On Monday, June 20th, the Ski Associations of Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Croatia made good on threats issued after the FIS Congress in May, and filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) contesting the voting procedure that elected the unchallenged FIS President Johan Eliasch.
The four nations argue that it was unlawful to deny them the option of voting no to Eliasch, and that the election procedure violated FIS statutes and Swiss law.
Unable to vote no, the dissenting delegates decided to either walk out of the election in protest or abstain from voting altogether. Members of the appealing ski associations have suggested that Eliasch would not have received a majority of the votes cast if an option to vote no had been offered. Had that happened, the appealing nations may have been successful at installing a new candidate.
Instead, Eliasch received 100% of the votes cast, leading his opponents to characterize the proceedings as, in the words of the German delegate, a “farce.” Nevertheless, Eliasch received 70 of a possible 117 votes—a clear 59% majority, and a five vote increase from last year.
For FIS, an appeal of voting procedure technicalities is unprecedented: as a rule, FIS presidential elections have been uncontested and decided by acclaim. In response FIS released a statement saying the allegations, “are entirely without merit or substance.”
Eliasch was reportedly told in advance about the appeal during a meeting in Innsbruck with the Austrian Ski Association. “He took it very professionally and said he needed it too, otherwise [the allegations] would resonate throughout his term,” according to Chrisitan Scherer, the head of Austrian skiing.
While the CAS case will examine legal minutiae, it is best seen as the latest contest in a power struggle between a bloc of dominant ski nations and FIS President Eliasch, whose agenda to rapidly centralize media rights under FIS and shake up the World Cup calendar has threatened their hegemony.
“If you think about the bloc here [in FIS], it’s the French, Germans, Swiss, Austrians, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns,” said Dexter Paine, the U.S.’s former FIS Vice President and Councilor who was voted off the council over his support of centralization.
What the bloc hopes to achieve from the CAS appeal is unclear, though it seems unlikely to overturn the result of the election. The aim may be to stall Eliasch’s agenda as the case will take months to resolve, or to wound him politically and bring him to the bargaining table in a weaker position. It may also be that the four appealing nations are determined to find a way to overturn the election and install their preferred candidate: Urs Lehmann, the head of Swiss Ski.
Eliasch’s election in 2021 interrupted the Swiss reign at FIS, with just two Swiss men— Marc Holder and Gian Franco Kasper—leading the Federation for the previous 70 years. Lehmann, who called the FIS election a “muppet show”, appears to be an opposition candidate that will preserve the bloc’s established order.
Both Paine and Eliasch spoke to FasterSkier earlier this month to discuss the issues facing FIS as it attempts to centralize the media rights, expand the reach of the World Cup, and attract a larger audience in North America.
Eliasch’s bid to modernize FIS in the near term will now be hampered by Paine’s absence from the council, an assertive bloc, and entanglements at every corner with the sport media company Infront.
While there has been general disagreement between the bloc and Eliasch over centralization, one development in particular has alarmed the bloc as well as Infront: A judgment won in Swiss court that found FIS to be the rightful owner of World Cup races and not, as was previously understood, the hosting National Ski Association.
With this ruling in hand, Eliasch has suggested that the contracts with Infront could be broken—a move that would take centralization from the theoretical realm, where it has support from the bloc, to the immediate, where it does not.
Much of Infront’s contracts for FIS events extend to at least the 2025/26 season, with Swiss Ski signing a deal that lasts until 2027/28.
Urs Lehmann, the head of Swiss Ski, opposes the notion of breaking contracts. “That’s not possible,” he said to Tages Anzeiger. “Infront hasn’t done anything wrong, on the contrary, it’s a big partner of the FIS when it comes to world championships.”
For his part, Lehmann said centralization would require a long time frame, presumably after 2028, and could be done only after proving that Ski Associations would receive at least the same amount of money.
Eliasch has said that FIS has ample funds to give “cast-iron guarantees” to match Ski Association’s deals with Infront, saying, “We can back it up any day of the week.”
FIS’s financial assets at the end of 2020 amounted to around $146 million, suggesting that if the Federation is prepared to dip into their reserves, it has the ability to support Ski Associations through the transition.
Infront’s VP of Strategic Communications, Jörg Polzer, outlined the risks for FIS of moving away from the current arrangement in an interview in Ski Racing, suggesting that the new proposal “would represent a de facto expropriation of the National Ski Associations.”
