Elections at FIS Congresses are normally not the scene of political intrigues, particularly when there is only one candidate for President. Yet, in a surprise twist, a bloc of powerful ski nations walked out on FIS President Johan Eliasch’s uncontested election and voted out Dexter Paine, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard representative, as well as a FIS Vice President and Councilor.
Prior to the vote for President on May 26th in Milan, Italy, Croatia’s representative Vedran Pavlek insisted that the procedure be changed to allow a yes, no, or abstaining vote. Denied by FIS Legal Counsel, the delegates of Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Croatia and Scandinavia walked out. In all, only 70 of the 117 available votes were cast—just over the 63 minimum needed to reelect Eliasch.
The vote for FIS council followed, and Dexter Paine, who has served on the council since 2014, found himself in third lowest position—an abrupt turn of events for US skiing’s representative.
“It was a real surprise,” Dexter Paine said on a call with FasterSkier. “A year ago, I was elected with the second largest number of votes. I think it was more of a protest vote against Johan [Eliasch], because, ultimately, he was the only name on the President’s ballot.”
“One of the things that I find disappointing,” Paine said, “is that I wish people were more direct and more open on the council and within that community, rather than being political.”
Austria’s representative, Christian Scherer, seemed to sum up the underhanded attitude in an interview with Kleine Zeitung, saying, “We don’t want to say whether we voted for [Paine] or not. What I can say is that we always had excellent connections with the United States.”
Paine explained that he received close to the same number of votes (74) as Eliasch and said, “I assume all the countries that walked out voted against me.”
President Johan Eliasch said that Paine’s presence on the council “will be missed,” adding, “He’s really been one of the people before I came in that was very strongly driving change for the better. His contribution has been invaluable over the years.”
Paine had long advocated for modernization efforts within FIS—a position that led him to wholeheartedly endorse Eliasch’s progressive platform. Together, they rode a victorious crest during last year’s FIS elections.
Their decisive electoral wins in 2021 were interpreted as a mandate for change, and the two men pushed for Eliasch’s positions, key among them, the centralization of media rights that would help fund an overhaul of how FIS presents its sports and funds its athletes.
Just one year in, the representatives of large ski nations have seemed to sour on their enthusiasm for disrupting the status quo, with those that walked out of the Congress and voted out Paine decrying the election as undemocratic.
“An election is called that because one has a choice,” said Urs Lehmann, the head of Swiss Ski. “But that didn’t exist, that goes against our understanding of the law.” The Swiss, according to Lehmann, are considering legal action to invalidate the election.
FIS statutes stipulated that candidates who wished to run for President needed to register by March 31st. When none did, Eliasch, who was voted in last year in a competitive election, was left as the lone candidate.
“Anyone could have run against [Eliasch] 60 days ago,” said Paine. “So, if the folks who objected to the ballot were so focused on a democratic process, they should have run someone 60 days ago. Clearly, they didn’t think that they could run someone and have them win.”
Lehmann insisted that the discord with Eliasch only began to occur after March 31, when, according to Tages Anzeiger, Eliasch presented “his sometimes hair-raising plans” to National Ski Associations. “The whole thing has only escalated in the last few weeks,” said Lehmann, adding, “the time for a serious candidacy was simply too short.”
Paine sees Lehmann’s motivations differently. “I think Urs Lehmann, who’s the head of Swiss Ski, desperately would like to be the President of this organization,” said Paine. “He lost last year and he could have filed his name and run this year, if he chose to.” Better that, Paine thought, than to “create a disruptive event at the Congress.”
The discontent directed at Eliasch and Paine over the electoral process seems disingenuous. The former FIS President, the late Gian Franco Kasper, ran unopposed throughout the course of his 23 year Presidency—and had much more to do with a plan to centralize media rights under FIS.
“I’ve been a pretty vocal advocate for centralization of media rights,” Paine said. “Every successful sports organization out there, Formula One [F1], NFL, Premier League, all have centralized rights.”
Paine’s position has been backed by U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt, who wrote that she is “pro-centralization.” The rights, she said “are valuable, and centralization can offer a significant revenue increase for countries across the board. This is a proven strategy across many successful sports globally, and by building the right structure, all of the national governing bodies under FIS can benefit.”
Under the current long-standing structure, National Ski Associations (NSAs) presumed ownership of the media rights to FIS events hosted in their countries. Nearly all nations sold the totality of these rights to Infront Sports and Media who in turn brokered deals with broadcasters around the world to air these events.
Eliasch and Paine advocated a different approach—a proposal called the FIS Concorde Agreement, in which FIS would own or distribute the rights previously controlled by the NSAs and sell them, much as Infront has done.
