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

Free Event! Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play? - 5 March at the Asser Institute in The Hague

The upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and its links to human rights violations has been the subject of many debates in the media and beyond. In particular, the respect of migrant workers’ labour rights was at the forefront of much public criticisms directed against FIFA. Similarly, past Olympics in Rio, Sochi or Beijing have also been in the limelight for various human rights issues, such as the lack of freedom of the press, systematic discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or forced evictions. These controversies have led sports governing bodies (SGBs) to slowly embrace human rights as an integral part of their core values and policies. Leading to an increased expectation for SGBs to put their (private) diplomatic capital at the service of human rights by using their leverage vis-à-vis host countries of their mega-sporting events (MSEs). In turn, this also raises the question of the need for the EU to accompany this change by putting human rights at the heart of its own sports diplomacy.

Research collective 
This Multiplier Sporting Event, organised in the framework of the transnational project on ‘Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sports Diplomacy’ funded by the Erasmus + Programme, aims to trigger discussions on the role of an EU sports diplomacy in strengthening respect for human rights in the context of MSEs both at home and abroad. It will feature two roundtables focused on the one hand on the diplomatic power and capacity of SGBs to fend for human rights during MSEs and on the other on the EU’s integration of human rights considerations linked to MSEs in its own sports diplomacy.


13:20 – 14:00 – Welcome and opening speech –Antoine Duval (Asser Institute)
14:00 - 15:30 - Panel 1: Leveraging the Diplomatic Power of the Sports Governing Bodies for Human Rights

  • Lucy Amis (Unicef UK/Institute for Human Rights and Business)
  • Guido Battaglia (Centre for Sport and Human Rights)
  • Florian Kirschner (World Players Association/UNI Global Union)
  • Claire Jenkin (University of Hertfordshire)

15:30 – 16:00 - Coffee Break

16:00 - 17:30 - Panel 2: A Human Rights Dimension for the EU’s Sports Diplomacy?

  • Arnout Geeraert (Utrecht University)
  • Agata Dziarnowska (European Commission)
  • Alexandre Mestre (Sport and Citizenship)
  • Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (TBC)

17:30 - Reception

Balancing Athletes’ Interests and The Olympic Partner Programme: the Bundeskartellamt’s Rule 40 Decision - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.


1        Introduction

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), after many years of ineffective pushback (see here, here and here) over bye law 3 of rule 40[1] of the Olympic Charter (OC), which restricts the ability of athletes and their entourage to advertise themselves during the ‘blackout’ period’[2] (also known as the ‘frozen period’) of the Olympic Games, may have been gifted a silver bullet to address a major criticism of its rules. This (potentially) magic formula was handed down in a relatively recent decision of the Bundeskartellamt, the German competition law authority, which elucidated how restrictions to athletes’ advertisements during the frozen period may be scrutinized under EU competition law. The following blog begins by explaining the historical and economic context of rule 40 followed by the facts that led to the decision of the Bundeskartellamt. With this background, the decision of the Bundeskartellamt is analyzed to show to what extent it may serve as a model for EU competition law authorities. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – November and December 2019- By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 


The Headlines

WADA Conference and the Adoption of 2021 WADA Code Amid Calls for Reform

On November 5-7, WADA held its Fifth World Conference on Doping in Sport where it faced a busy schedule, including the adoption of the revised 2021 World Anti-Doping Code and the election of a new WADA President and Vice-President by the Foundation Board. Concerning the latter, Witold Bańka, Poland’s Minister of Sport and Tourism, was elected as WADA President and Yang Yang, a former Chinese speed skater, elected as Vice-President, replacing Sir Craig Reedie and Linda Helleland respectively.  As Helleland leaves her position, she has expressed some strong views on the state of sport governance, particularly that ‘there is an absence of good governance, openness and independence in the highest levels of international sports’. Helleland was not the only one to recently voice governance concerns, as Rob Koehler, Director General of Global Athlete, also called for a ‘wholesale structural change at WADA’, which includes giving ‘independent’ athletes a vote in WADA’s Foundation Board, ensuring a greater ‘separation of powers’ and ensuring greater protection of athletes’ rights.

In the midst of the calls for reform, the amended 2021 WADA Code and the amended International Standards were also adopted after a two year, three stage code review process. Furthermore, a major milestone in athletes’ rights was achieved with the adoption of the Athletes’ Anti-Doping Rights Acts (separate from the WADA Code), which enumerates certain basic rights to help ‘ensure that Athlete rights within anti-doping are clearly set out, accessible, and universally applicable’. On the other hand, the Act ‘is not a legal document’, which clearly circumscribes some of the potential effects the Act may have. Nonetheless, athlete representative groups have ‘cautiously welcomed’ some of the changes brought by the 2021 WADA Code, such as the ‘modified sanctions for substances of abuse violations’.

