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

New Article Published! The Olympic Charter: A Transnational Constitution Without a State?

My latest article has just been published online by the Journal of Law and Society. It is available open access here.

The article stems from a conference organised by Jiri Priban from Cardiff University on Gunther Teubner's idea of societal constitutionalism applied to transnational regimes. My role was to test whether his descriptive and normative framework was readily applicable to the lex sportiva, and in particular its overarching "constitutional" text: the Olympic Charter.

As you will see my conclusion is mixed. I find that the Olympic Charter (OC) displays many constitutional features and is even able to regularly defend successfully its autonomy vis-à-vis national states and their laws. However, while I document some inception of limitative constitutional rules, such as the ban on discrimination or the principle of fair play, I also conclude that those have limited impact in practice. While constitutional changes to the OC can be triggered by scandal, resistance and contestation, as illustrated by the emergence of environmental concerns after the Albertville Games and the governance reshuffle of the IOC after the Salt Lake City scandal, I am also sceptical that these were sufficient to tackle the underlying problems, as became obvious with the unmatched environmental damage caused by the Sotchi Games in 2014.

In conclusion, more than sporadic public outrage, I believe that the intervention of national law and, even more, European Union law will be capable and needed to rein the Olympic regime and impose external constitutional constraints on its (at least sometimes) destructive operations.

Here is the abstract of the article: This article examines various aspects of Teubner's theory of societal constitutionalism using the lex sportiva as an empirical terrain. The case study focuses on the operation of the Olympic Charter as a transnational constitution of the Olympic movement. It shows that recourse to a constitutional vocabulary is not out of place in qualifying the function and authority of the Charter inside and outside the Olympic movement. Yet, the findings of the case study also nuance some of Teubner's descriptive claims and question his normative strategy.

Good read! (And do not hesitate to share your feedback)

New Position - Internship in International Sports Law - Deadline 15 August

The T.M.C. Asser Instituut offers post-graduate students the opportunity to gain practical experience in the field of international and European sports law.  The T.M.C. Asser Instituut, located in The Hague, is an inter-university research institute specialized in international and European law. Since 2002, it is the home of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre, a pioneer in the field of European and international sports law. More...

Human Rights Protection and the FIFA World Cup: A Never-Ending Match? - By Daniela Heerdt

Editor’s note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD candidate at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games. She recently published an article in the International Sports Law Journal that discusses to what extent the revised bidding and hosting regulations by FIFA, the IOC and UEFA strengthen access to remedy for mega-sporting events-related human rights violations.

The 21st FIFA World Cup is currently underway. Billions of people around the world follow the matches with much enthusiasm and support. For the time being, it almost seems forgotten that in the final weeks leading up to the events, critical reports on human rights issues related to the event piled up. This blog explains why addressing these issues has to start well in advance of the first ball being kicked and cannot end when the final match has been played. More...

Call for papers: Annual International Sports Law Conference of the International Sports Law Journal - 25 & 26 October - Asser Institute, The Hague

 Call for papers: Annual International Sports Law Conference of the International Sports Law Journal

Asser Institute, The Hague

25 and 26 October 2018

The editorial board of the International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) is inviting you to submit abstracts for its second ISLJ Annual Conference on International Sports Law, which will take place on 25 and 26 October at the Asser Institute in The Hague. The ISLJ published by Springer in collaboration with Asser Press is the leading academic publication in the field of international sports law. Its readership includes academics and many practitioners active in the field. This call is open to researchers as well as practitioners. 

We are also delighted to announce that Prof. Franck Latty (Université Paris Nanterre), Prof. Margareta Baddeley (Université de Genève), and Silvia Schenk (member of FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory Board) have confirmed their participation as keynote speakers.

