Revealing Round Table: Jan Tops & Ingmar De Vos Explain FEI Approved Global Champions League

“Those that don’t change end up struggling mightily, or becoming extinct.”

That was the message put forward on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 in Valkenswaard, The Netherlands during a revealing round table meeting between some of show jumping’s most powerful figures.

Little more than one year ago it would have seemed farfetched to imagine FEI President Ingmar De Vos sitting side by side in partnership with Longines Global Champions Tour co-owners Jan Tops and Frank McCourt. Throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016, the FEI refused to approve Tops and McCourt’s Global Champions League concept on the basis of competition exclusivity and integrity of sport. Fast-forward through the first season of the GCL in 2016, and the FEI has changed its stance, putting its full support behind the GCL. The two parties came to a Memorandum of Understanding that officially put the dispute behind them, in November 2016.

Given the strong words spoken against the Global Champions League by De Vos in December 2015, the biggest question of the day was exactly how the agreement had been reached.

“We need to not to look too much into the past, but into the future. At a certain stage we were approached by GCT/GCL to see how this dispute could be settled,” De Vos said. “We are a governing body and we need to be open and listen to questions from our stakeholders.”

De Vos emphasized the importance of evolving the sport in the interest of future growth. When a journalist suggested that the FEI seemed to be the loser in the “battle” with the LGCT/GCL, De Vos responded that he didn’t see it that way.

“A lot of sports are looking to make their formats more interesting to a wider audience and it would be stupid for us not to try the same,” he said. “Any organization that wants to be at the top, has to look at all of the opportunities in order to increase value to the sponsor and look for more spectators, and also to further develop the sport.”

“I’ve never seen change occur where everybody is happy. It takes time to adjust.”

“I’ve never seen change occur where everybody is happy,” McCourt, who is a non-equestrian with a background in media and sports, said. “It takes time to adjust. I don’t think that the FEI necessarily wanted this agreement that we reached. This was done in the context of a legal matter because we wanted to grow our sport, and we had a disagreement. Within that context an agreement was reached, and happily, because we wanted the FEI to be involved and to be regulating our business.”

The new, FEI-approved format for the 2017 Longines Global Champions Tour/Global Champions League includes a new CSI invitation system that has been met with opposition by the national federations that make up the European Equestrian Federation. One point at issue is a reduction by half in the number of top-ranked rider invitations. Format-wise, the LGCT Grand Prix will no longer be two full rounds plus jumpoff. And the Global Champions League will be held as part of/within the two feature qualifier classes on the days prior to the Grand Prix.

To answer the concern that the change in the invitation system gave top riders less opportunity to compete on the LGCT, De Vos argued that actually, with the correct application of the invitation system by the FEI, the future development of a new online invitation system (set to premiere in 2018), with FEI controls and the growing number of five star events, riders have more opportunities than ever before to compete at high level five star events.

Frank McCourt & Jan Tops at the 2016 premiere of the Global Champions League in Miami, Florida, USA.

What’s more, he used the success of the GCL’s first year, and the high number of top-ranked riders who have committed to the series for 2017, to prove his point.

It’s clear that Tops, who more or less predicted that running the GCL in 2016 as an unsanctioned series would show the FEI that the concept worked, has been proven right.

“When we go down the FEI ranked top 30 now, we see more riders in the top ranking who are competing in these GCL events, than we even saw [participate] in the GCT events of last year,” De Vos said. “I see it as a positive.”

The invitation system that was developed for the Global Champions League and accepted by the FEI fully meets the principles of the FEI invitation systems in general, De Vos said. The concept of teams isn’t new, and comparison was made to Nations Cups, which operate without a ranked invitation system, to accommodate teams from all participating nations.

“We’re a competition, and maybe sometimes people lose their grip, or can’t follow things, and you get reaction,” said Tops, who went on to point out that when he started the Global Champions Tour a dozen years ago, people also protested it. He didn’t need to state the obvious that in the 12 years of its existence, the LGCT has become the world’s richest and arguably most successful competition series.

This time, when the GCL rules were submitted to the FEI Jumping Committee, they were found to be within the FEI’s parameters. At the upcoming FEI Sports Forum in April, the FEI even plans to debate amending its dress code policy, and discuss placing sponsor advertisements on rider apparel, a statement that perhaps foreshadows its acceptance of future sponsor participation on the already-modern GCL team uniforms.

That wasn’t all, and we’ll further explore the new competition format and its implications  in upcoming coverage. While overall rider reaction has been mixed, rider Maikel Van Der Vleuten of The Netherlands stood up to voice his support during the meeting.

“I did the whole [GCL] series last year, and I really have the feeling that riders are enjoying this new formal of the GCL,” he said. “For me it is a priority to compete in the GCL, but at the same time I have the opportunity to compete in the Nations Cups. We are free to make our own decisions, so I think, for all the riders it is a positive thing.”

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