Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

The Kristoffersen ruling: the EFTA Court targets athlete endorsement deals - By Sven Demeulemeester and Niels Verborgh

Editor’s note: Sven Demeulemeester and Niels Verborgh are sports lawyers at the Belgium law firm, Altius.



In its 16 November 2018 judgment, the Court of Justice of the European Free Trade Association States (the EFTA Court) delivered its eagerly awaited ruling in the case involving Henrik Kristoffersen and the Norwegian Ski Federation (NSF). 

On 17 October 2016, Kristoffersen had taken the NSF to the Oslo District Court over the latter’s refusal to let the renowned alpine skier enter into a sponsorship with Red Bull. At stake were the commercial markings on his helmet and headgear in races organised under the NSF’s umbrella. The NSF refused this sponsorship because it had already granted the advertising on helmet and headgear to its own main sponsor, Telenor. Kristoffersen claimed before the Oslo District Court, that the NSF should be ordered to permit him to enter into an individual marketing contract with Red Bull. In the alternative, Kristoffersen claimed damages up to a maximum of NOK 15 million. By a letter of 25 September 2017, the Oslo District Court referred several legal questions to the EFTA Court in view of shedding light on the compatibility of the rules that the NSF had invoked with EEA law.

If rules do not relate to the conduct of the sport itself, but concern sponsorship rights and hence an economic activity, these rules are subject to EEA law. The EFTA Court ruling is important in that it sets out the framework for dealing with - ever more frequent - cases in which an individual athlete’s endorsement deals conflict with the interest of the national or international sports governing bodies (SGBs) that he or she represents in international competitions.More...

Season 2 of football leaks: A review of the first episodes

Season 2 of #FootballLeaks is now underway since more than a week and already a significant number of episodes (all the articles published can be found on the European Investigative Collaborations’ website) covering various aspect of the (lack of) transnational regulation of football have been released (a short German documentary sums up pretty much the state of play). For me, as a legal scholar, this new series of revelations is an exciting opportunity to discuss in much more detail than usual various questions related to the operation of the transnational private regulations of football imposed by FIFA and UEFA (as we already did during the initial football leaks with our series of blogs on TPO in 2015/2016). Much of what has been unveiled was known or suspected by many, but the scope and precision of the documents published makes a difference. At last, the general public, as well as academics, can have certainty about the nature of various shady practices in the world of football. One key characteristic that explains the lack of information usually available is that football, like many international sports, is actually governed by private administrations (formally Swiss associations), which are not subject to the similar obligations in terms of transparency than public ones (e.g. access to document rules, systematic publication of decisions, etc.). In other words, it’s a total black box! The football leaks are offering a rare sneak peak into that box.

Based on what I have read so far (this blog was written on Friday 9 November), there are three main aspects I find worthy of discussion:

  • The (lack of) enforcement of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) Regulations
  • The European Super League project and EU competition law
  • The (lack of) separation of powers inside FIFA and UEFA More...

Supporters of the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018: Altius

Editor's note: In the coming days we will introduce the supporters of our upcoming ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018 (also known as #ISLJConf18). To do so, we have sent them a tailored questionnaire aimed at reflecting both their activities and their expectations for the conference. It is a good opportunity for us to thank them for their enthusiastic support and commitment to international sports law research. We are very happy to finish this series of interviews with Sven Demeulemeester from Altius, a Belgian law firm based in Brussels with a very fine (and academically-minded!) sports law team. 

1. Can you explain to our readers the work of Altius in international sports law? 

Across different sports’ sectors, Altius’ sports law practice advises and assists some of the world’s most high-profile sports governing bodies, clubs and athletes, at both the national and the international level. The team has 6 fully-dedicated sports lawyers and adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, which guarantees a broad range of legal expertise for handling specific cases or wider issues related to the sports industry. We are proud to be independent but, in cross-border matters, are able to tap into a worldwide network.

2. How is it to be an international sports lawyer? What are the advantages and challenges of the job? 

Sports law goes beyond one specific field of law. The multiplicity of legal angles keeps the work interesting, even after years of practising, and ensures that a sports lawyer rarely has a dull moment. The main downside is that the sports industry is fairly conservative and sometimes ‘political’. While the law is one thing, what happens in practice is often another. Bringing about change is not always easy. 