Abstracts could, for example, tackle questions linked to the following international sports law subjects:

  • The interaction between EU law and sport
  • Antitrust and sports regulation
  • International sports arbitration (CAS, BAT, etc.)
  • The functioning of the world anti-doping system (WADA, WADC, etc.)
  • The global governance of sports
  • The regulation of mega sporting events (Olympics, FIFA World Cup, etc.)
  • The transnational regulation of football (e.g. the operation of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players or the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations)
  • The global fight against corruption in sport  
  • Comparative sports law
  • Human rights in sport 

Please send your abstract (no more than 300 words) and CV no later than 30 April 2018 to Selected speakers will be informed by 15 May.

The selected participants will be expected to submit a draft paper by 1 September 2018. All papers presented at the conference are eligible for publication in a special edition of the ISLJ.  To be considered for inclusion in the conference edition of the journal, the final draft must be submitted for review by 15 December 2018.  Submissions after this date will be considered for publication in later editions of the Journal.

The Asser Institute will cover one night accommodation for the speakers and will provide a limited amount of travel grants (max. 300€). If you wish to be considered for a grant please justify your request in your submission. 

Stepping Outside the New York Convention - Practical Lessons on the Indirect Enforcement of CAS-Awards in Football Matters - By Etienne Gard

Editor’s Note: Etienne Gard graduated from the University of Zurich and from King's College London. He currently manages a project in the field of digitalization with Bratschi Ltd., a major Swiss law firm where he did his traineeship with a focus in international commercial arbitration.

1. Prelude

On the 10th of June, 1958, the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, widely known as the “New York Convention”, was signed in New York by 10 countries.[1] This rather shy figure progressively grew over the decades to now reach 157 signatory countries, turning the New York Convention into the global recognition and enforcement instrument it is today. As V.V. Veeder’s puts it, “One English law lord is said to have said, extra judicially, that the New York Convention is both the Best Thing since sliced bread and also whatever was the Best Thing before sliced bread replaced it as the Best Thing.”[2]

However, among the overall appraisal regarding the New York Convention, some criticisms have been expressed. For instance, some states use their public policy rather as a pretext not to enforce an award than an actual ground for refusal.[3]  A further issue is the recurring bias in favor of local companies.[4] Additionally, recognition and enforcement procedures in application of the New York Convention take place in front of State authorities, for the most part in front of courts of law, according to national proceeding rules. This usually leads to the retaining of a local law firm, the translation of several documents, written submissions and one, if not several hearings. Hence, the efficiency of the New York Convention as a recognition and enforcement mechanism comes to the expense of both money and time of both parties of the arbitral procedure.

In contrast with the field of commercial arbitration, where the New York Convention is often considered the only viable option in order to enforce an award, international football organizations, together with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”), offer an effective enforcement alternative. This article aims at outlining the main features of the indirect enforcement of CAS awards in football matters in light of a recent case. More...

The International Partnership against Corruption in Sport (IPACS) and the quest for good governance: Of brave men and rotting fish - By Thomas Kruessmann

Editor's note: Prof. Thomas Kruessmann is key expert in the EU Technical Assistant Project "Strengthening Teaching and Research Capacity at ADA University" in Baku (Azerbaijan). At the same time, he is co-ordinator of the Jean-Monnet Network "Developing European Studies in the Caucasus" with Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia).

The notion that “fish rots from the head down” is known to many cultures and serves as a practical reminder on what is at stake in the current wave of anti-corruption / integrity and good governance initiatives. The purpose of this blog post is to provide a short update on the recent founding of the International Partnership against Corruption in Sport (IPACS), intermittently known as the International Sports Integrity Partnership (IPAS), and to propose some critical perspectives from a legal scholar’s point of view.

During the past couple of years, the sports world has seen a never-ending wave of corruption allegations, often followed by revelations, incriminations and new allegation. There are ongoing investigations, most notably in the United States where the U.S. Department of Justice has just recently intensified its probe into corruption at the major sports governing bodies (SGBs). By all accounts, we are witnessing only the tip of the iceberg. And after ten years of debate and half-hearted reforms, there is the widespread notion, as expressed by the Council of Europe’s (CoE’s) Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) Resolution 2199/2018 that “the sports movement cannot be left to resolve its failures alone”. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – January 2018 - By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked. 

