John Howard might have been a cricket tragic and unembarrassed to be filmed dagging it up in a green and gold tracksuit to watch late night sports events, but Kevin Rudd is doing his best to match him. It’s always unwise to get between an Australian politician and some sportsmen.

And while the Prime Minister might fancy himself as a cricket commentator and occasional bowler — orthodox spin, ho ho — it’s soccer that has garnered the dollars so far. Yesterday, with the full support of Malcolm Turnbull — no caveats, no “obviously we’d do it differently if we were in government” and even the Greens — our bid for soccer World Cup in 2018 or 2022 was launched with much fanfare and almost universally positive media coverage. And, to be fair, it’s not a bad ad at all, especially when the ball bounces on Rudd’s desk. Still, for $46.5m of taxpayer money, you’d want to see every dollar up on the screen.

Funny about Rudd being in the ad. Soccer in Australia is virtually the personal fiefdom of Frank Lowy, and Lowy has been a friend to generations of Labor leaders. In February, Rudd heaped praise on Lowy as a dinner attended by, inter alia , Rupert Murdoch, Bob Hawke, Sol Trujillo and Malcolm Turnbull. At the dinner, Lowy publicly backed Rudd’s second stimulus package. Westfield has been a generous donor to both sides of politics, but Labor has benefited most from the largesse of one of the country’s richest men and the owner of a shopping mall empire stretching from here to the US and Europe, along with the odd tax haven in between.

Crikey understands the Government’s role in the bid is being coordinated by Prime Minister and Cabinet, with some help from Foreign Affairs, but that there has been no cost-benefit assessment done of the bidding process — expensive enough by itself — or of the actual event. There was talk yesterday of a return of billions of dollars to Australia, of millions of tourists and tens of thousands of jobs – although, to its credit, the Football Federation didn’t use the normal dodgy FIFA style of calculating TV audiences to declare that tens of billions of people, many of them presumably on Mars or Venus, watched the World Cup.

There is, of course, normal mathematics and its imaginary friend Major Event mathematics, in which magical multipliers turn black holes into rivers of gold, and every taxpayer dollar reaps a plentiful harvest of happy tourists, eager investment and that all-important “international exposure”. In fact, Wladimir Andreff and Stefan Szymański’s 2006 study Economics of Sport suggests most recent soccer World Cups had large net costs or small net profits. Another study suggests evidence points to major sporting events rarely achieving an net economic benefits. suggests most recent soccer World Cups had large net costs or small net profits. Another study suggests evidence points to major sporting events rarely achieving an net economic benefits.

And remember that any revenue — which mainly comes from increasingly threatened television broadcast rights — need to be shared with FIFA, one of the world’s most anti-competitive and exploitative business entities.

Still, soccer, with its Labor-friendly leadership, now has a place at the big table in Canberra along with the major football codes, the Olympics and cricket.

And since the election, Labor has secured its grip on sports administration. Kate Ellis, who did well out of the recent reshuffle, has overseen the departure of Coalition-friendly elements from the Australian Sports Commission — Peter Bartels and Alan Jones, most prominently — and the installation of former John Brown favourite and veteran sports administrator Greg Hartung as ASC Chairman. Child Support Agency head, and former Beattie-era senior Queensland public servant Matt Miller was recently appointed ASC CEO.

Olympics chief John Coates, a long-term Labor ally, is said to be a key player in the Government’s pending overhaul of the structure of sports institution governance and funding. Businessman David Crawford is conducting a review of sports funding due later this year, with help from a panel including former Labor staffer and AFL commissioner Sam Mostyn, with the possibility of the ASC being merged with the Commonwealth bureaucracy (sport is currently in Health, although the bulk of Ellis’s portfolio is in the even larger Education, Employment and Workplace Relations department) and the AIS split out.

Sports politics can be brutal. There are big bucks to be had, and not just from taxpayers. And politicians lose all sense of proportion and judgment when placed in proximity to sports stars or when dealing with Australians’ passion for watching young men and (occasionally) women running, jumping and standing still in various venues. But behind the feel-good factor there are always party-political calculations at work.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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