3. What are the burning issues in international sports law that you would like to see discussed at the conference? 

 The much-anticipated overhaul of the football transfer system is eagerly anticipated and is worth a thorough debate, also in terms of possible, viable alternatives. The impact of EU law - both internal market rules, competition law and fundamental rights – can hardly be underestimated. Also, dispute resolution mechanisms within the realm of sports - and an accessible, transparent, independent and impartial sports arbitration in particular - will remain a ‘hot’ topic in the sector for years to come. Furthermore, ethics and integrity issues should remain top of the agenda, as is being demonstrated by the current money-laundering and match-fixing allegations in Belgium. Finally, in a sector in which the use of data is rife, the newly-adopted GDPR’s impact remains somewhat ‘under the radar’.

4. Why did you decide to support the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference? 

The ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference is refreshing, both in terms of its topics and participants. The academic and content-driven approach is a welcome addition to other sports law conferences in which the networking aspect often predominates.

Supporters of the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018: LawInSport

Editor's note: In the coming days we will introduce the supporters of our upcoming ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018 (also known as #ISLJConf18). To do so, we have sent them a tailored questionnaire aimed at reflecting both their activities and their expectations for the conference. It is a good opportunity for us to thank them for their enthusiastic support and commitment to international sports law research. We are very happy to continue this series of interviews with LawInSport, a knowledge hub and educational platform for the community of people working in or with an interest in sport and the law  (many thanks to LawInSport's CEO Sean Cottrell for kindly responding to our questions).

1. Can you explain to our readers what LawInSport is about?

LawInSport is a knowledge hub, educational platform and global community of people working in or with an interest in sport and the law.

Our objective is to help people ‘understand the rules of the game™’. What does this mean? It means people in sport having access to information that enables them to have a better understanding the rules and regulations that govern the relationships, behaviours and processes within sports. This in turn creates a foundation based on the principles of the rule of law, protecting the rights of everyone working and participating in sport.  

2. What are the challenges and perks of being an international sports law 'reporter’ ?

I do not consider myself a reporter, but as the head of an organisation that has a responsibility to provide the highest quality information on legal issues in sport,  focusing on what is important and not just what is popular, whilst trying to stay free from conflicts of interests. These two issues, popularism and conflict of interest, are the two of the biggest challenges.

Popularism and the drive to win attention is, in my opinion, causing a lack of discipline when it comes to factual and legal accuracy in coverage of sports law issues, which on their own may seem harmless, but can cause harm to organisations and individuals (athletes, employees, etc).

Conflict of interest will obviously arise in such a small sector, however, there is not a commonly agreed standard in internationally, let alone in sports law. Therefore, one needs to be diligent when consuming information to understand why someone may or may not hold a point of view, if they have paid to get it published or has someone paid them to write it. For this reason it can be hard to get a full picture of what is happening in the sector.

In terms of perks, I get to do something that is both challenging and rewarding on a daily basis, and as  a business owner I have the additional benefit of work with colleagues I enjoy working with. I have the privilege of meeting world leaders in their respective fields (law, sport, business, science, education, etc) and gain insights from them about their work and life experiences which is incredibly enriching.  Getting access to speak to the people who are on the front line, either athletes, coaches, lawyers, scientists, rather than from a third party is great as it gives you an unfiltered insight into what is going on.

On the other side of things, we get the opportunity to help people through either having a better understand of the legal and regulatory issues in sports or to understand how to progress themselves towards their goals academically and professionally is probably the most rewarding part of my work. 

3. What are the burning issues in international sports law that you would like to see discussed at the conference?

  • The long-term implications of human rights law in sport;
  • The importance of meaningful of stakeholder consultation in the creation and drafting of regulations in sport;
  • Effective international safeguarding in sport.

4. Why did you decide to support the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference?

We support ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference as it is a non-profit conference that’s purpose is to create a space to explore a wide range of legal issues in sport. The conference is an academic conference that does a great job in bringing a diverse range of speakers and delegates. The discussions and debates that take place will benefit the wider sports law community.  Therefore, as LawInSport’s objective is focused on education it was a straight forward decision to support the conferences as it is aligned with our objectives. 