Sung Yang’s Historical Public Hearing at the CAS

After much anticipation, the second public hearing in CAS history occurred on November 15 in Montreux, Switzerland in the Sun Yang case (details of this case were discussed in August and September’s monthly report), which was livestreamed and can be seen in its totality in four different parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). This was an extremely unique opportunity, which hopefully will become a more common occurrence, to see just how CAS hearings are conducted and perhaps get a taste of some of the logistical issues that can emerge during live oral hearings. One of these problems, accurate translations, rapidly became apparent as soon as Sun Yang sat in the witness chair to give his opening statements. The translators in the box seemed to struggle to provide an intelligible English interpretation of Sun Yang and other witnesses’ statements, while Sun Yang also seemingly had trouble understanding the translated questions being posed to him. The situation degenerated to such an extent that ultimately one of WADA’s officials was called to replace the translators. However, the translation drama did not end there, since during Sun Yang’s closing statements an almost seemingly random person from the public appeared next to Sun Yang who claimed to have been requested from Sun Yang’s team to ‘facilitate’ the translation. Franco Frattini, president of the panel, questioned the identity of the ‘facilitator’ and explained that one could not just simply appear before the court without notice. Interestingly, Sun Yang’s legal team also rapidly intervened claiming that it had not been made of aware of the inclusion of the supporting translator, further complicating the matter. In the end, Sun Yang concluded his statements with the translation from the WADA official.

While it was Sun Yang’s legal team that had provided the original translators in the box, it still raises the question as to how translation at CAS could be improved to ensure a certain standard of translators. After all, quality translation is critical to the parties’ right to be heard under Article 6 (e) ECHR. Regardless, in the end, neither parties made an objection that their right to be heard was violated.

Russian Doping Saga Continues: WADA Compliance Review Committee Recommends Strong Sanctions

As was already discussed in August and September’s monthly report, WADA uncovered numerous inconsistencies concerning data taken from the Moscow Laboratory. After further investigation, WADA’s Compliance Review Committee has recommended that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) be found non-compliant with the WADA Code. Accompanying the recommendation, the Compliance Review Committee also suggested several sanctions, which include prohibiting Russian athletes from participating in major events like the Olympic Games and ‘any World Championships organized or sanctioned by any Signatory’ for the next four years unless they may ‘dmonstrate that they are not implicated in any way by the non-compliance’. It would also see an embargo on events hosted in Russia during the same period. However, these sanctions did not go far enough for some, like Travis Tygart, chief executive of USADA, who wishes to prevent a repeat of Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018 ‘in which a secretly-managed process permitting Russians to compete – did not work’. On the other hand, the IOC has advocated for a softer, individual based approach that pursues ‘the rules of natural justice and respect human rights’. In the midst of these developments, the Athletics Integrity Unit also decided to charge several members of the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF), including its President Dmitry Shlyakhtin, after a 15 month investigation for ‘tampering and complicity’ concerning a Russian athlete’s whereabouts violations.

Following many calls for strong consequences, the WADA Executive Committee met on December 9th and adopted the recommendations of the Compliance Review Committee. Athlete representatives have expressed their disappointment with the sanctions, calling the decision ‘spineless’ since it did not pursue a complete ban on Russian participation at events such as Euro 2020 and the 2020 Olympics. At this point, RUSADA has sent notice to WADA that it will be disputing the decision of WADA’s Executive Committee’s decision at the CAS.More...

Is UCI the new ISU? Analysing Velon’s Competition Law Complaint to the European Commission - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.


1.     Introduction

The UCI may soon have to navigate treacherous legal waters after being the subject of two competition law based complaints (see here and here) to the European Commission in less than a month over rule changes and decisions made over the past year. One of these complaints stems from Velon, a private limited company owned by 11 out of the 18 World Tour Teams,[1] and the other comes from the Lega del Ciclismo Professionistico, an entity based in Italy representing an amalgamation of stakeholders in Italian professional cycling. While each of the complaints differ on the actual substance, the essence is the same: both are challenging the way the UCI exercises its regulatory power over cycling because of a growing sense that the UCI is impeding the development of cycling as a sport. Albeit in different ways: Velon sees the UCI infringing on its ability to introduce new race structures and technologies; the Lega del Ciclismo Professionistico believes the UCI is cutting opportunities for semi-professional cycling teams, the middle ground between the World Tour Teams and the amateur teams.