The Headlines 

Anti-doping whereabouts requirements declared compatible with the athletes' right to privacy and family life

On 18 January 2018, the European Court of Human Rights rendered a judgment with important consequences for the world of sport in general and the anti-doping regime in particular. The Strasbourg-based court was called upon to decide whether the anti-doping whereabouts system – which requires that a limited number of top elite athletes provide their National Anti-Doping Organisation or International Federation with regular information about their location, including identifying for each day one specific 60-minute time slot where the athlete will be available for testing at a pre-determined location – is compatible with the athletes' right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and their freedom of movement pursuant to Article 2 Protocol No. 4 of the Convention. The case was brought by the French cyclist Jeannie Longo and five French athlete unions that had filed their application on behalf of 99 professional handball, football, rugby, and basketball players.

While acknowledging that the whereabouts requirements clash with the athletes' right to private and family life, the judges took the view that such a restriction is necessary in order to protect the health of athletes and ensure a level playing field in sports competitions. They held that ''the reduction or removal of the relevant obligations would lead to an increase in the dangers of doping for the health of sports professionals and of all those who practise sports, and would be at odds with the European and international consensus on the need for unannounced testing as part of doping control''. Accordingly, the judges found no violation of Article 8 of the Convention and, in a similar vein, ruled that Article 2 Protocol No. 4 of the Convention was not applicable to the case.


Football stakeholders preparing to crack down on agents' excessive fees

It has been a record-breaking January transfer window with Premier League clubs having spent an eye-watering £430 million on signing new acquisitions. These spiralling transfer fees enable football agents, nowadays also called intermediaries, to charge impressive sums for their services. However, this might soon no longer be the case as the main stakeholders in European football are preparing to take action. UEFA, FIFPro, the European Club Association and the European Professional Football Leagues acknowledge in their joint resolution that the 2015 FIFA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries failed to address serious concerns in relation to the activities of intermediaries/agents. They recognise in broad terms that a more effective regulatory framework is needed and call among other things for a reasonable and proportionate cap on fees for intermediaries/agents, enhanced transparency and accountability, or stronger provisions to protect minors.


The CAS award in Joseph Odartei Lamptey v. FIFA 

On 15 January 2018, FIFA published on its website an arbitral award delivered on 4 August 2017 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the dispute between the Ghanian football referee Joseph Odartei Lamptey and FIFA. The CAS sided with FIFA and dismissed the appeal filed by Mr Lamptey against an earlier decision of the FIFA Appeal Committee which (i) found him to have violated Article 69(1) of the FIFA Disciplinary Code as he unlawfully influenced the 2018 World Cup qualifying match between South Africa and Senegal that took place on 12 November 2016; (ii) as a consequence, banned him for life from taking part in any football-related activity; and (iii) ordered the match in question to be replayed. In reaching its conclusion, the CAS relied heavily on multiple reports of irregular betting activities that significantly deviated from usual market developments.  More...

Towards a Suitable Policy Framework for Cricket Betting in India - By Deeksha Malik

Editor's note: Deeksha Malik is a final-year student at National Law Institute University, India. Her main interest areas are corporate law, arbitration, and sports law. She can be reached at

In 2015, while interrogating cricketer Sreesanth and others accused in the IPL match-fixing case, Justice Neena Bansal, sitting as Additional Sessions Judge, made the following observations as regards betting on cricket matches.

“Cricket as a game of skill requires hand-eye-coordination for throwing, catching and hitting. It requires microscopic levels of precision and mental alertness for batsmen to find gaps or for bowlers to produce variety of styles of deliveries’ (medium pace, fast, inswing, outswing, offspin, legspin, googly). The sport requires strategic masterminds that can select the most efficient fielding positions for piling pressure on the batsmen. Based on above description, cricket cannot be described anything, but as a game of skill.”