Supporters of the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018: Women in Sports Law

Editor's note: In the coming days we will introduce the supporters of our upcoming ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018 (also known as #ISLJConf18). To do so, we have sent them a tailored questionnaire aimed at reflecting both their activities and their expectations for the conference. It is a good opportunity for us to thank them for their enthusiastic support and commitment to international sports law research. We are very proud to start this series of interviews with Women in Sports Law, an association launched in 2016 and which has already done so much to promote and advance the role of women in international sports law (many thanks to Despina Mavromati for kindly responding to our questions on behalf of WISLaw).

1. Can you explain to our readers what WISLaw is about?

Women In Sports Law (WISLaw, is an international association based in Lausanne that unites more than 300 women from 50 countries specializing in sports law. It is a professional network that aims at increasing the visibility of women working in the sector, through a detailed members’ directory and various small-scale talks and events held in different countries around the world. These small-scale events give the opportunity to include everyone in the discussion and enhance the members’ network. Men from the sector and numerous arbitral institutions, conference organizers and universities have come to actively support our initiative.

2. What are the challenges and opportunities for women getting involved in international sports law?

Women used to be invisible in this sector. All-male panels were typical at conferences and nobody seemed to notice this flagrant lack of diversity. WISLaw created this much-needed platform to increase visibility through the members’ directory and through a series of small-scale events where all members, independent of their status or seniority, can attend and be speakers.

Another difficulty is that European football (soccer) is traditionally considered to be a “male-dominated” sport, despite the fact that there are so many great female football teams around the world. The same misperception applies to sports lawyers!

Last, there is a huge number of women lawyers working as in-house counsel and as sports administrators. There is a glass ceiling for many of those women, and the WISLaw annual evaluation of the participation of women in those positions attempts to target their issues and shed more light into this specific problem.

3. What are the burning issues in international sports law that you would like to see discussed at the conference?

The ISLJ Annual Conference has already set up a great lineup of topics combining academic and more practical discussions in the most recent issues in international sports law. 

4. Why did you decide to support the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference?

The Asser International Sports Law Centre has promoted and supported WISLaw since the very beginning. The ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference was the first big conference to officially include a WISLaw lunch talk in its program, allowing thus the conference attendees to be part of a wider informal discussion on a specific topical issue and raise their questions with respect to WISLaw. Another important reason why WISLaw supports this conference is because the conference organizers are making sincere efforts to have increased diversity in the panels : this year’s ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference is probably the first sports law conference to come close to a full gender balance in its panels, with 40% of the speakers being women !

The proportionality test under Art. 101 (1) TFEU and the legitimacy of UEFA Financial fair-play regulations: From the Meca Medina and Majcen ruling of the European Court of Justice to the Galatasaray and AC Milan awards of the Court of Arbitration for Sport – By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar. He is also member of the IVth Division of the High Court of Sport Justice (Collegio di Garanzia dello sport) at the National Olympic Committee.


1. On the 20th July 2018, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (hereinafter referred to as “CAS”) issued its decision in the arbitration procedure between AC Milan and UEFA. The subject matter of this arbitration procedure was the appeal filed by AC Milan against the decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Financial Control Body dated 19th June 2018 (hereinafter referred to as “the contested decision”). As many likely know, the CAS has acknowledged that, although AC Milan was in breach of the break-even requirement, the related exclusion of the club from the UEFA Europe League was not proportionate. To date, it is the first time the CAS clearly ruled that the sanction of exclusion from UEFA club competitions for a breach of the break-even requirement was not proportionate. For this reason the CAS award represents a good opportunity to reflect on the proportionality test under Art. 101 TFEU and the relationship between the landmark ruling of the European Court of Justice (hereinafter referred to as “ECJ”) in the Meca Medina and Majcen affair and the very recent case-law of the CAS. More...

