Another month, another conflict between cultural and commercial interests for a sports team in China.
This time Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, a Fifa World Cup winner with Germany in 2014, has drawn the ire of the Chinese authorities with a social media condemnation of the internment and social conditioning of over a million Uighur Muslims in Xianjiang.
In a likely blessing for Chinese fans of the Gunners, state broadcaster CCTV pulled live coverage of Arsenal’s thumping 3-0 home defeat to Premier League champions Manchester City on Sunday in the wake of Ozil’s comments.
It appears the official response will be less severe for Arsenal and the Premier League than in the Hong Kong-related dispute with the National Basketball Association (NBA). However, the 31-year-old, himself a Muslim of Turkish origin, has felt the full force of China’s censors, who have removed his ‘M10’ fan accounts from social platforms like Weibo and scrubbed almost all record of him from search engines behind the Great Firewall.
Whilst Ozil - who had hardline Turkish president Recep Erdogan as the best man at his wedding - personally has more at stake than his club, Arsenal have put clear distance between themselves and their highest-paid player. An Arsenal statement insisting they would take an ‘apolitical’ stance has been poorly received in the UK, with Ozil seeing broad local sympathy for his stance. Moreover, Arsenal’s reaction is in stark contrast to their response – or lack thereof – to an election day tweet from Spanish right-back Hector Bellerin, who urged fans to vote against Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson in pretty direct terms.
Clearly, as the NBA discovered, any rise in athlete activism is going to cause problems in China but triangulating a liberal stance on matters at home with a meeker one abroad can lead to some unsatisfactory compromises. Something may still have to give.
Taking the ball and going home
Already tense negotiations between Minor League Baseball (MiLB) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have been sliced deep into foul territory. MiLB, concerned that as many as 42 of its teams could have their affiliations with big league outfits dissolved as part of far-reaching reforms, issued a four-page memo on Friday saying its position on a range of issues had been ‘repeatedly and inaccurately’ described by MLB. Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner, responded by threatening to cut formal ties with MiLB altogether and allow teams from the majors to affiliate with whomever they choose. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – junior senator for Vermont and its Lake Monsters – is among the public figures going to bat for MiLB.
Not ready to share
Fifa will doubtless be disappointed by the Korean Football Association’s (KFA) late, late decision to withdraw a joint bid with North Korea for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Deteriorating relations between the technically still warring countries were cited but there are still plans to explore a cross-border Olympics in 2032.
Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president of soccer’s global governing body, sported a DPKR lapel pin as part of a tiny delegation present for the recent behind-closed-doors men’s qualifier between the two nations in Pyeongyang. Described as “like war” by KFA vice president Choi Young-Il, the 0-0 draw might have hinted at continued tensions.
Not quite the ticket
Amalgamation has been the watchword in the ticketing market in recent weeks but regulators are taking a long, hard look at the watermarks. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has begun a phase one investigation into the US$4 billion merger of secondary ticketing firms Viagogo and StubHub, which had been due to go through in the first quarter of 2020. Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice is considering whether Live Nation’s Ticketmaster should be allowed to buy Rival, a smaller company whose clients include KSE Sports and Entertainment and the LA Rams’ new SoFi Stadium mega-complex.
Playing out of the sand
The steady trickle of rights holders towards Saudi Arabia has continued with the Ladies European Tour, which will host the first women’s golf event in the country in 2020. Notwithstanding the obvious joke about some women now being allowed to drive in Saudi, the decision does raise a different set of questions about how appropriate it is to stage events in the country, given that the US$1 million Saudi International will directly contribute to greater visibility for professional female athletes. Men’s world number two Rory McIlroy had earlier declined the chance to compete in a European Tour event there, saying “there’s a morality to it as well”.
Can’t even see what they were reaching for campaign of the week
Double world number one of the week
Statement of intent of the week
Equal pay would be a nice little cherry on top of this year. I don’t think any female professional footballer has anything left to prove, it’s just a case of everyone else figuring it out.
Women’s national soccer team icon Megan Rapinoe throws down the gauntlet to US Soccer for 2020 in a wide-ranging interview with the BBC.
You should’ve been there numbers of the week
The total attendance for professional UK sports events will hit 75.1 million in 2019, according to the Bruin Sports Capital’s latest acquisition, the data agency Two Circles. That figure is up from 74.6 million in 2018 and up 11 million on 2013. Live sports events contributed an estimated UK£11.8 billion to the British economy and, while one-off events like the Cricket World Cup and Netball World Cup have been significant, soccer remains the main driver of attendances, with 50.5 million fan visits representing 67 per cent of the total.
Things we like
SportsPro would like to wish the very best of health to former NBA commissioner David Stern. One of the most influential and forward-looking industry figures of the last few decades, Stern underwent emergency surgery last week after suffering a brain haemorrhage. We hope he recovers very soon.
What should I be reading on SportsPro this week?
International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty tells Sam Carp that Kosmos’ revamp of the Davis Cup, which launched in Madrid last month, has left “a great foundation to build on, but we have to make changes”.
English soccer’s Football Association has put its new FA Player streaming service at the heart of plans for the women’s game, giving fans free access to every game from the elite Women’s Super League. Steven Impey talks to Rob Mitchell to find out more.
The Rajasthan Royals were the first winners of cricket’s revolutionary Indian Premier League, and have gone on to record a colourful and sometimes controversial history in the competition. Now, ahead of the draft for the 2020 tournament, they are aiming to create a breakout international profile.
An advance warning that SportsPro will be taking a festive break from the end of this week until 2nd January. In the meantime, look out for some reviews of 2019.