While some of the details remain vague, this blog will aim to unpack part of the claims made by Velon in light of previous case law from both the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to give a preliminary overview of the main legal issues at stake and some of the potential outcomes of the complaint. First, it will be crucial to understand just who/what Velon is before analyzing the substance of Velon’s complaint. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – October 2019 by Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

The Headlines

International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) Conference 2019

The T.M.C. Asser Institute and the Asser International Sports Law Centre held the third International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) Conference on October 24-25. The Conference created a forum for academics and practitioners to discuss, debate and share knowledge on the latest developments of sports law. It featured six uniquely themed panels, which included topics such as ‘Transfer systems in international sports’ and ‘Revisiting the (in)dependence and transparency of the CAS’ to ‘The future of sports: sports law of the future’. The ISLJ Conference was also honored to have two exceptional keynote speakers: Moya Dodd and Ulrich Haas. To kick off the conference, Moya Dodd shared her experiences from an athlete’s perspective in the various boardrooms of FIFA. The second day was then launched by Ulrich Haas, who gave an incredibly thorough and insightful lecture on the importance, function and legal basis of association tribunals in international sport. For a detailed overview of this year’s ISLJ Conference, click here for the official conference report.

The Asser International Sports Law Centre was delighted to have been able to host another great edition of the ISLJ Conference and is thankful to all the participants and speakers who made this edition such a success.

Moving towards greater transparency: Launch of FIFA’s Legal Portal

On October 31, FIFA announced that it was introducing a new legal portal on its website that will give greater access to numerous documents that previously were kept private. FIFA explains that this is in order to help increase its transparency, which was one of the key ‘Guiding Principles’ highlighted in FIFA 2.0: The Vision for the Future released in 2016. This development comes as many sport governing bodies face increasing criticism for the opacity of its judicial bodies’ decisions, which can have tremendous economic and societal impacts. The newly available documents will include: ‘decisions rendered on the merits by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee and the FIFA Appeal Committee (notified as of 1 January 2019); decisions rendered on the merits by the FIFA Ethics Committee (notified since 1 January 2019); decisions rendered on the merits by the FIFA Players’ Status Committee and the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber; non-confidential CAS awards in proceedings to which FIFA is a party (notified since 1 January 2019); list of CAS arbitrators proposed by FIFA for appointment by ICAS, and the number of times they have been nominated in CAS proceedings’. The list of decisions from all the aforementioned bodies are updated every four months, according to their respective webpages. However, time will ultimately tell how consistently decisions are published. Nevertheless, this move is a major milestone in FIFA’s journey towards increasing its transparency.

Hong Kong Protests, Human Rights and (e)Sports Law: The Blizzard and NBA controversies

Both Blizzard, a major video game developer, and the NBA received a flurry of criticism for their responses to persons expressing support for the Hong Kong protests over the past month. On October 8, Blizzard sanctioned Blitzchung, a professional Hearthstone player who expressed support of the Hong Kong protest during a post-match interview, by eliminating the prize money he had won and suspending him for one year from any Hearthstone tournament. Additionally, Blizzard will cease to work with the casters who conducted the interview. With mounting disapproval over the sanctions,  J. Allen Brack, the president of Blizzard, restored the prize money and reduced the period of ineligibility to 6 months.

The NBA controversy started when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for the protests in Hong Kong. The tweet garnered much attention, especially in China where it received a lot of backlash, including an announcement from CCTV, the official state broadcaster in China, that it was suspending all broadcasts of the NBA preseason games. In attempts to appease its Chinese audience, which is a highly profitable market for the NBA, Morey deleted the tweet and posted an apology, and the NBA responded by saying that the initial tweet was ‘regrettable’. Many scolded these actions and accused the NBA of censorship to which the NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, responded that the NBA remains committed to freedom of expression.

Both cases highlighted how (e)sport organizations may be faced with competing interests to either guarantee greater protection of human rights or to pursue interests that perhaps have certain financial motivations. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – August and September 2019 - By Thomas Terraz

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

Another Russian Doping Crisis? Inconsistencies Uncovered in the Data from the Moscow Lab

Storm clouds are brewing once more in the Russian Doping Saga, after several inconsistencies were uncovered by WADA from data retrieved from the Moscow Laboratory. More specifically, a certain number of positive tests had been removed from the data WADA retrieved from the Moscow Laboratory compared to the one received from the original whistleblower. WADA launched a formal compliance procedure on 23 September, giving three weeks for Russian authorities to respond and provide their explanations. WADA’s Compliance Review Committee is set to meet on 23 October in order to determine whether to recommend declaring Russia non-compliant.