The “Victory” of the Court of Arbitration for Sport at the European Court of Human Rights: The End of the Beginning for the CAS

My favourite speed skater (Full disclosure: I have a thing for speed skaters bothering the ISU), Claudia Pechstein, is back in the news! And not from the place I expected. While all my attention was absorbed by the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe (BVerfG or German Constitutional Court), I should have looked to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR). The Pechstein and Mutu joint cases were pending for a long time (since 2010) and I did not anticipate that the ECtHR would render its decision before the BVerfG. The decision released last week (only available in French at this stage) looked at first like a renewed vindication of the CAS (similar to the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) ruling in the Pechstein case), and is being presented like that by the CAS, but after careful reading of the judgment I believe this is rather a pyrrhic victory for the status quo at the CAS. As I will show, this ruling puts to rest an important debate surrounding CAS arbitration since 20 years: CAS arbitration is (at least in its much-used appeal format in disciplinary cases) forced arbitration. Furthermore, stemming from this important acknowledgment is the recognition that CAS proceedings must comply with Article 6 § 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), in particular hearings must in principle be held in public and decisions freely available to all. Finally, I will criticise the Court’s finding that CAS complies with the requirements of independence and impartiality imposed by Article 6 § 1 ECHR. I will not rehash the  well-known facts of both cases, in order to focus on the core findings of the decision. More...

ISLJ International Sports Law Conference 2018 - Asser Institute - 25-26 October - Register Now!

Dear all,

Last year we decided to launch the 'ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference' in order to give a public platform to the academic discussions on international sports law featured in the ISLJ. The first edition of the conference was a great success (don't take my word for it, just check out #ISLJConf17 on twitter), featuring outstanding speakers and lively discussions with the room. We were very happy to see people from some many different parts of the world congregating at the Institute to discuss the burning issues of their field of practice and research.

This year, on 25 and 26 October, we are hosting the second edition and we are again welcoming well-known academics and practitioners in the field. The discussions will turn around the notion of lex sportiva, the role of Swiss law in international sports law, the latest ISU decision of the European Commission, the Mutu/Pechstein ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, or the reform proposal of the FIFA Regulations on the Transfer and Status of Players. It should be, it will be, an exciting two days!

You will find below the final programme of the conference, please feel free to circulate it within your networks. We have still some seats left, so don't hesitate to register (here) and to join us.

Looking forward to seeing you and meeting you there!


Football Intermediaries: Would a European centralized licensing system be a sustainable solution? - By Panagiotis Roumeliotis

Editor's note: Panagiotis Roumeliotis holds an LL.B. degree from National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece and an LL.M. degree in European and International Tax Law from University of Luxembourg. He is qualified lawyer in Greece and is presently working as tax advisor with KPMG Luxembourg while pursuing, concomitantly, an LL.M. in International Sports Law at Sheffield Hallam University, England. His interest lies in the realm of tax and sports law. He may be contacted by e-mail at ‘’.


The landmark Bosman Ruling triggered the Europeanization of the labour market for football players by banning nationality quotas. In turn, in conjunction with the boom in TV revenues, this led to a flourishing transfer market in which players’ agents or intermediaries play a pivotal role, despite having a controversial reputation.

As a preliminary remark, it is important to touch upon the fiduciary duty of sports agents towards their clients. The principal-agent relationship implies that the former employs the agent so as to secure the best employment and/or commercial opportunities. Conversely, the latter is expected to act in the interest of the player as their relationship should be predicated on trust and confidence, as much was made clear in the English Court of Appeal case of Imageview Management Ltd v. Kelvin Jack. Notably, agents are bound to exercise the utmost degree of good faith, honesty and loyalty towards the players.[1]

At the core of this blog lies a comparative case study of the implementation of the FIFA Regulations on working with intermediaries (hereinafter “FIFA RWI”) in eight European FAs covering most of the transfers during the mercato. I will then critically analyze the issues raised by the implementation of the RWI and, as a conclusion, offer some recommendations. More...

Seraing vs. FIFA: Why the rumours of CAS’s death have been greatly exaggerated

Rumours are swirling around the decision (available in French here) of the Court of Appeal of Brussels in the case opposing RFC Seraing United to FIFA (as well as UEFA and the Belgian Football Federation, URSBFA) over the latter’s ban on third-party ownership. The headlines in various media are quite dramatic (see here and here), references are made to a new Bosman, or to a shaken sport’s legal system. Yet, after swiftly reading the decision for the first time on 29th August, I did not have, unlike with the Pechstein ruling of the Oberlandesgericht München, the immediate impression that this would be a major game-changer for the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the role of arbitration in sports in general. After careful re-reading, I understand how certain parts of the ruling can be misunderstood or over-interpreted. I believe that much of the press coverage failed to accurately reflect the reasoning of the court and to capture the real impact of the decision. In order to explain why, I decided to write a short Q&A (including the (not water-proof) English translations of some of the key paragraphs of the decision).