The debate on the issue of betting in sports has since resurfaced and gained the attention of sportspersons, media, sports bodies, policymakers, and the general public. In April 2017, the Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices Dipak Misra and AM Khanwilkar agreed to hear a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking an order directing the government to come up with an appropriate framework for regulating betting in sports. The arguments put forth in the PIL present various dimensions. One of these pertains to economic considerations, a submission that regulated betting would be able to generate annual revenue of Rs. 12,000 crores by bringing the earnings therefrom within the tax net. As for policy considerations, it was submitted that a proper regulation in this area would enable the government to distinguish harmless betting from activities that impair the integrity of the game such as match-fixing. Further, betting on cricket matches largely depends on the skill of the concerned players, thereby distinguishing it from pure chance-based activities.

The issue of sports betting witnesses a divided opinion till this day. This is understandable, for both sides to the issue have equally pressing arguments. Aside from its regulation being a daunting task for authorities, sports betting is susceptible to corruption and other unscrupulous activities. At the same time, it is argued that it would be better for both the game and the economy if the same is legalised. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – December 2017. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.


The Headlines 

The International Skating Union's eligibility rules declared incompatible with EU competition law

On 8 December 2017, the European Commission announced that it had rendered a decision in the case against the International Skating Union (ISU). The Commission upheld the complaint lodged in October 2015 by two Dutch professional speed skaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt, represented in this case by Ben Van Rompuy and Antoine Duval (you can read their joint statement here), and ruled that the ISU's eligibility rules preventing athletes from participating in speed skating competitions not approved by the ISU under the threat of severe penalties are in violation of EU competition law. In particular, the Commission held that these rules restrict the commercial freedom of (i) athletes who may be deprived of additional source of income as they are not allowed to participate in speed skating competitions other than those authorised by the ISU; and (ii) independent organisers who are unable to attract top athletes. And while the Commission recognised that sporting rules with restrictive effects might be compatible with EU law if they pursue a legitimate objective such as the protection of athletes' health and safety or the protection of the integrity and proper conduct of sport, it found that the ISU's eligibility rules pursue only its own commercial interests to the detriment of athletes and independent organisers of speed skating competitions. The ISU eventually escaped financial sanctions, but it must modify or abolish its eligibility rules within 90 days; otherwise it would be liable for non-compliance payments of up to 5% of its average daily turnover. For more information on this topic, we invite you to read our recent blog written by Professor Stefano Bastianon.


The International Olympic Committee bans Russia from the upcoming Winter Olympic Games

The world has been waiting impatiently for the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision on the participation of Russian athletes in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. This was finally communicated on 5 December 2017. Having deliberated on the findings of the Schmid Commission, the IOC Executive Board decided to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee with immediate effect, meaning that only those Russian athletes who demonstrate that they had not benefited from the state-sponsored doping programme will be able to participate in the Games. Such clean athletes will be allowed to compete under the Olympic Flag, bearing the name 'Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)' on their uniforms. Further to this, the IOC Executive Board sanctioned several officials implicated in the manipulation of the anti-doping system in Russia, including Mr Vitaly Mutko, currently the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and formerly the Minister of Sport. Mounting public pressure subsequently forced Mr Mutko to step down as head of the Local Organising Committee for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Meanwhile, 21 individual Russian athletes were sanctioned (see here, here, here, and here) in December (in addition to 22 athletes in November) by the IOC Oswald Commission that is tasked with investigating the alleged doping violations by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The Oswald Commission also published two full decisions in the cases against Evgeny Belov and Aleksandr Tretiakov who were both banned from all future editions of the Games. It is now clear that the Court of Arbitration for Sport will have quite some work in the coming weeks as the banned athletes are turning to this Swiss-based arbitral tribunal to have their sanctions reviewed (see here and here).


