Soviet Sports Is Ready to Deal
The head of the Soviet Basketball Federation, whose team won the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, smiled and gestured at a plate of tomatoes on the windowsill of his outer office.
“You see we are not too proud to sell tomatoes to support our organization,” said federation President Valentin Sytch, noting that there were thousands more in crates outside in the parking lot.
“Only a ruble apiece!” he said, handing a ripe red one to a visitor.
Sytch, who said in a recent interview that his team scrounges for every kopeck to replace lost government subsidies, typifies a new breed of Soviet sports promoter trying keep the country’s athletic tradition alive, and maybe even turning a profit.
From hawking tomatoes to signing million-dollar contracts with Nike and Adidas, these scrappy hustlers are now trying to cut deals and find sponsors -- at home and abroad -- in a brave new world of sports marketing.
“We used to say ‘give us a few million’ and the government gave it to us -- in rubles or foreign currency,” National Olympic Committee President Vitaly Smirnov recently recalled fondly.
But the Soviet Union’s economic crisis changed all that. The cost of sending athletes to compete abroad rose as the government’s supply of foreign currency fell. The flow of sports subsidies slowed to a trickle.
The main budget ax fell at the State Sports Committee, or Gossport, the central ministry which for decades funneled money to the nation’s elite athletic schools, training camps and teams.
Gossport’s budget of 150 million rubles a year, earned mainly from a national sports lottery, failed in recent years to maintain such handouts.
“One year ago, we budgeted 12 rubles a day to feed athletes,” said Arkady Kolesov, Gossport’s official in charge of the Summer Olympic teams. “Now that’s not even enough for breakfast.”
But Gossport’s dwindling resources became irrelevant this month when the agency was disbanded. Russian President Boris Yeltsin had already cut the agency’s funding when Soviet government officials listed Gossport among the roughly 80 former ministries to be abolished.
The death of Gossport, and the failure to transfer its functions to other bodies, may doom schools and sports clubs that produced generations of champions. In one stark example, a Moscow trade union last spring closed its gymnastics school and opened up a profit-making pool hall.
“All our problems are linked to money,” said Mikhail Minakov, assistant coach of the Soviet Olympic swim team and director of the dilapidated Izmailovo Swim Center in Moscow.
More than 4,000 teen-age athletes train at the center’s 12 crumbling concrete pools. But this year free swim lessons and meals were abolished, and the center’s team competed in only two international swim meets instead of five.
Minakov watched as three girls swam a synchronized routine to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” and recalled wistfully how crowds filled the stands in better economic times.
“Now we don’t even charge admission, and the only spectators who show up are family members of the swimmers,” said Minakov.
The main structures in Soviet athletics which must fill the vacuum created by Gossport’s demise are the newly independent, privately run federations for each sport.
These federations were relieved in November when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev issued a decree exempting them from a 40 percent tax on foreign currency earnings. The decree also lifted duties on imports of foreign sports equipment.
The federations spend most of their time seeking sponsors -- a word that most Russians had never heard until recently.
“Finding sponsors is all luck and connections -- being in the right place at the right time,” said Vladimir Gomelski, already a veteran Soviet sponsor-seeker.
Gomelski, a former professional basketball coach who does commentary for NBA games shown on Soviet TV, speaks fluent English and often travels to the United States. But as a board member of the Soviet basketball federation, he mostly tries to bag home-grown sponsors.
“The more people you know -- especially those from the first generation of Soviet millionaires, the more luck you will have finding sponsors,” said Gomelski. The elusive prey tend to be aged 35 to 40 and love sports themselves, he said.
He cited Herman Sterligov, a 24-year-old millionaire who founded a commodities exchange and in November sponsored a 1 million-ruble hockey tournament in Moscow.
In one recent triumph, Gomelski found a Siberian folk medicine firm to put up 200,000 rubles to organize a basketball tournament in Vladivostok.
Gossport had maintained a contract since the 1980s with Adidas, which provided T-shirts, shorts, sneakers and other sportswear items to Soviet Olympic athletes. Now Adidas is negotiating to sign separate contracts with 12 Soviet sports federations.
Besides signing with sponsors and selling produce, Soviet sports organizations have found other ways to make money.
The federations collect voluntary dues from their stars. For example, pole-vaulting superstar Sergei Bubka gives 10 percent of his winnings to the Soviet Track and Field Federation.
Smirnov’s organization survives mainly by using the Olympic seal to sell bags, clothes and glossy sports programs. His office furniture was donated by the International Olympic Committee. He also expects to make 250 million rubles this year by holding an Olympic lottery.
But Smirnov complains that Soviet sports organizations lack one enormous source of sports revenues in the West: television.
“We don’t get a kopeck from televised games,” said Smirnov. He blamed Gostelradio, the state firm that until recently enjoyed a broadcasting monopoly.
Gostelradio actually has charged to televise some sports events -- including NBA games -- reflecting the undeveloped Soviet advertising market.
Soviet Olympic Basketball Coach Yuri Selikhov said in the past Gostelradio had to be begged to televise games. “We used to say ‘go ahead, people will find this interesting to watch,”’ he said.
Selikhov said he hopes that the popular Russian television channel and other new TV stations will compete with Gostelradio so it will have to start paying the basketball federation for the right to show games.
Kolesov, of the now-defunct Gossport, said the transformation of Soviet sports into a business may have a downside. Less popular sports such as rowing may perish in a market economy, he said.
But most people in Soviet sports agree that changes were overdue.
“If this is the type of system used in other civilized countries, we should have this system, too,” Selikhov said.