Asser International Sports Law Blog | Investment in Football as a Means to a Particular End – Part 1: A non-exhaustive Typology - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Investment in Football as a Means to a Particular End – Part 1: A non-exhaustive Typology - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor's note: Rhys is currently making research and writing contributions under Dr Antoine Duval at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law. Additionally, Rhys is the ‘Head of Advisory’ of Athlon CIF, a global fund and capital advisory firm specialising in the investment in global sports organisations and sports assets.

Rhys has a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) from the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. Rhys is an LL.M candidate at the University of Zurich, in International Sports Law. Following a career as a professional athlete, Rhys has spent much of his professional life as an international sports agent, predominantly operating in football.

Rhys is also the host of the podcast “Sportonomic”.


In the following two-part blog series, I will start by outlining a short typology of investors in football in recent years, in order to show the emergence of different varieties of investors who seek to use football as a means to a particular end. I will then in a second blog, explore the regulatory landscape across different countries, with a particular focus on the regulatory approach to multi-club ownership. Before moving forward, I must offer a disclaimer of sorts.  In addition to my research and writing contributions with the Asser Institute, I am the ‘Head of Advisory’ for Athlon CIF, a global fund and capital advisory firm specialising in the investment in global sports organisations and sports assets. I appreciate and hence must flag that I will possess a bias when it comes to investment in football.

It might also be noteworthy to point out that this new wave of investment in sport, is not exclusive to football. I have recently written elsewhere about CVC Capital Partners’ US$300 million investment in Volleyball, and perhaps the message that lingers behind such a deal.  CVC has also shown an interest in rugby and recently acquired a 14.3 per cent stake in the ‘Six Nations Championship’, to the tune of £365 million.  New Zealand’s 26 provincial rugby unions recently voted unanimously in favour of a proposal to sell 12.5 per cent of NZ Rugby’s commercial rights to Silver Lake Partners for NZ$387.5 million.  Consider also the apparent partnership between star footballer’s investment group, Gerard Pique’s Kosmos, and the International Tennis Federation.  Kosmos is further backed by Hiroshi Mikitani’s ecommerce institution, Rakuten, and all involved claim to desire an overhaul of the Davis Cup that will apparently transform it into the ‘World Cup of Tennis’. Grassroots projects, prizemoney for tennis players and extra funding for member nations are other areas the partnership claims to be concerned with. As is the case with all investment plays of this flavour, one can be certain that a return on the capital injection is also of interest.

So, what are we to conclude from the trends of investment in sport and more specifically for this blog series, in football? A typology elucidates that a multiplicity of investors have in recent years identified football as a means to achieve different ends. This blog considers three particular objectives pursued; direct financial return, branding in the case of company investment, or the branding and soft power strategies of nations.

From Associations and Member Owned Clubs, to Corporate Structures

It is important to point out that the ability to use football as an investment tool is only possible due to the ways in which football has transformed from associations to corporations over recent decades. For the purpose of this short blog, I will give the simplistic and short story, though I would urge those interested to go beyond this blog on the history of football ownership models and trends.

Essentially what I hope to emphasise, is the influx of private ownership and the advent of substantial television rights deals cannot be divorced. At this pivotal turn for football ownership, private ownership had been taking place in some forms, often a hybrid model with members, and often the case was a private owner coming in and saving or at least supporting a club financially.  Whereas at the start of the 1990s when broadcast deals made headlines, private owners saw a commercial opportunity as football moved into a generation where broadcasting rights were the main source of revenue for clubs.  By the early 2010s in Europe, “approximately three of four professional clubs were majority owned by private investors, and one in six clubs were owned by foreign investors”.[1] Football club owners hence quickly became more business orientated and more market-driven due to the opportunities that broadcasters presented and the benefits leagues and organisers were able to conjure up. “The growing prize money of the UEFA Champions League, the escalating TV revenues for premium competitions, and the internationalization of marketing measures have strengthened the incentives”.[2]

Private owners saw member owned clubs as unable to maximise commercial opportunities, and it is the same kind of sentiment that is aimed towards the less commercially mature sports by Private Equity groups and other institutional players today.  That being, yes, you may know your sport, but you do not know how to take it to the heights it could achieve in the commercial sense.