Universal Declaration of Player Rights

14 December 2017 was a great day for athletes all over the globe. On this day, representatives of the world's leading player associations met in Washington D.C. to unveil the Universal Declaration of Player Rights, a landmark document developed under the aegis of the World Players Association that strives to protect athletes from ongoing and systemic human rights violations in global sport. The World Players Association's Executive Director Brendan Schwab emphasised that the current system of sports governance ''lacks legitimacy and fails to protect the very people who sit at the heart of sport'' and stated that ''athlete rights can no longer be ignored''. Among other rights, the Declaration recognises the right of athletes to equality of opportunity, fair and just working conditions, privacy and the protection of personal data, due process, or effective remedy.


Chris Froome failed a doping test during the last year's Vuelta a España

The world of cycling suffered yet another blow when it transpired that one of its superstars Chris Froome had failed a doping test during the last year's Vuelta a España, a race he had eventually emerged victorious from for the first time in his career. His urine sample collected on 7 September 2017 contained twice the amount of salbutamol, a medication used to treat asthma, than permissible under the World Anti-Doping Agency's 2017 Prohibited List. Kenyan-born Froome has now hired a team of medical and legal experts to put forward a convincing explanation for the abnormal levels of salbutamol in his urine and thus to avoid sanctions being imposed on him. More...

The ISU Commission's Decision and the Slippery Side of Eligibility Rules - By Stefano Bastianon (University of Bergamo)

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in European 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. From the very beginning, the outcome of the ISU case was highly predictable, at least for those who are familiar with the basics of antitrust law. Nevertheless, more than twenty years after the Bosman judgment, the sports sector has shown the same shortsightedness and inability to see the forest for the trees. Even this attitude was highly predictable, at least for those who know the basics of sports governance. The final result is a clear-cut decision capable of influencing the entire sports movement. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | The boundaries of the “premium sports rights” category and its competition law implications. By Marine Montejo

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 boundaries of the “premium sports rights” category and its competition law implications. By Marine Montejo

Editor’s note: Marine Montejo is a graduate from the College of Europe in Bruges and is currently an Intern at the ASSER International Sports Law Centre.

In its decisions regarding the joint selling of football media rights (UEFA, Bundesliga, FA Premier league), the European Commission insisted that premium media rights must be sold through a non-discriminatory and transparent tender procedure, in several packages and for a limited period of time in order to reduce foreclosure effects in the downstream market. These remedies ensure that broadcasters are able to compete for rights that carry high audiences and, for pay TV, a stable number of subscriptions. In line with these precedents, national competition authorities have tried to ensure compliance with remedy packages. The tipping point here appears to be the premium qualification of sport rights on the upstream market of commercialization of sport TV rights.

This begs the question: which sport TV rights must be considered premium? The European Commission already held that European football championships, the Olympics and Formula 1 are premium rights but the question remains open for various other sports because they have not been the subject of competition proceedings yet. Two recent cases (the decisions are accessible here and here) brought before the French competition authority concerning rugby TV rights highlighted the need to bring out objective criteria to determine what are premium sport rights, bearing in mind that something premium in France may be qualified as non-premium in another market depending on its characteristics. Before discussing the need for legal certainty for sport rights holders, we will appraise the two French decisions on rugby and how premium sports are qualified.  

From non-premium to premium 

Canal Plus, the current holder of the rights, and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (national rugby league, “LNR”) entered into a negotiated procedure regarding the renewal of their Top 14 TV rights. However, in December 2013, the procedure was unsuccessful and the LNR decided to terminate the contract it had with Canal Plus. In so doing, the LNR started a legal war with its former broadcaster. As one of the conditions for the approval of the TPS/Canal Sat merger, Canal Plus was required to give the LNR the option to terminate their contract at the end of the 2013/2014 season.[1] The LNR, deciding that the price Canal Plus was paying did not correspond to the reality of the market anymore, started an open call for tenders for the next four seasons which led Canal Plus to file several legal actions to challenge the interruption of the negotiations, the termination of the contract and the call for tenders. Almost immediately the LNR suspended the call for tenders and resumed its negotiations with Canal Plus. In January 2014, the exclusive TV rights for all the Top 14 matches were awarded to Canal Plus - not only for the subsequent four but ultimately the following five seasons (2014/2015 to 2018/2019). Canal Plus had to put 355 million euros on the table to acquire the exclusive rights, amounting to twice the amount it paid for the previous broadcasting contract. BeIN Sports, a newcomer on the French sport TV rights market,[2] filed a complaint and asked for interim measures with the Autorité de la concurrence.[3]