Russian authorities are not the only ones now facing questions in light of these new revelations. Criticism of WADA’s decision to declare Russia compliant back in September 2018 have been reignited by stakeholders. That original decision had been vehemently criticized (see also Edwin Moses’ response), particularly by athlete representative groups.

The fallout of these data discrepancies may be far reaching if Russian authorities are unable to provide a satisfying response. There are already whispers of another impending Olympic Games ban and the possibility of a ban extending to other sports signed to the WADA Code. In the meantime, the IAAF has already confirmed that the Russian Athletes would compete as ‘authorised neutral athletes’ at the World Athletics Championship in Doha, Qatar.

Legal Challenges Ahead to Changes to the FIFA Football Transfer Market

FIFA is set to make amendments to its player transfer market that take aim at setting new boundaries for football agents. These changes will prohibit individuals from representing both the buying and selling club in the same transaction and set new limits on agent commissions (3 percent for the buying club and player representative and 10 percent for the selling team). FIFA is already in the process of creating a central clearinghouse through which all transfer payments would have to pass through, including agent commissions. FIFA will be making a final decision on these proposed changes at the FIFA Council meeting on 24 October.

If these proposed changes are confirmed, they will almost certainly be challenged in court. The British trade organization representing football agents, Association of Football Agents, has already begun its preparations for a costly legal battle by sending a plea to its members for donations. It claims that it had not been properly consulted by FIFA before this decision had been made. On the other hand, FIFA claims that ‘there has been a consultation process with a representative group of agents’ and that FIFA kept ‘an open dialogue with agents’. Regardless, if these proposed changes go through, FIFA will be on course to a looming legal showdown.

CAS Public Hearing in the Sun Yang Case: One Step Forward for Transparency?

On 20 August, 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) announced that the hearing in the appeal procedure of the Sun Yang case will be held publicly. It will be only the second time in its history that a public hearing has been held (the last one being in 1999, Michelle Smith De Bruin v. FINA). WADA has appealed the original decision of the FINA Doping Panel which had cleared Sun Yang from an alleged anti-doping rule violation. The decision to make the hearing public was at the request of both parties. The hearing is set to take place November 15th and is likely to be an important milestone in improving the CAS’ transparency.

Sun Yang, who has already served a doping ban for a previous violation in 2014, has also been at the center of another controversy, where Mack Horton, an Australian swimmer, refused to shake hands and stand on the podium with Sun Yang at the world championships in Gwangju. More...

ISLJ International Sports Law Conference 2019 - Conference Report - By Thomas Terraz

On October 24th and 25th 2019, the T.M.C. Asser Institute and the International Sports Law Centre hosted the International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) Conference for a third year in a row, bringing together a group of academics and practitioners from around the world. This year’s conference celebrated the 20th year of the International Sports Law Journal, which was originally started by Robert Siekmann. Over the past 20 years, the ISLJ has aimed to be a truly international journal that addresses global topics in sports law while keeping the highest academic standards.

With this background, the conference facilitated discussions and exchanges over six differently themed panels on international sports law’s most pertinent issues and gave participants wide opportunities to engage with one another. Additionally, this year’s edition also had the great honor of hosting two distinguished keynote speakers, Moya Dodd and Ulrich Haas, who were able to share their wealth of experience and knowledge with the conference participants.

The following report aims to give an overview of the ISLJ Conference 2019 to extract and underline the fundamental ideas raised by the different speakers.More...

Caster Semenya’s Legal Battle Against Gender Stereotypes: On Nature, Law and Identity - By Sofia Balzaretti (University of Fribourg)

Editor's note: Sofia Balzaretti is a Graduate research assistant and a PhD candidate at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) where she is writing a thesis on the Protection against Gender Stereotypes in International Law. In addition to research in human rights and feminist legal theory, she has also carried out some research in legal philosophy and on the relationship between gender and the law.


The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the monitoring body of track and field athletics, regularly submitted South African middle distance runner and Olympic gold medalist Mokgadi Caster Semenya to sex verification tests when it began questioning her sexual characteristics and speculating whether her body belonged on the Disorder of Sex Development (DSD) spectrum. DSD Syndrome is often defined as an “intersex condition” which affects the clear development of either/or genitalia, gonads and chromosomes into one distinctive sex or another. The spectrum of the intersex condition is particularly wide, and the disorder can sometimes be minimal - some cases of female infertility can actually be explained by an intersex condition.