Investing for Direct Return: Private Equity

Private Equity firms are notorious for being able to identify undervalued businesses that they can further improve the value of by trimming unnecessary or wasteful expenses, as well as reconstruct operations and other inefficiencies. The priority of course is to make money and a return for investors. 

A variety of Private Equity groups have found football appealing in recent years as clubs look for non-traditional means of funding and in some extreme instances, rescuing from bankruptcy. Larger Private Equity groups have come to be known to accrue a portfolio of football clubs and other sports asset investments in order to diversify their sports investment wings, and to maximise returns for investors.  For the boutique firms, the strategies might be more considered and to the observer less audacious, identifying undervalued and underperforming smaller clubs with a history at the top tiers of football or the potential to get there. There may of course be other commercial motivations for specific acquisitions, such as the location of clubs, though in a nutshell, these Private Equity plays are a matter of identifying undervalued football clubs with scope to grow in value, in turn providing an opportunity to make investments and acquisitions at a low entry point and to deliver substantial results for investors. 

Whilst examples of Private Equity investment into football are a plenty, conder the following few for the purpose of this short blog. As an example of a multi-club ownership portfolio, New City Capital, fronted by Chinese American, Chien Lee, now boasts investment and ownership in Barnsley F.C. (England), FC Thun (Switzerland), K.V. Oostende (Belgium), AS Nancy (France), Esbjerg fB (Denmark), and is the former owner of OGC Nice (France); selling the club at the time for a record price in the French context. Lee and his multiple co-investors bring strategies and philosophies to these clubs akin to the “Moneyball” strategies made famous by Billy Beane. With a business background, the investors involved clearly fancy their abilities to maximise value of the clubs, but Lee is additionally conscious of his ability to grow the value of the clubs by the ways in which he has been able to tap into Asia and create new fans and revenue streams based on these connections. “We will try to ‘internationalize’ Barnsley, as we did with Nice. Before we invested in Nice, not many people in Asia had heard of them. Now in Asia -- in China -- people know the club.”

In terms of opportunistic timing strategies, as well as funding arrangements in order to complete an acquisition, one may consider another noteworthy example in the Private Equity space, that of ALK Capital’s takeover of Burnley. A leveraged buyout play, the sports investment arm of ALK, Velocity Sports Partners, acquired majority and controlling shareholding of 84% late 2020. For its part, Redbird Capital has made a variety of investments into football, in a variety of ways. They took a direct stake into Toulouse FC, but have also made an interesting investment into the Fenway Sports Group that owns Liverpool FC. This ultimately highlights an overarching view that football is a good bet for the firm, yet also showing that investment into the world game may come in many shapes and sizes.

It is the case that with the aforementioned examples, the investments have been a success insofar as the assets and portfolios of these firms have experienced growth in value, for example New City Capital sold OGC Nice for a handsome return. However, one must also point at investment failures such as King Street Capital with Girondins Bordeaux. Some of the identifiable distinctions between those firms able to achieve their objectives or at least stay the course, and the King Street Capital debacle, appears to be among other things, a fractured relationship with local government and the distance between the firms ambitions, control over that ambition and those running the club (COVID-19 to an extent as well).

Investing for Nation Branding: Qatar & UAE, Soft Power & Sports Diplomacy

Insofar as football remains the world game, nations are acutely conscious of the consequent power in nation branding via football investment. Nation branding according to Dinnie’s summary, consists of three key objectives; to attract tourists, to stimulate inward investments and to boost exports.[3] For a nation like Qatar, it is additionally about security and standing on the international scene.  To attain such objectives though of course requires certain image and branding achievements. In recent years, it is notable that a variety of states have been using their financial power to invest in football, not for the sake of profit, but in order to improve their image internationally.