The French competition authority, in its decisional practice,[4] distinguishes six different markets for sport TV rights acquisitions: (i) the national football first division market (Ligue 1); (ii) the market for annual football championships involving French teams (Ligue, UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League); (iii) the market for the most attractive foreign football championships; (iv) the market for other football competitions; (v) the market for events of major importance other than football; and (vi) the market for sport competitions other than football and events of major importance (or “other rights”). The first five markets are better known as premium rights while the last one consists of all other non-premium rights. Rugby media rights were considered as non-premium before that decision.

The Autorité recognized that rugby and more importantly, the Top 14 championship, were facing an important growth in popularity as reflected by the high value of its broadcastings rights and the high audiences it attracts. At the time of the decision, rugby was the third sport, after football and tennis, in terms of viewers and Canal Plus accepted to pay an average of 71 million euros per season for the rights.


Top 14 average rights price per season (1998-2014) 

Canal Plus Top 14 audiences and best audiences per season (2008-2014)


The Top 14 appears to be an important source of subscriptions (pt. 100) which makes it particularly attractive for pay TV channels. This competition was the second driver of subscriptions (32%) for Canal Plus just after the Ligue 1 (51%) but before the UEFA Champions League (31%). In light of these circumstances, the Top 14 rights should be considered as premium TV rights.

Next, in considering which market these rights should belong to, the Autorité set four criteria to be met to decide on the relevant premium market: (i) key sales driver for TV subscription; (ii) high audiences; (iii) value over 10 million euros per season; and (iv) competition characteristics (level and regularity). Without being particularly clear, the Autorité seems to consider that the Top 14 rights belong to a separate premium market (pt. 138). As a consequence, given the particularities of the French market, the Top 14 rights shifted from the non-premium market to the premium market which means that their commercialisation should have been awarded through a transparent and non-discriminatory tender procedure, for a limited period of time and divided into several packages consistent with the national and European practices.[5] 

From non-premium to semi-premium? 

The question concerning the premium qualification of sport TV rights arose again in a more recent case[6] before the French competition authority, this time concerning the live broadcasting rights for rugby’s second tier (“Pro D2”). The LNR carried out a public consultation for the marketing of commercial rights for the Pro D2 championships for the 2015/2016 to 2019/2020 seasons. Following three rounds of negotiation, Canal Plus and Eurosport were awarded the rights for a total of 31 million euros. The third and rejected applicant, Ma Chaîne Sport (“MCS”), a fairly new but growing sports channel[7] and more importantly part of the Altice group (a multinational cable, fiber, telecommunications, contents and media company), filed a complaint before the French Autorité de la Concurrence. In this complaint, it claimed it was excluded from the selling process as a result of both a cartel between Eurosport, Canal Plus and the LNR, and an abuse of dominant position from the LNR on “the market for the acquisition of semi-premium sport TV rights” (pt.47).

The TV rights for the Pro D2 championship are part of the sport “other rights” market as the competition authority never had to decide on that particular case before. However, MCS is claiming that these rights should belong to a new and different market of semi-premium sport rights that, without combining together the usual criteria found in the jurisprudence to identify premium rights, are still able to attract significant audiences, making them sufficiently attractive to be of interest to premium channels.[8] MCS further argues that the Pro D2, the football Ligue 2 (second division), the basketball Pro A and the handball D1 (all first division) belong on that market. All those rights, with the exception of the Ligue 2 rights which are considered as premium, are valuable in terms of killer content for pay TV but currently belong to the non-premium rights market. The Autorité acknowledges that the non-premium rights market is set as default and brings together a heterogeneous set of rights in attractiveness and value (pt.55). It also acknowledges that some of these rights attract higher prices but not quite enough to meet the threshold of 10 million euros per season to be considered as premium. Referring to its consistent decision making, the Autorité considers that relying on a sole criterion, namely a higher selling price than the average prices in the non-premium market, is not sufficient to change the relevant market to a premium market, without a substitutability analysis (pt.58). As a consequence, those rights are still deemed to belong to the non-premium rights market.