Polzer also felt that the outcome would be a “plethora of legal claims and lawsuits for many years to come,” the result of which could mean that fans might not be able to access “FIS World Cup coverage as conveniently and widely as it is the case today.”
Centralization under FIS threatens to disrupt both Infront’s profits and its valued portfolio of winter sports which encompasses all seven winter Olympic sport federations. It is likely to respond to broken contracts by both halting payments and pursuing damages from National Ski Associations.
Eliasch reassured members in a letter to the FIS council stating, “The FIS will award all national ski federations compensation for all claims by Infront.”
The plan to centralize FIS, known as the Concorde Agreement, is supported by US Ski & Snowboard, who believe the proposal would help modernize the sport and increase funding for everyone.
Paine said that “Johan [Eliasch] has been really explicit about the fact that he would envision that revenues related to media would increase under the new model. In fact, he’s talking about potentially up to a 25% increase in revenues.”
Still, the bloc has opposed the centralization of media rights, with Austria’s Scherer saying, “you can’t just take them (media rights) away from us, as an organizer you also bear the risk.” Scherer’s position is that hosting events should come with a risk/reward incentive. Considering that the opposing nations host many events, including the highest profile ones, the rewards are significant.
The Ski Associations of the bloc also oppose the “expropriation” of ownership that centralization presents. Scherer argued that it could only be done on a voluntary basis—an option that would defeat the purpose of centralization, but preserve the bloc’s influence over skiing.
Facing resistance, Eliasch decided to table the Concorde Agreement to allow for a period of consultations with members. “We decided not to bring [the Agreement] forward to Congress, because it needed more work,” Paine said.
Some representatives have complained about poor communication between Eliasch and National Ski Associations with regards to his plans for centralization.
Paine agreed that improvements are needed in this area, saying, “FIS needs to do a much better job articulating why this would be good for everyone in the sport, and how they would make sure that those countries aren’t any worse off than they were before.”
Though Paine added that, “Johan has been very explicit about the fact that he is going to seek the advisement of the [FIS] Counsel, and all members, on all the items regarding centralization rights.”
Entanglements with Infront
Another challenge for FIS will be breaking free from Infront. The company has become enmeshed in the fabric of FIS, from the television production of races, to long term contracting of rights, to negotiating sponsorships, to even building the FIS app and website.
FIS will also have to overcome its own independent marketing agency, FIS Marketing AG, which was created in 2009 to acquire and sell the sponsorship rights to FIS World Cup events.
FIS Marketing AG (FISMAG) is majority owned by FIS (51%), with 24.5% owned by Infront, and the final 24.5% owned by Tridem Sports. The venture is led by Christian Pirzer—the CEO of Tridem Sports, a two man marketing firm started by Pirzer in 2008 and based in Freienbach, Switzerland.
“Part of Johan’s platform, and I think most candidates’ platform, was to bring all of that in house,” said Paine. “I think people didn’t fully understand why 49% of our marketing organization was owned by a third party.”
Infront’s role in the venture has been principally to acquire sponsors, billing €855,000 for its services to FIS Marketing AG, according to an SEC filing in 2018. For its part, FIS recorded its 2018 income from partnerships at 676,000 Swiss francs—around €577,000 at the time.
“Most entities own 100% of their sponsorship revenues, and I think it’s unusual that FIS wouldn’t,” Paine said. Questions have been asked about whether this arrangement is in the best interests of FIS. “We don’t [even] have a title sponsor for Snowboard. That just always astounded me.”
Eliasch intends to end the venture, writing in a letter to the FIS Council, “We have terminated all agreements related to FISMAG so we have removed this obstacle to realizing our sponsorship potential.” To date the firm has not been closed, and Swiss courts are reportedly handling the injunctions necessary to stop it from continuing.
According to German paper Bild, Pirzer is suing Eliasch to defend himself against allegations that he has been involved in fraud. Pirzer said simply, “I have filed a criminal complaint against Johan Eliasch for defamation.”
Infront Sport and Media is based in Zug, Switzerland, and is led by Phillipe Blatter—nephew of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter who presided over the governing body of soccer from 1998 to 2015 when he stepped down after a massive corruption investigation roiled the organization and put him under investigation for fraud.