State branding via soft power strategies like investment in football has come to be known widely as sports diplomacy. A variety of nations have identified sports diplomacy as way in which to be viewed favourably by other nations and to create positive imagery around an investment that in turn reflects positively on the nations image. Soft power and sports diplomacy has been endorsed by scholars as legitimate strategies, given it is a non-military instrument to compete with much larger and militarily capable states.[4] This is of course key to a nation like Qatar, that desires to move away from oil dependency and has to compete with much larger neighbouring nations. Branding is to make a distinction between one brand and another. For Qatar, it is perhaps it’s ultimate struggle to differentiate and distinguish itself from its neighbouring countries.

One of Qatar’s headline soft power through investment in football strategies is the acquisition of, and post-acquisition operation of European giants, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). It is almost impossible however to disconnect Qatar’s sports diplomacy strategies with PSG, from its strategies with BeIN Sports the broadcaster, along with being awarded World Cup 2022.  

The Qatari’s acquired PSG in a less than ideal state but have since managed to turn the club into one of the richest and most successful on the planet. PSG’s image remains a priority, because in turn it is seen that Qatar’s image is the beneficiary. The importance of this for Qatar might be best measured by the size of the spend on players since taking over the club. Putting the likes of David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic aside for the moment, PSG paid both the number one and number two world record transfer fees for Brazilian superstar Neymar (a reported 220 million Euro) and French wonderkid, Kylian Mbappe (a reported 180 million Euro). One media report said “The colossal Neymar deal, funded by Qatar Sports Investments, shows how far governments will go to secure global influence.” That article was headlined - “A £198m transfer is not about football. It’s about soft power”

Now consider the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and how it yields power through the following subsidiaries and stakes therein: Manchester City F.C. (100%), Melbourne City FC (100%), Montevideo City Torque (100%), Lommel S.K. (99%), New York City FC (80%), Mumbai City FC (65%), Girona FC (44.3%), Sichuan Jiuniu F.C. (29.7%), Yokohama F. Marinos (20%), Troyes AC (100%), City Football Academy, City Football Marketing, City Football Services, City Football Japan, City Football Singapore, City Football China, City Football India, CFG Stadium Group, Goals Soccer Centers.

Manchester City FC is certainly the golden child of the group and much like PSG for Qatar, the successful imagery around Manchester City cannot be disconnected from the desired branding in a global sense for the UAE. The growing list of investments of CFG highlights that the UAE is intent on soft power strategies and using sports diplomacy to brand itself widely as a legitimate and well organised nation. Was it a coincidence that just as the City Football Group was arranging its stake in the Chengdu based football club, Sichuan Jiuniu, the UAE’s national airline Etihad announced it “would be enhancing its links with Chengdu’s airport”? That is to say nothing of the Chinese investment into CFG.

Questions remain about whether these soft power strategies have been successful in light of for instance, the widely reported atrocious treatment and deaths of migrant workers in Qatar, or the ongoing reports of slavery in the case of the UAE. In an ugly sense, the success of the soft power investments of these nations in football, is whether they are loud enough to drown out the noise of the atrocities associated with their nations. The paradox for Qatar, is that before using football as a diplomatic tool and winning the right to host the World Cup, the exploitation of migrant workers was not making headlines. Ironically, it is this active use of football as a diplomatic instrument that has shone a light on the issue and effected Qatar’s image substantially.

Black and Peacock point out, when it comes to soft power sports diplomacy one ought to be aware that the values publicly portrayed and associated with an investment in football (i.e. success, courage, commerciality, aspiration) will often not be the actual values of a state but rather merely the values with which a state would preferred to be associated with to fulfil wider objectives.[5]

Investing for Company Branding: Red Bull

The other type of investment aimed primarily at improving the image of the investor (and not recouping a profit directly from the club as an entity) is company branding. In a way, it is the ultimate move of a sponsor, instead of paying an annual yearly contribution to the club, the sponsor takes control of the management of the club in order to maximise the image return for its brand. The paramount example of such a strategy is embodied by Red Bull’s investment in football clubs around the world. The regulatory complexities will be left for blog 2, but it is Red Bull’s stake and influence in four clubs (Red Bull Salzburg, RB Leipzig, Red Bull New York, Red Bull Brasil) that renders it the ultimate example of a company that found investing in football as way to brand at scale. Despite the success that Red Bull football clubs have experienced, sporting and commercial, the purpose for Red Bull investing in football is of course to further promote the brand and sell energy drinks.