The recognition of a semi-premium market would have led to a division in the non-premium rights market (i.e. semi-premium rights on the one hand and the remaining rights that are less valuable on the other hand). Once again, the Autorité points out that such a categorization within the non-premium category is irrelevant from a competition law point of view (pt.59). Establishing a specific premium TV rights market should involve legal consequences as usually occurs when TV rights shift from the non-premium market to a specific premium market. Within the same market, it is difficult to see what those legal consequences should be. The non-premium TV market is ruled by common contract law in contrast to premium rights that have to comply with a number of obligations to ensure compliance with EU competition law (open and transparent tendering process, packages, and limits in duration). Imposing those remedies on the semi-premium market would lead to the absorption of the market by the premium TV rights markets (pt.63). As a consequence, the Autorité finds that there is no legal need to define a semi-premium sport TV rights market.  

Towards legal certainty for sport rights holders

We have seen that the shift between non-premium and premium sport rights is the tipping point that leads rights holders to start open tendering processes for the selling of their rights. However, in France, the Code du Sport provides that sport federations are the owners[9] of the media rights for their sport. These federations can decide to transfer this ownership to clubs.[10] In this case, joint selling by the league is compulsory[11] and it has to be done through an open and transparent tender process, the rights must be packaged and they must be sold for a maximum period of four years.[12] The Code du Sport codifies the remedies imposed by the European Commission in the joint selling of football media rights cases, but it does not mention premium rights. These obligations are applicable in the case of transfer of ownership and where a professional league exists. Thus, in France it only applies in relation to football, rugby, basketball, volleyball and handball, five sport for which a professional league has been set up. In practice, the French football federation is the only federation that transferred the ownership of rights to its clubs for the first and second divisions[13] and, as a consequence, the football national league, responsible for the joint selling on behalf of the clubs, has to respect the obligations laid down in the Code. It is possible that, in hoping to circumvent those obligations, the other four federations decided to keep the ownership of the media rights. This is, in particular, the case of the rugby federation where the league is selling the media rights for the Top 14 and Pro D2 on behalf of the federation.[14]

Both decisions on the Top 14 and Pro D2 reintegrate the notion of premium and non-premium rights into the legal analysis. In the case of rugby, where the national provisions for the selling of sport rights did not apply because the federation was the owner of these rights and not the clubs, the shift from non-premium to premium rights leads to the application of competition remedies. Moreover, the Top 14 decision opens the way to tendering processes, packaging and the limiting of contract durations in cases of sports where national provisions do not apply because there is no professional league. Indeed, in this scenario, the media rights will be considered as premium because they fulfil all criteria. Hence, two scenarios can be envisaged: where a professional league exists, the federation has to decide whether it transfers the rights ownership to clubs and respects the obligations laid down in the law; and where it decides to retain ownership, or if there is no league, the federation or league has to make sure its rights are not premium in accordance with the Top 14 decision before deciding on the marketing procedure it has to follow.

The criteria developed by the French competition authority appear to be quite objective and effective as these criteria were also used by the Belgian competition authority in a dispute between Proximus and Telenet concerning the rights of the 2015-2016 cycle-cross Superprestige competition that were awarded to Telenet.[15] Telenet used the cumulative criteria from the Top 14 decision to show that cycle-cross does not constitute a separate market from the other cycling rights that are not premium. The national competition authority however, also referring to the French decision, considers that these rights should be on a separate premium market because of their popularity throughout Flanders and that they are subscriptions driver. The question remaining here is whether it would be useful to codify these criteria. First, it has to be stated that these criteria were only used in the case of live TV and that it is difficult to assess if they are objective enough to be used for all media transmissions (which are mostly Internet-based). On the other hand, media is a fast moving market and it is absolutely not certain that engaging in a legislative process to codify those criteria will give the margin of appreciation necessary to correctly assess premium sport media rights markets and prevent any distortion of competition. A full codification does not appear essential in that case and, as shown in the Belgian cycle-cross situation, these criteria can be used in other sports and markets to determine the premium qualification of media rights which gives a modicum of legal certainty to sport rights holders.