The IAAF deemed the controversial sex verification tests necessary on the grounds that it was required to prove Semenya did not have a “medical condition” which could give her an “unfair advantage”. It was eventually found that, because of an intersex trait, Semenya did have abnormally high levels of testosterone for a woman, which, in the IAAF’s opinion, justified a need for regulatory hormonal adjustments in order for her to keep competing in the women’s category. The IAAF also funded research to determine how ‘hyperandrogenism’ affects athletic performance. In 2018, it issued Eligibility Regulations on Female Classification (“Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development”) for events from 400m to the mile, including 400m, hurdles races, 800m and 1’500m. The IAAF rules indicated that in case of an existing high level of testosterone, suppression or regulation by chemotherapy, hormonal castration, and/or iatrogenic irradiation was mandatory in order to take part in these events.

Semenya and her lawyers challenged the IAAF Regulations in front of the CAS, who, in a very controversial decision, deemed the Regulations a necessary, reasonable and proportionate mean “of achieving the aim of what is described as the integrity of female athletics and for the upholding of the ‘protected class’ of female athletes in certain events” (§626). More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – June and July 2019 - 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 European Court of Justice finds that rule of a sports association excluding nationals of other Member States from domestic amateur athletics championships may be contrary to EU law

On 13 June 2019, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered a preliminary ruling at the request of the Amtsgericht Darmstadt (Local Court Darmstadt, Germany) filed in the course of the proceedings involving Mr Daniele Biffi, an Italian amateur athlete residing in Germany, and his athletics club TopFit based in Berlin, on the one hand, and the German athletics association Deutscher Leichtathletikverband, on the other. The case concerned a rule adopted by the German athletics association under which nationals of other Member States are not allowed to be awarded the title of national champion in senior amateur athletics events as they may only participate in such events outside/without classification. The ECJ’s task was to decide whether or not the rule in question adheres to EU law.

The ECJ took the view that the two justifications for the rule in question put forward by the German athletics association did not appear to be founded on objective considerations and called upon the Amtsgericht Darmstadt to look for other considerations that would pursue a legitimate objective. In its judgment, the ECJ analysed several important legal questions, including amongst others the applicability of EU law to amateur sport or the horizontal applicability of European citizenship rights (for detailed analysis of the judgment, please see our blog written by Thomas Terraz).

Milan not featuring in this season’s edition of Europa League following a settlement with UEFA

On 28 June 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rendered a consent award giving effect to a settlement agreement between UEFA and the Milan Football Club, under which the Italian club agreed to serve a one-year ban from participation in UEFA club competitions as a result of its breaches of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations over the 2015/2016/2017 and the 2016/2017/2018 monitoring periods, while the European football’s governing body agreed to set aside previous decisions of the Investigatory and Adjudicatory Chamber of its Club Financial Control Body which had found Milan guilty of the respective breaches.   

This was not the first intervention of the CAS related to Milan’s (non-)compliance with UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. In July 2018, the CAS annulled the decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body of 19 June 2018 which was supposed to lead to the exclusion of the Italian club from UEFA club competitions for which it would otherwise qualify in the next two seasons (i.e. 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 seasons). Following such intervention of the CAS – which concerned the 2015/2016/2017 monitoring period – it may have appeared that Milan would eventually manage to escape a ban from participation in UEFA club competitions for breaches of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. However, Milan’s case was again referred to the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body in April 2019 – this time its alleged breaches of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations concerned the 2016/2017/2018 monitoring period – and such referral apparently forced Milan into negotiations with UEFA which led to the settlement agreement ratified by the CAS.      

Swiss Federal Tribunal gives Caster Semenya a glimmer of hope at first but then stops her from running at the IAAF World Championships in Doha

Caster Semenya’s legal team brought an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal in late May against the landmark ruling of the CAS which gave the IAAF the green light to apply its highly contentious Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Difference of Sexual Development) preventing female athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone from participating in certain athletic events unless they take medication to supress such levels of testosterone below the threshold of five nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months. The appeal yielded some positive partial results for Caster Semenya early on as the Swiss Federal Tribunal ordered the IAAF on 3 June 2019 to suspend the implementation of the contested regulations. However, the Swiss Federal Tribunal overturned its decision at the end of July which means that Caster Semenya is no longer able to run medication-free and this will most likely be the case also when the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships kick off in Doha in less than one month’s time. The procedural decisions adopted by the Swiss Federal Tribunal thus far have no impact on the merits of Caster Semenya’s appeal.More...

