Olympic committee head: Team sports looking at the severest blow

Siim Sukles at the EOK sports elections debate.
Siim Sukles at the EOK sports elections debate. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The incoming coalition wants to ban gambling, online sports betting and fast loan ads. This is bound to impact the field of sports as online betting portals are avid sponsors, especially as concerns team sports. Estonian Olympic Committee (EOK) head Siim Sukles sheds light on potential problems in an interview to ERR.

What is the situation today, as we are waiting for the new government to take office?

We are worried after reading the coalition agreement. Our question is whether those who put it together have done the same. But we're a few steps short of depression, let's say. Talking about online gambling and sports betting companies' contribution to Estonian sports, it comes to €3 million, which is quite a lot of money. The important thing is that this concerns disciplines which receive little in the way of state support – ballgames. Estonia subsidizes youth and individual sports, while team sports stand to lose the most if the coalition agreement's plan [to ban online gambling ads] is realized.

While €3 million sounds imposing, how much is it in the grand scheme of sports funding?

Nationwide, we're talking about €280-300 million. But we need to keep in mind that this includes youth sports financing from local governments. Looking at it as a pyramid, local government funding is the biggest component, next comes sponsorship, then parents' contribution and finally state support. While money from sponsors is among the smaller components, it still comes to €50-60 million of which €3 million is from sports betting.

Please refresh my memory. When did online betting portals become supporters of Estonian sports? Did it gradually happen after state-owned companies stopped sponsoring sports?

Those two things are not linked. But as far as the Olympic Committee is concerned, we can say that its first sponsor was Olympic Casino back in 1997. They opened their first casino in the Tallinn Olympic Yachting Center and also became our sponsor. Online betting really kicked off five or six years ago, which is when they became involved with Estonian sports. It has a lot to do with IT development and the world of sports making its way into your pocket or portable screen.

If you'll excuse the provocation, is promoting gambling really an acceptable part of sports? To split hairs, gambling addicts are not a nice phenomenon. We have taken steps to improve the situation but then... almost every Estonian sports jersey depicts a logo promoting the other path.

Let us go back. Money in Estonian culture and sports comes from the Cultural Endowment. The organization was created in the pre-war republic and gets its funding from tobacco, alcohol excise duty and gambling tax revenue. In other words, there has been a system of purification in place in Estonia for a long time where vices are paid for in taxes...

So, it is not hypocrisy?

No, it is definitely not hypocrisy. Everything we eat, drink, smoke – the excise duty revenue goes toward state support for creative persons. It is the same situation in sports – let us not treat betting as automatically negative. It is just another form of entertainment. The problem we're trying to solve is making sure people don't go too far. Reading the coalition agreement, the tip of the spear is aimed at fast credit providers and saving people caught in their net. It feels like sports betting was lumped in with little afterthought. And because the coalition agreement was put together in just two weeks, effects analysis fell short.

Reading more of the coalition agreement... on the painful topic of coaches' benefits and salaries – does it make mention of it?

Not in so many words. There is a section under the sports chapter I have read every which way now. People in sports have not been able to make sense of it over the last four days. The remaining four or five items that treat with sports are comprehensible, while this bit should have been a bit clearer as far as coaches are concerned. We would have liked coaches to be treated as education workers, teachers, as opposed to cultural workers.

But the coalition agreement is rather a framework, and details will follow for its individual items. Let us not be depressed. What the coalition agreement provides are concepts and directions. It is also true that, statistically, Estonian governments do not last longer than two years. Whether everything can be done... But from where we're standing, the items included require the right activity plan. The desire to develop something needs to come with ways to pay for it.

Were your people invited to relevant discussions?

We are a sports association and known as lobbyists in some circles. And a lobbyist's task is to get their talking points into parties' programs, and we also provided input for the coalition agreement. But as these things tend to go, parties' ability to listen wanes once elections are over. But we did manage to get some of our phrasing in there.

Can we say your lobbyist wasn't exactly on vacation?

We are never on vacation.

Should it all go down as suggested by the Ministry of Culture's undersecretary, who also said there is no cause for panic... But what will happen once online betting companies can no longer put their logos on jerseys?

It is easy to tear things down and hard to come up with an alternative. Luckily, Tarvi [Pürn, deputy secretary general for sports] at the ministry has been clear in that a compensation mechanism will need to be found. I hope the government has enough wisdom to realize that banning something requires something else in its place. Team sports losing €3 million would be a very serious blow for them. I would not quite call it a disaster, while it would take their budgets back five or six years, which is hardly feasible today.

Once the logos are off the shirts, will there be any motivation for Paf or Olybet to keep sponsoring the teams?

Patronage only goes so far. Why should you keep pouring money into something with no output? While the Estonian owners of those two firms are great sports fans – why else would they be sponsors in the first place – business logic still applies.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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