March 11th 2020
Gymnastics: Breaking Down The Final Big Monopolies
gymnastics

The recent High Court claim by British Gymnastics against a smaller, much smaller competitor, UK Gymnastics, has brought to light one of the last hidden injustices in the sporting world.

Ostensibly, the case heard at the High Court has been about whether or not UK Gymnastics have been passing themselves off as British Gymnastics. But everyone involved in the case, and those outside it, know that this is just a very large red herring.

In many ways this case is a throwback to the 1990s, when the FA considered bringing similar claims against small-sided league operators who were springing up around the country. They soon realised that you just couldn’t stop genuine competition and consumer choice. People wanted to play in other forms of football, with other organisations, and often at lower prices, allied to a better service, which the private sector was perfectly suited to provide. So the argument about this current High Court case has already been rehearsed – not in the High Court, but where these things really matter – in the real world of the consumer and where they choose to spend their hard earned money.

This High Court case between British Gymnastics and UK Gymnastics is the age old argument about protecting the monopoly British Gymnastics have over the business – the very big business – of gymnastics in the UK.

For decades British Gymnastics have operated a business model which has no competitors. They, like most governing bodies in the UK, have a relationship with Sport England which is, at best, far too close and at worst, nepotistic.

Sport England and British Gymnastics have been particularly close. Sport England even sent one of their Directors, Phil Smith, to act as a witness in the trial, alongside Jane Allen, the Chief Executive of British Gymnastics.

The regulator’s support for British Gymnastics isn’t even behind the scenes anymore, they are upfront about it and colluding with them to help them win a show trial that serves nobody, not least the general public.

And why wouldn’t they all look after each other? Sport is big business. A turnover of almost £20 million in British Gymnastics’ case – with a third of that provided by the taxpayer. So when they saw UK Gymnastics offering a better product at lower prices to gymnasts across the country, British Gymnastics started taking notice.

The Competitions Commission, as they have with other monopolies supposedly regulated by Sport England, said that they were not interested, even though it was startlingly obvious that the issue affected tens of thousands of people and was a multimillion pound industry which was effectively being monopolised by one large player, providing no choice to the public.

The European Commission however, takes the issue of competition in sport far more seriously than does its UK counterpart. The EU’s view has been clear for a number of years. Governing bodies in sport who effectively have monopolies, and try and close down competition, simply serve to protect “their own commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events.” The Commission goes on to say that “(governing bodies) imposing restrictions to restrict competition (is) to the detriment of athletes and restricts commercial freedom” and that governing bodies should not have rules which appear to be based solely on excluding competition to further their own economic interests.

The result of this Court Hearing will be momentous. If British Gymnastics win then the Courts will effectively be saying that there can still be business monopolies in the UK. The consumer will continue to have no choice and the practices of British Gymnastics, so regularly denounced even by its own members, will be allowed to continue. The last great business monopolies in Britain will be allowed to fester further.

But even if British Gymnastics do win, the Court case has signalled the beginning of the end of this cartel when businesses like British Gymnastics become more and more exposed to the eventual reality which will be, like any other business in the UK, regulated or not, a choice for the consumer not from one provider but from many.

We wouldn’t allow a bank, a utility company, or other service provider to be the only choice available to the public within a certain business sector. So why do we do it with sport?

If UK Gymnastics win, however, the Courts will have stood up for democracy, freedom and the right to choice, which will become a new order throughout sports governance, overturning the archaic practices of the past, and ushering in a competitive market led environment for governance, yes, regulated to an extent as it must be, which will allow more people to play sport in the environment that they choose to do so.

No longer will athletes or players or young people be bullied into exorbitant fees which amount to a tax on physical fitness. And people will start asking questions, when no questions have previously been asked. What exactly are Sport England doing with our money? Why are they giving such enormous incomes to organisations such as British Gymnastics, or indeed the FA, who confessed themselves that they are so rich that they hardly know what to do with the money they have? Why are they still receiving public funding? What is going on behind the scenes? And the Competition Commission will also have questions to answer. Why are they investigating cases which have little relevance to the average consumer and are tiny in comparison to the huge numbers in sport, both in economics and people participating? What on earth have they been doing?

British Gymnastics, like other governing bodies, will do anything to preserve their monopoly in their own business sector. But why have they gone for the much weaker argument of UK Gymnastics passing themselves off as British Gymnastics when that has clearly not been the case? The answer, again, lies in the past.

British Gymnastics would really have liked to have said that there cannot be another governing body for gymnastics, and no one else can offer gymnastics in the UK. But they know full well that the EU courts have already ruled decisively, both in motorcycling and ice-skating, that there should be consumer choice, that there can be more than one governing body, and that the consumer is entitled to shop around for best value. As the EU itself has said, governing bodies who effectively hold a monopoly over their sport “limit the development of alternative and innovative [sporting] competitions, and deprive [sporting] fans from following other events.” It is not only the athletes themselves that are limited in their choice as consumers, but also the general public. It was argued that loyalty should be earned by governing bodies, not simply expected of their members. In gymnastics, in the future, it is hoped that those who are disaffected with British Gymnastics’ running of the sport, and they are huge in number, will now be able to leave the club, and join somewhere else rather than being put in a position, which is currently the case, where if they are unhappy they can leave, but they have nowhere to go

Yes, this Court Hearing between British Gymnastics and UK Gymnastics, a real David and Goliath battle, could be more accurately described as a battle between the people’s choice and the powerful elite. Let us hope that the Courts have the nerve, insight and lack of fear to open up the final group of monopolies in the UK and shine a light on exactly what has been going on in the world of sport for far too long.

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