The potential windfall of income to FIS by retaking control of the media rights would be substantial. “The estimate is that Infront makes somewhere between 40 and 50 million euros on their ski contracts,” said Paine. “If you could instead allocate that increased income to increase prize money for athletes, increase distributions for our members, I think those would all be really good things. We can also do things like give digital rights to athletes.”
Currently, an athlete is unable to post videos of themselves racing due to copyright infringement. Paine suggested that if FIS owned the distribution rights, an athlete such as Jessie Diggins would have been able to post footage of her Tour de Ski win.
“Today, athletes don’t have that opportunity,” Paine said, “but if we were to control those rights, we could do that to really help our athletes, not just to generate more revenue, but increase our appeal globally.”
According to Hannah Kearney, an athlete representative on the FIS council, “This is something that would benefit athletes, so I believe they support the centralization.” However, Kearney wrote that “athletes from different countries definitely have unique perspectives on the issue which makes it hard to make a broad claim about how all athletes feel.”
The proceeds would also fund the improvement of viewers’ experience. “I think cross country is a great product,” said Eliasch, “but we can make the television production more attractive, so what you see on television is more exciting. That applies across the board. I mean, we’re talking about using drone technology, telemetrics packages, more cameras, stuff like Formula One does. We need a series like ‘Drive to Survive’ like F1.”
Netflix’s Drive to Survive takes viewers inside the inner workings of F1 and has helped boost interest in the motorsport. The show has been touted by Eliasch as an example of what would be possible if FIS had centralized rights. Asked if he could envision a similar series on cross country skiing, he said, “Yeah, definitely.”
While Eliasch has promoted the model of F1, Paine has looked to biathlon, which he said was “a perfect example—they’ve been wildly successful. The new biathlon leadership has done a great job with their television contracts, with sponsorship, and really grown revenues and distributions very nicely for athlete prize money.”
“It is the model we should be looking at,” Paine said chuckling. “I’ll be really direct about that.”
The basic concept is that FIS, by reinvesting the profits from the rights, would be able to improve both the media product and the competitive field by supporting coaches and athletes from underfunded nations. The more attractive media product and broader competition would draw in more viewers, and in turn, more profits.
In theory, the Concorde Agreement would raise all National Ski Associations, through a profit sharing initiative between FIS and the event hosts, and by distributing proceeds to all NSAs.
Clearly, that is not the view of the big players in the ski world, who have viewed the rapid moves by Eliasch to remove Infront as a threat to their bottom line.
Paine explained that the largest TV revenue contracts go to Austria and Switzerland, with Germany and Norway likely close behind. “So I think their very simple calculus is,” Paine said, “they have the most downside—not what is best for the athletes and the sport.”
“If you’re Austria, you make €25 or €30 million a year from your TV contract,” said Paine. “That’s how you fund your athletes, and you don’t want to end up with €15 million. Now, Johan [Eliasch] would say that €25 [million] will, in fact, be €30, or €35 [million]—under a new contract [with] centralized rights. But he needs to make sure that people get comfortable with that and understand the math which seems compelling.”
The FIS President recognized the hesitancy of large ski nations, saying, “For the dominant alpine nations, this is a big change. But it is essential if we want to move forward, because today we don’t have a digital media platform. We don’t have any content. The app and the website are [both] done by the same company—which control FIS’s media and broadcast rights.”
For FIS, the problem of Infront as a middleman goes beyond recapturing profits and platforms—the Swiss based media company has made deals that run counter to the interests of both FIS and the NSAs.
“They’ve been very clever,” Eliasch said of Infront. “They have done the centralization of FIS’s media and broadcast rights—what FIS should have done twenty years ago.”
“Historically,” said Eliasch of the existing business model, “the FIS World Cup rights have been sold outright, mostly at below fair market value with very onerous terms contributing to a loss of viewership.”
“A good example is Scandinavia,” continued Eliasch. “FIS World Cup rights were sold to a marketing agency who in turn sold them to a web based streaming platform for more than double what they paid.”
Eliasch noted that while “this model proves exceptionally profitable for the marketing agency, the strategy behind the sale is problematic to our future. The streaming channel is a specialty channel with small viewership compared to mainstream broadcasters. Consequently, less people are able to access the product and viewership is down a staggering 40% in Norway and Sweden which is disastrous for our sport.”
The streaming service that Eliasch was referring to is NENT, now rebranded as Viaplay, whose purchase of the rights has taken skiing events off public TV, to various degrees, in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and put them behind a paywall—an unpopular move that has suppressed viewership in a key market for cross country skiing.
In all, the sport has lost 27% of its total audience this season, with Norway losing close to half in just two years. With Scandinavia hemorrhaging viewers, the Viaplay deal could have hardly come at a worse time: the sport is poised to lose a further third of its audience in Russia should it remain banned. All things being equal, this possibility would see cross country skiing’s viewership crater to just a third of what it was a decade ago.