Can a closed league in e-Sports survive EU competition law scrutiny? The case of LEC - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

1.     Introduction

The organizational structure of sports in Europe is distinguished by its pyramid structure which is marked by an open promotion and relegation system. A truly closed system, without promotion and relegation, is unknown to Europe, while it is the main structure found in North American professional sports leagues such as the NFL, NBA and the NHL. Recently, top European football clubs along with certain members of UEFA have been debating different possibilities of introducing a more closed league system to European football. Some football clubs have even wielded the threat of forming an elite closed breakaway league. Piercing through these intimidations and rumors, the question of whether a closed league system could even survive the scrutiny of EU competition law remains. It could be argued that an agreement between clubs to create a completely closed league stifles competition and would most likely trigger the application of Article 101 and 102 TFEU.[1] Interestingly, a completely closed league franchise system has already permeated the European continent. As outlined in my previous blog, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) is a European e-sports competition that has recently rebranded and restructured this year from an open promotion and relegation system to a completely closed franchise league to model its sister competition from North America, the League Championship Series. This case is an enticing opportunity to test how EU competition law could apply to such a competition structure.

As a preliminary note, this blog does not aim to argue whether the LEC is a ‘real’ sport competition and makes the assumption that the LEC could be considered as a sports competition.[2]


Asser International Sports Law Blog | The EU State aid and sport saga: The Real Madrid Decision (part 1)

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 EU State aid and sport saga: The Real Madrid Decision (part 1)

Out of all the State aid investigations of recent years involving professional football clubs, the outcome of the Real Madrid case was probably the most eagerly awaited. Few football clubs have such a global impact as this Spanish giant, and any news item involving the club, whether positive or negative, is bound to make the headlines everywhere around the globe. But for many Spaniards, this case involves more than a simple measure by a public authority scrutinized by the European Commission. For them, it exemplifies the questionable relationship between the private and the public sector in a country sick of never-ending corruption scandals.[1] Moreover, Spain is only starting to recover from its worst financial crisis in decades, a crisis founded on real estate speculation, but whose effects were mostly felt by ordinary citizens.[2] Given that the Real Madrid case involves fluctuating values of land that are transferred from the municipality to the club, and vice versa, it represents a type of operation that used to be very common in the Spanish professional football sector, but has come under critical scrutiny in recent years.[3] 

By ordering the recovery of the granted State aid, the Commission showed that certain (land) transaction agreements between a public authority and a private entity can be caught by EU (State aid) law, regardless of the size and fame of the private entity. The ‘Real Madrid Saga’ (which, in addition to the Commission’s final decision, also includes the Commission’s opening decision, a number of rulings by Spanish national courts[4], a more than likely review by the Court of Justice of the EU, and a new deal between the club and the municipality) might serve as harbinger, in the professional football sector at least, for a shift towards more transparent and responsible conduct by clubs and public authorities.

This two-part blog will attempt to provide an overview of the ‘Real Madrid Saga’ in its broadest sense. The first part will briefly[5] outline the facts that led to the opening of the State aid investigation, and then analyse the role played by the Spanish national courts in the ‘Saga’. The second part will focus on the recovery decision of 4 July 2016 and dissect the arguments used by the Commission to reach it.  

The facts

The municipality of Madrid and Real Madrid have a rich history of land transactions. In fact, a particular agreement from 2001 was already questioned by a Member of the European Parliament, even though the European Commission, at that time, saw no reason to launch a full State aid investigation.

However the agreement of 29 July 2011 did not manage to escape Commission scrutiny. This agreement, referred to by the Commission as the “2011 settlement agreement”[6], settled two earlier agreements between the city Council and Real Madrid dating from 1991 and 1998 respectively. A simple analysis of the 2011 settlement agreement clarifies why the Commission doubted its legality. In 1998 Real Madrid transferred half of their old training grounds to the municipality. Additionally to a large sum of money, the club was to receive a number of terrains spread out over the municipality, including a terrain located in the area called Las Tablas valued by the technical services of the municipal administration at €595.194 in 1998.[7] At that time, the two parties “were of the opinion that the classification ‘reserved for sport’ would not exclude its transfer to private ownership”. This land was however never officially transferred to Real Madrid, and the entry of a local urban law in 2001 made the actual transfer legally impossible, because it stipulates that plots reserved for sport must be in public ownership. This was confirmed in 2004 by the Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid (Madrid High Court), which ruled that the local urban laws prevent any private entity from holding the legal property over this type of plot (like the terrain in Las Tablas).[8] As a result, in 2011, the Council decided to compensate the football club not for the original value of €595.194 but for a staggering €22.693.054,44! Once again, this value was determined by the technical services of the municipal administration. Real Madrid was not compensated in the form of a sum of money, but rather it was presented with a packet of terrains including four terrains of a total area of 12.435 m/2 in the street Mercedes Arteaga in the Carabanchel district of Madrid.[9]

