how good, faces far more issues that simply finance alone.

As someone who went through this process myself in the late 80s, I qualified onto the European Tour eager but knowing little about my environment. I knew a few Irish players who were very helpful but most of my time was spent in the deep end, trying to find the best solutions around important things like travel, accommodation, tournament scheduling, caddies etc.

Little, I would argue, has changed since then, despite our lofty reputation for producing some of the best amateur talent in the world. And yet one country, which has proactively taken their head out of the sand and properly addressed this matter, with great success, is France, via the French Golf Federation.

Recognising that the most difficult period for a player is immediately after they turn professional, France invests heavily in young players, with the aim to guide them through that spell until they reach The European Tour.

Critically, that means spending significant sums of money (found through sponsors) and effort on the support aspects of golf — things such as coaches, physiotherapists and fitness trainers, who stay with the players throughout this transitional period.

They also create tournaments or find the opportunities for up and coming players to compete both inside France and around the world while also giving them regular playing access to European Tour veterans like Raphael Jacquelin or Thomas Levet.

These initiatives have also proven to be attractive to sponsors like Allianz, who back and support professional events throughout France. This proactive approach gives transitional players every chance.

There is no reason why Ireland cannot create and source the necessary funding for a similar structure. I would argue many other sporting organisations too could gain significantly from the same approach. But is there real ambition for change from legislators who simply are not motivated to change or do we have to wait for another Samaranch to take the bull by the horns and legislate change for the benefit of all?

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