While the windfall to Infront from brokering the rights to Viaplay is purportedly worth more than €10 million a year and extends until the 2024/25 season, the sponsorship value lost in the past year—more than €22 million—suggests that the deal only made sense to the third party selling the rights.
“Future deals will be based on previous audience metrics,” said Eliasch. “Any decline in viewership is a decline in value.”
For Ski Associations there was little recourse to prevent the Viaplay deal, explained Eliasch. “The current agency rights agreements are so restrictive they prevent an NSA the ability to approve or reject distribution channels, which today is a ‘standard’ right of the IP rights holder.”
The FIS President felt that the Viaplay deal demonstrated what happens “if you do an agreement with a complete buyout.”
By buyout, Eliasch was referring to the policy of selling the totality of the media rights, rather than, say, granting a “license for a live showing and then you [get] the rights back.”
Eliasch felt a more typical approach would be a commission based contract that grants a “license for a live showing and then you [get] the rights back.”
“That’s how it [normally] works,” said Eliasch, adding, “If you have a middleman involved, he gets a 15% commission. You get a minimum guarantee, you have controls over the distribution channels. That’s kind of how the business works today. An outright sale to an agent is not how the business is done.”
When asked how Infront had gained so much influence over FIS, Eliasch replied:
“I can’t…I can’t begin to explain that. I can only say these agreements make the Versailles Treaty look like a good treaty. But again,” added Eliasch, “we can only blame ourselves. And that is what we have to change.”
“We must evolve,” he said. “It is essential if we want to move forward. We’re not in control of our own destiny.”
Eliasch has been clear in his vision for the future of FIS, saying, “We are an FIS for all members, not just for the chosen few—we are for all disciplines, all over the world. I want to strengthen our commercial activities. I want to make sure we’re fit for purpose. I want us to expand our reach, and make us more attractive to young people.”
Paine remained steadfast in his views despite running afoul of entrenched interests at FIS, saying, “I wouldn’t do anything differently in terms of the positions we advocate for, or what we think is best for the athletes in the sport. I’m very much a person that does what I say I’m going to do.”
The election loss was bittersweet for Paine, as he felt that much of his agenda set out in the last couple of years had been accomplished: “We were very focused on electing women to the council,” said Paine, “So we had put through the statute change that required three women [to be elected] and actually four women were elected, which I think is great for the organization.”
He listed other goals attained at this spring’s Congress such as the culmination of a ten year effort to officially change the name of FIS to include Snowboard, as well as the (likely) integration of Para sports under the FIS umbrella at the end of June.
“On the alpine side, we doubled the number of World Cup races we have in the US, including a block in March, which is terrific. We were able to get through many of the things we’ve worked really hard on, that I think will have a really positive impact on athletes,” said Paine, adding, “So that’s exciting.”
Paine’s presence on the council will be missed by many. “I sincerely appreciate Dexter’s sense of humor and his willingness to stand up for what he believes is right,” Kearney wrote. “Dexter was an energetic, outspoken, and thoughtful Council member. He advocated for the athletes and was a wonderful mentor to me.”
U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt wrote that “Dexter has been an incredible advocate for modernization and making the FIS more democratic throughout his time on the FIS council.” She added that his work to get smaller nations and women represented on the council “will help bring a global and more inclusive perspective to the FIS.”
While the US continues to have a vote on the council through athlete representative Hannah Kearney, her role is somewhat different from that of Paine’s. Selected by the fourteen athlete representatives, she wrote that her role is to “represent the interest of the athletes, whereas elected council members balance the interests of all stakeholders across the FIS family.”
“I am really sad that we (the US) don’t have an elected voice,” Paine said. “Forget whether it’s me or someone else, I just think it is important to have a voice.”
“The good news is,” said Paine, “Johan continues to call a lot. So, I think we continue to have the ear of the presidency.”
Goldschmidt noted that the US is still well represented in FIS committees and that the “[U.S. Ski & Snowboard] has some great relationships with other countries and members of FIS,” including, “new elects Deidra Dionne from Canada, Magdalena Kast of Argentina, and Fiona Stevens of New Zealand.”
“While we’re disappointed that Dexter was not reelected,” wrote Goldschmidt, she pointed out that Paine still retains influence at FIS. After his electoral loss, he was voted in as an Ex Officio Honorary Member, a title that lacks voting rights but will, according Goldschmidt, allow Paine to “participate in council meetings and encourage U.S. Ski & Snowboard-backed changes.”
“Hopefully,” Paine reflected on his eight year career on the FIS council, “it ultimately has been a real benefit to the athletes at FIS.”
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.