This last plot of land transferred to Real Madrid formed the subject of another land agreement dating from November 2011. The agreement became known as operation Bernabeú-Opañel and consisted of the following: The Council is to transfer to the club a terrain which borders the Bernabéu stadium. This would permit Real Madrid to cover its stadium with a roof, and to build a shopping centre and a hotel on the façade situated on the Paseo de la Castellana (one of Madrid’s most important streets). In return, the club agreed to transfer to the Council the shopping centre Esquina del Bernabéu, which is situated on the other side of the stadium. The Council would then demolish the shopping centre and convert it into a public park. The club also promised to transfer back to the Council parts of the four terrains located in the street Mercedes Arteaga that it received as part of the 29 July 2011 Agreement. In addition to the transfers of the old shopping centre and the terrains located in the street Mercedes Arteaga, Real Madrid is also to pay €6.6 million to the Council. The Council, however, encountered an obstacle in its own urban laws, which did not permit private parties, like Real Madrid, to construct on public terrains owned by the Council. Therefore, on 16 November 2012, the Government of the autonomous region of Madrid announced that the local urban law was to be modified ad hoc to enable the operation Bernabeú-Opañel.[10]

Even though no formal State aid complaint was ever submitted, the Commission nonetheless opened a formal investigation on 18 December 2013 based on “press reports and information sent by citizens”.[11] In its opening decision, the Commission provided a preliminary assessment of the 2011 settlement agreement under the EU State aid rules. It expressed doubts with regard to the legality of the transfer of the terrain in Las Tablas to Real Madrid; with regard to the evaluation of the market value of the Las Tablas plot of land; and with regard to market conformity of the value of the properties which were transferred to Real Madrid by the 2011 settlement agreement. Interestingly enough, although the Commission barely mentioned the operation Bernabeú-Opañel in its preliminary assessment (let alone assess it), it also doubted whether the subsequent exchange of land around the Bernabéu Stadium was carried out at market conditions.[12] 

The role of the national courts

In January 2012, the ecological movement Ecologistas en Acción (EeA) found several legal irregularities with regard to the Bernabeú-Opañel agreement, including the fact that no mention was made of the 2011 settlement agreement. It subsequently started legal proceedings in front of the Spanish administrative Court claiming that the ad hoc modification of the urban regulations was contrary the general interest and sought its annulment under Spanish law. In March 2013, a second action for annulment of the operation Bernabéu-Opañel was sought by the Ruiz-Villar family. For the sake of clarification, in the past this family was the owner of the land on which the Bernabéu stadium is build, as well as the plot of land next to the Bernabéu stadium that the Council wants to transfer to Real Madrid. Their action led to the judgment by the Madrid High Court of 2 February 2015, which will be elaborated on below. 

The Order for Interim Measures of 31 July 2014

At the time the European Commission opened a formal investigation in December 2013, EeA’s action for annulment under Spanish law was pending at the Madrid High Court. The fact that the European Commission was investigating the matter provided EeA the legal opportunity to invoke the so-called ‘standstill obligation’. The ‘standstill obligation’, found in Article 108(3) TFEU has direct effect and can therefore be called upon in front of national courts. Article 108(3) reads as follows: “The Member State concerned shall not put its proposed measure into effect until this procedure has resulted in a final decision (by the Commission)”. In other words, from the moment the Commission starts investigating the alleged State aid measure, the national court has an obligation to protect competitors and other third parties against (potential) unlawful aid since the Commission’s own powers to do so are limited.[13] It is, furthermore, settled case law that third parties who are not affected by the distortion of competition resulting from the aid measure can also have a sufficient legal interest of a different character, such as EeA, in bringing ‘standstill’ proceedings before a national court.[14]

EeA could not invoke the ‘standstill obligation’, as regards the 2011 settlement agreement, since the land transactions subject to that agreement had already taken place. Therefore, its focus was on preventing Real Madrid from carrying out the Bernabéu-Opañel project until the Commission closed its State aid investigation. On the one hand, this focus made sense given that EeA was also involved in a case in front of the same Court aiming to annul the operation Bernabéu-Opañel. On the other hand, it was not prima facie clear whether the ‘standstill operation’ also applied to the operation Bernabéu-Opañel, since the Commission’s opening decision made little reference to this project. In other words, it was not known whether the Commission was, in fact, actually investigating this operation.