However, a question remains surrounding sport rights that almost fall within the premium market. For non-premium rights, rights holders have the freedom to decide how they want to organise the selling of their TV rights. As Telenet in the Belgian decision on cycle-cross rightly pointed out, the imposition of a transparent tender procedure for rights holders that belong to the non-premium market creates an imbalance as they do not have the same resources as the premium rights holders to organise such a costly tender procedure. Yet, in practice, and in the Pro D2 case, rights holders tend to organise tender procedures and unbundle their rights even though they are not legally obliged to do so. In the case of the Top 14, the LNR carried out a market assessment before even starting its negotiations with Canal Plus and should have known its rights fell into the premium category. The problem here for rights holders is to prevent any dispute arising after the selling process concerning the non-premium/premium qualification of the TV rights in question. Identifying a semi-premium category may be useful for rights holders in better managing the shift from non-premium to premium rights holders. Right holders that are close to seeing their non-premium rights become premium should carefully assess the commercial attractiveness of their rights and probably decide on a formal selling procedure in order not to risk their selling process being annulled by competition authorities.

As seen with these two French cases, the value of sport TV rights may change over time, depending on factors such as the improvement in the level of competition and the public interest, which creates the possibility for these rights to change categories. Moreover, this appreciation may change from one national market to another. Moving from the non-premium to premium market implies some important changes in the selling process and rights holders should carefully appraise the value and popularity of their sport beforehand. The criteria laid down in the Top 14 decision may be considered as guiding principles in this process and, accordingly, it may be used by other competition authorities faced with similar circumstances.

[1] Autorité de la concurrence, 12-DCC-100, 23/07/2012

[2] BeIN Sport is a French sport premium channel in direct competition with Canal Plus and Eurosport and owns an important portfolio of sport rights for football (Ligue 1, Ligue 2, UEFA Champions League and Europa League), rugby, tennis and handball in particular. In February 2016 Canal Plus announced it had reached an agreement to exclusively distribute beIN Sports. The French competition authority is expected to decide very soon on that issue.

[3] Autorité de la concurrence, 14-MC-01, 30/07/2014 and Cour d’Appel de Paris, arrêt du 09 octobre 2014.

[4] Autorité de la concurrence, 12-DCC-100, 23/07/2012.

[5] Commission Decision, UEFA Champions League (Case COMP/C.2-37.398), 23/07/2003

[6] Autorité de la concurrence, 16-D-04, 23/03/2016.

[7] MCS (from July 2016, SFR Sport channels) sport rights portfolio mainly consists of the competition rights overlooked by the biggest actors on the market. However, it owns some valuable rights such as the basketball Pro A (French first division basketball championship), the CEV DenizBank Volleyball Champions League, the WTA tour in tennis and more importantly, from 2016, the FA Premier League.

[8] « qui, sans réunir l’ensemble des critères habituellement retenus par la jurisprudence pour identifier un caractère premium, sont des moteurs d’audience significatifs pour les chaînes thématiques sportives et des contenus suffisamment attractifs pour également intéresser les chaînes premium », pt.49

[9] Code du Sport, articles L.331-1 and R.333-1

[10] Ibid, L.331-1

[11] Ibid, article R.333-2

[12] Ibid, article R.333-3

[13] See article 25 of the FFF/LFP convention

[14] See article 28 of the FFR/LNR convention

[15] Belgische Mededingingsautoriteit, 15-VM-65, 05/11/2015

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