After Phillipe Blatter was appointed Infront CEO in 2005, the company won comprehensive distribution rights to the FIFA World Cup until 2022. Infront released a statement in 2015 squashing “unwarranted assumptions” of nepotism with regard to its FIFA contracts.
While Infront remains a respected titan of its field, the company has been dogged by investigations over the improper sale of media rights in Italy’s Serie A soccer league, advertising in the German Football Association, and antitrust activities. The company’s 2019 prospectus stated possible investment risks included negative publicity “prompted by actual or alleged criminal activities, such as money laundering, tax evasion or bribery.”
In 2015, Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group purchased a controlling stake in Infront for $1.2 billion. The Group was a key player in China’s drive to create 300 million Chinese skiers, building, among other things, the world’s largest indoor ski area in Harbin. Wanda Group acquired Infront six months prior to the IOC vote on hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, and the addition of the Swiss company was seen as a boost to Beijing’s successful bid.
Should Eliasch prove successful at centralizing the rights, it is still likely that Infront would remain involved with FIS, considering its primacy in its field and the fact that other centralized sports such as biathlon and F1 both contract with Infront.
Paine said that he’s “been an advocate for Johan sitting down with Infront. I think there has to be some negotiation with all the parties involved, if this is going to come to a successful conclusion.”
Eliasch met with Infront in May, and was scheduled to meet again in June. “I’ve been a big advocate for those conversations taking place,” Paine said. “I was the loudest advocate, quite frankly, on the Council for making sure that Johan was in dialogue with Infront.”
A Push for More Racing in the United States
Paine and Eliasch also drew ire from some nations over their push for more World Cup racing in the United States, aimed at attracting a larger American audience.
The seasonal stops on the World Cup have grown so indelible that there’s been little room left for visits to new venues. “The calendar from one year to the next has looked very similar,” said Paine. “There were very few changes.”
The arguably stagnate routine has kept World Cup racing of all disciplines overwhelmingly in the Alps region and in the Nordic countries, and moves to change this has frustrated some nations. “It’s about planning security,” argued Walter Reusser, the Alpine Director at Swiss Ski.
Eliasch argued that the prescribed calendar has hindered the growth of the sport, particularly in the U.S. “I know [FasterSkier is] focused on cross-country, but alpine is a good example,” said Eliasch. “NorAm races, which are the second tier, are much more famous than the FIS World Cup races in the U.S. That tells you that something is really off. And when do we come to the U.S.? At the wrong time [November] when there is little interest in ski racing. So we have changed that, at least for alpine, so that we come back in March. We go to Aspen and Palisades Tahoe, as it’s called now. And here we hope we get proper viewership, and we can build much more time and engagement with American viewers.”
Though American alpine skiers have gained widespread fame, as a television audience the U.S. does not make the top ten for alpine, ranking somewhere below the likes of Slovenia.
“Johan has said whether it’s cross-country, or alpine, we need to have more events outside of Central Europe and Scandinavia,” said Paine. “And those countries, once again, are the countries with the most events. If we’re going to hold events in North America or in Asia, they have to come from somewhere.”
The addition of men’s alpine racing in Aspen and Palisades Tahoe next winter comes at the expense of Norwegian venue Kvitfjell. Erik Røste, the outgoing head of Norwegian skiing responded, “The Norwegian Ski Association will do everything we can to ensure that both women and men can run the World Cup in Norway in the years to come. As a large and dominant alpine nation, this is important.”
Paine dissauged fears that the Cross-Country World Cup races tentatively scheduled for Minneapolis, MN and Cable, WI in 2024 would be in jeopardy without his seat on the Council. “I don’t believe there’s any issues,” Paine said. “That cross-country calendar seems to be pretty widely supported. Chris [Grover], has done a really nice job in building relationships.
“Look, there’s going to be a lot of turnover in cross-country as Erik Røste is going to be done in June and there is going to be a new head of the Norwegian Ski Federation, as well as all the issues with races in Russia given the conflict in Ukraine. My sense is that we’re in good shape for the 2024 races, particularly since everyone was ready to go with the Minneapolis races when the pandemic led to its cancellation.
This is good news for American fans waiting since 2001 for the Cross-Country World Cup to return on home snow. For Paine, long an advocate for more racing on our shores, the bolstered American World Cup calendar is a job well done.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.