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Great performances left in shadow of downturn; BUSINESS OF SPORT In association with www.flybe.com.

Byline: PETER SHARKEY

Late December is traditionally a time when the preceding year's sporting epitaphs are crafted, a period of reflection when outstanding performances are relived and the greatest achievements of the previous 12 months acknowledged.

This year's list is as breathtaking as usual, packed with names and occasions that enkindle a glow during the coldest months. But this year has been overshadowed by deepening economic misery, the effects of which are likely to cast a shadow across next year's sporting landscape.

Exactly 12 months ago, I interviewed John Henderson of your sport travel.com, an online travel agency which organised sporting trips, ranging from a weekend in Barcelona to escorted, 18-day Olympic tours.

"A decade ago," he told me, "few people would have contemplated travelling to watch Real Madrid play at the Bernabeu because it was too expensive but, as you can now fly to Madrid and a host of other sporting venues so cheaply, the number of weekend match packages we sell has trebled inside two years."

Earlier this week, his company went bust. "Business just dried up," Henderson said. "It was incredible - as though a line was drawn under discretionary spending as soon as the Olympic Games finished."

Evidence of the downturn started to become clear in January when it was revealed that Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the American owners of Liverpool FC, were allegedly having problems refinancing more than pounds 300million of debt. According to several reports, the process remains incomplete with both Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia, an American bank, seemingly unwilling to extend the loan beyond February.

Many people thought back in January that the pair had merely overextended themselves when buying one of British football's trophy assets and a similar sense of vaulting ambition could not be avoided when Celtic fans waved pounds 10 notes at Gretna supporters as the west coast club headed towards insolvency in March.

There was, however, evidence of something more sinister. As the global credit crisis continued to roll in, I suggested that: "football is by no means immune...the level of topflight debt continues to grow and while these figures are manageable for now, problems are likely to arise when clubs attempt to refinance borrowings: the favourable terms under which their debts currently operate will no longer be available."

By September, Ayr Racecourse, Scotland's only grade one track, went on the market with an asking price of pounds 14million for 135 acres of leasehold land and the freehold to an adjacent four-star hotel. It remains unsold - like Towcester racecourse and a stake in Wembley, all of which went up for sale at the same time.

As the year progressed, sponsors of events, teams and initiatives began focusing attention on their businesses with dire consequences for sports reliant upon corporate largesse.

Lehman Brothers' demise meant the Oxford v Cambridge Varsity rugby match lost its principal sponsor, while both Cathay Pacific and Standard Chartered Bank withdrew support for the Hong Kong Sevens and Australia's Open golf tournament lost one of its main sponsors.

By November, we experienced a rare display of political honesty when Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell declared: "Had we known what we know now, would we have bid for the Olympics? Almost certainly not." In a year when concerns over Britain's lack of appeal when hosting high profile sporting events were aired as a result of them being heavily taxed, Ms Jowell's comments were too heavily laced with irony for many.

This year has been packed with such uplifting performances that it's easy to overlook 2008's most prominent theme, that sport is not immune from the downturn. There is little evidence that 2009 will serve up anything more commercially palatable.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 29, 2008
Words:615
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