Red Bull had previously and in a revolutionary way, tapped into branding via sport and had worked out a way to brand at large using the content production arm of the company. Utilising extreme sports, Red Bull campaigns focussed on associating itself with elite sport, perhaps thus conflating the alleged performance enhancing capabilities of its beverages or at least that its product was trendy and fashionable to drink in the context of sport.

When it came to football, Red Bull followed an ownership strategy rather than a traditional sponsorship method, opening up both the benefits of the ownership over traditional sponsorship models, and, the size, scale and reach of football as opposed to the more niche extreme sports.

Branding through football is seen as almost more covert, as the consumer is less aware that when they watch a branded club in a branded stadium, they are being advertised to;

“the consumer does not perceive that the content is branded. Sport content is predestined for branded entertainment. Engaging sports fascinate and attract people and have proven to be capable of transferring positive images… many niche sports still lack the attention of sport consumers or sponsors and are not covered extensively by the media. Branded entertainment, therefore, can provide niche sport enterprises, athletes, and teams as well as sponsors with consumer attention and prosumer engagement.”[6]

Conclusion & a note on Member Owned Clubs

Per the title of this blog, the typology of investors listed above is not exhaustive, though perhaps the most relevant as I segue into the regulations around multi club ownership. However, a short note on the membership model clubs is worthwhile. Member owned clubs still exist widely and some are in fact popping up in protest over a perceived hyper commercialisation of football. SV Austria Salzburg is a newer member owned club, established in response and in protest to the Red Bull ownership of the former SV Austria Salzburg, that Red Bull subsequently changed the name and colours of. Member owned clubs can be funded by paid memberships and more traditional revenue streams like ticket sales and sponsorship.  Control wise however, the members maintain the controlling stake and more importantly perhaps, the controlling vote. The hybrid model between private ownership and member ownership remains interesting, given what can be maintained in terms of history and culture, and what can be brought in in terms of commercial expertise and the reality that the need and desire for profits can drive success of a football Club.

As is hopefully apparent from the above, the types of investors and indeed the motivations come in all shapes and sizes. It is also worth pointing out, when it comes to the Private Equity groups and the nations and companies concerned with branding, the main reasons for investment does not render it the exclusive reason. Qatar will take the commercial benefits of PSG, BeIN sports and the World Cup. Part owners of CFG, China Media Capital/CITIC Capital (12%) and Silver Lake (10%) would not have invested with such alacrity based on the soft power strategies and state branding aspirations of the UAE, and rather those groups are of course more interested in the commercial benefits. Separate from selling more energy drinks than ever, Red Bull is undoubtedly pleased with taking RB Leipzig from the 5th tier to the Bundesliga, and now valued at EUR560 million, Red Bull has an extremely valuable asset. Likewise, the big funds and institutional players are aware of the positive branding that sport affords them when their football investments are successful.

In the next blog, I consider the current regulatory landscape regarding investment in football with a particular focus on regulations that address multi-club ownership.

[1] Marc Rohde and Christoph Breuer, “The market for football club investors: a review of theory and empirical evidence from professional European football Institute of Sport Economics and Sport Management”, (German Sport University Cologne, Köln, Germany) European Sport Management Quarterly, 2017 VOL. 17, NO. 3, 265–289.

[2] Ibid P267.

[3] Keith Dinnie, “Nation Branding, Concepts, Issues, Practices”, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008.

[4] Romain Herbreteau, “The use of a football club as a means of state branding: The mixed results of Qatar’s promotion in France” Leiden University - Master Thesis, Master of Arts International Relations, Supervisor: Dr Camillo Erlichman (2018)

[5] David Black and Byron Peacock. "Sport and Diplomacy." Oxford Handbooks Online (2013) 1-21

[6] Reinhard Kunz & Franziska Elsässer & James Santomier, “Sport-related branded entertainment: the Red Bull phenomenon” (2016)  Sport, Business and Management: An international Journal, 6, 520-541.

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