Can the FEI really put an end to the pay card system?

Credit : Mario Grassia/LGCT

Thursday 23 March - 19h08 | Sebastien Roullier

Can the FEI really put an end to the pay card system?

For several years, those who want to see a Show Jumping sport based solely on merit — in other words, the skill of the riders and horses — have denounced the system of pay cards. In exchange for financial contributions, these ‘pay to play’ cards allow rich riders, or those who benefit from generous sponsors, to participate in competitions in which they would not have been accepted based on their world ranking. But while the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) appears to have taken measures to at least limit this practice, if not outright eliminate it, can the world governing body for the sport truly succeed? And if yes, what will happen to the competitions that have been developed based on this economic ‘manna from heaven’?   

The theory… and the practice

The theory… and the practice - Can the FEI really put an end to the pay card system?

Yesterday, Grand Prix asked the FEI about how it sees the pay card issue, and what the card signifies exactly. Having been part of CSIs for many years, but also CSIOs and CSI-Ws at every level, the pay card system allows non-invited riders (as a result of their ranking) to participate in competitions in exchange for a direct or indirect contribution (reservation of a VIP table, sponsorship, etc.). With this in mind, the FEI defines pay cards as, “Any remuneration paid in exchange for an invitation to compete at an FEI Event.” One could think of it as a wild card spot that has been purchased.

The same rule (Article 115 of the FEI’s General Regulations) stipulates that “(…) The percentage of Athletes personally invited by OCs [organizing committees — editor’s note] shall be specified in the Sport Rules for the specific Disciplines. However, these invitations from OCs (foreign and/or home Athletes) must be under the same conditions as for other Athletes and must in no way be directly or indirectly in connection with a financial contribution. Pay Cards and appearance fees, even in the form of VIP tables and Event privileges, are strictly prohibited and will be sanctioned.”

With this rule in place, a rider who is refused access to a competition because he or she has not bought a VIP table or contributed financially in another manner could theoretically denounce this situation to the FEI, with the hope of having the regulation applied and the behaviour sanctioned. However, the rider would have to show tangible proof of the organizer’s proposal. In addition, should the rider launch such a process, would they not risk being blacklisted by other organizers? Moreover, the rule focuses on athletes — in other words, riders. But it is well-known that pay cards or pay tables are rarely purchased directly by them, but mainly by the owners of their horses, or their patrons or sponsors. Beyond the principle of not allowing pay to play, which seems to have been established as a golden rule, has the FEI really given itself the means to put an end to this practice? Not certain. 

The new entry system

The new entry system - Can the FEI really put an end to the pay card system?

Currently, a new entry system is being introduced for CSI 2, 3, 4 et 5*s around the world. The system is the product of a long consultation between the FEI Show Jumping committee and its American president John Madden, Irishman John Roche, director of Jumping at the FEI, and numerous organizations including the European Equestrian Federation, national federations, the riders club (IJRC) and the alliance of organizers (IEOA/AJO). Most of the new rules have already been enacted, and a certain number of riders are now invited to compete as a function of their world ranking three months before the event. The proportion of riders affected varies (60, 50, 40 or 30% including one or two invitations left to the discretion of the FEI) as a function of the places reserved for riders from the host country (20, 30, 40 or 50%).

In all four cases, (60+20, 50+30, 40+40, 30+50%), excepting last-minute withdrawals, the two groups make up 80% of the total riders participating, which leaves organizers the freedom to invite the other 20%. Concerning that remaining 20% group, the FEI is clear: it is definitely not a quota of pay cards, which are theoretically forbidden. The rule also specifies that a rider can not propose a financial contribution to an organizer to obtain one of the available spots. 

While scrupulously applying the rules, numerous competition organizers who have in part built their competitions on the pay card model — either for the highest level event (3, 4 or 5*) or for secondary CSI 1* and 2*s — risk running into budget problems if they cannot count on this revenue. This could explain the request by the IEOA/AJO to harmonize entry fees upwards, using North American model (entry fees as a percentage of overall prize money). However, given the recent outcry by riders, coaches and chefs d’equipes, and the unfavourable opinion expressed by FEI president Ingmar de Vos, this proposal appears to be still-born before even being discussed at the Sports Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 10th and 11th. 

An exception for the LGCT and GCL

In order to protect the business model of the Longines Global Champions Tour (GCT — founded in 2006), but also to ensure the future of the Global Champions League (GCL), uncertified by the FEI and not counting for Longines rankings last year, their founder Jan Tops signed an memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the FEI this winter. With the support of Frank McCourt, his American associate, the Dutchman obtained his own special entry rules for these competitions from the world governing body.

For the fifteen stages of the double GCT/GCL circuit, as for any other CSI 5*s, 30% of the total riders group is invited solely on the basis of their world rankings — about fifteen riders, as well as one wild card attributed by the FEI. In contrast, the quota of host country athletes is reduced to 10%, which represents around five riders. The other 60%, about thirty competitors, are invited at the discretion of organizers (with half of that group only having to be ranked in the Top 250 the preceding August). This would allow a proper functioning of the GCL, a competition which features private five-rider teams competing against each other, with two riders selected for each stage by a manager.

This year, 18 teams will take part in the GCL. With entry fees for the current season set at 2 million euros per team, that comes to 36 million euros (almost US $39 million) in revenues for the promoters. According to numerous observers of and stakeholders in Show Jumping, led by the riders in the IJRC, the €2 million fee is nothing other than a giant pay card. More broadly, critics see the MOU between Tops and the FEI as the FEI giving free rein to a system which will turn in on itself, as competitors in the GCL have the possibility to earn the maximum number of points possible for the Longines world rankings and thus more easily maintain their place on top of them. 

Asked about this issue yesterday, the FEI was firm in its response: “There are no exceptions to this [about the pay card prohibition – editor’s note] for GCT and GCL. It is clearly established in the MOU with the GCT/GCL that pay cards are not allowed. Athletes cannot be obliged to pay to be part of a team or to pay to compete in the GCT/GCL nor be obliged to acquire ownership in a GCL team. The process and sanctions are in the FEI rules and the GCT/GCL’s agreement to this was actually one of the key requirements for the FEI to agree to the MOU. The GCT/GCL has given us a full guarantee that they will not accept pay cards, and that no rider will be obliged to pay to be on a team. An athlete cannot be obliged to pay to compete at an event. We want to protect our athletes, this cannot just be a sport for the super rich,” assured the FEI spokesperson in its written response.

Nevertheless, some riders who wish to participate in the GCL have been told orally that it was necessary to contribute to the 2 million euro team entry fee for the circuit. Undoubtedly it would have been better for them to offer their services to teams already entered in the circuits last year, or the new ones created in 2017… In an interview with Noelle Floyd Magazine, John Madden, the powerful 1st vice-president of the FEI, did not hesitate to qualify these colossal entry fees as ‘investments’:  “A rider can invest in a team, but investing in a team is separate from buying an invitation because there is no obligation, there is no right to participate — that’s not covered in the ownership of a team.” This issue clearly remains open to interpretation...

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