In its Order for Interim Measures of 31 July 2014, the Madrid High Court stated that“(i)t does not correspond to this Chamber to determine at this procedural moment whether the transaction constitutes an illegal State aid or not but the inclusion of [the plots located in the street Mercedes Arteaga] in the scope of the [operation Bernabéu-Opañel] are sufficient circumstantial elements in order to determine a direct connection between the investigation undertaken by the Commission and the object of the present appeal”.[15]

With the link between the 2011 settlement and the operation Bernabéu-Opañel established by the Court, it recognised two possible reasons to suspend the renovation of the Bernabéu stadium:

- To safeguard the interests of the justiciable;

- To protect the affected parties by the distortion of competition caused by the aid.[16]

As regards the former, in essence the Madrid High Court had to decide whether EeA had standing to request the ‘standstill’. The CJEU has been quite clear on this matter: in principle, national procedural rules apply to ‘standstill’ proceedings.[17] In Spain, in administrative cases involving urban matters, the so-called acción publica urbanística, or urban public action principle, applies. This principle grants very extensive procedural rights to third parties who have a limited direct interest to launch proceedings in urban matters, including EeA in the Real Madrid case.[18] Indeed, given the possibility that procedural rights for third parties in urban matters are broader in Spain than in some, if not most, other EU Member States, standstill proceedings in other Member States could well be declared inadmissible for lack of interest under similar conditions.

With the standing of EeA recognized, the Court went on to suspend the renovation of the stadium not only to protect EeA of the distortion of competition caused by the concession of the aid, but also to protect Real Madrid itself. Allowing the renovation to go ahead could have very negative consequences for the football club if the aid were ordered to be recovered, such as the demolition of the newly renovated part of the stadium.[19] The argument that the suspension served to protect Real Madrid is hard to follow, since, as the EU State aid rules stipulate, it is up to the Member State to decide how incompatible State aid is recovered.[20] The Spanish authorities ordering Real Madrid to demolish its own stadium seems to be a rather exaggerated eventuality. Furthermore, one wonders whether suspending the renovation of the stadium really helps Real Madrid when, at that stage, there were not that many indications that the Commission was actually investigating the operation Bernabéu-Opañel.  

The judgment of 2 February 2015 ordering the annulment of the operation Bernabéu-Opañel

Any remaining criticisms regarding the Madrid High Court’s decision to suspend the renovation of the stadium were swiftly set aside when the same Madrid High Court annulled the whole operation in its judgment of 2 February 2015. As explained above, this was based on the action of annulment sought by the Ruiz-Villar family. This blog will not analyse this judgment in full detail, because it does not make any reference to the State aid investigation or any other aspect of EU law. The important element to take from this judgment, however, is that an ad hoc modification of the (local) urban law is only valid if it fulfils the general interest and not just the interest of one (private) party.[21] Real Madrid has publicly expressed that it intends to “convert the Club in a sporting institution of reference in the world. The aim is for the stadium to have a maximum level of comfort and services superior to the most modern and advanced sporting stadiums in the world”.[22] This objective was not considered by the court to be an objective of general interest and, consequently, does not allow for an ad hoc modification of the urban laws.

As a result, Real Madrid had to restart its entire renovation project while a potential negative decision State aid decision from the European Commission was still looming. Moreover, as will be shown in the second part of this blog, even though this judgment did not make a single reference to the State aid investigation, it still played an important role in the final outcome of the investigation.

[1] Elena G. Sevillano and Bruno G. Gallo, “Así gana el Madrid”, El País, 6 November 2011. See also “Ten Spain corruption scandals that will take your breath away”, The Local, 28 January 2016.

[2] Ozlem Akin et al., “The Real Estate and Credit Bubble: Evidence from Spain”, Barcelona GSE Working Paper Series Working Paper nº 772.

[3] See for example Nefer Ruiz Crespo, “Urban speculation by Spanish football clubs”, in Transparency International, “Global Corruption Report: Sport”, Routledge February 2016; and “Spain Corruption Report”, GAN Business Anti-Corruption Portal.

[4] Most notably Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid - Sección nº01 de lo Contencioso- administrativo - Pieza de Medidas Cautelares- 357/2013 – 01, 31 July 2014; and Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid - Sección nº01 de lo Contencioso- administrativo – Procedimiento Ordinario 371/2013, 2 February 2015.

[5] The background information on the Real Madrid case is more extensively found in a previous blog entitled: Oskar van Maren, “The EU State aid and Sport Saga – A blockade to Florentino Perez’ latest “galactic” ambitions (part 1)”.

[6] Commission decision SA.33753 of 4 July 2016 on the State aid implemented by Spain for Real Madrid CF, para. 6.

[7] Ibid, para. 10.

[8] Ibid, paras. 13-15.

[9] Oskar van Maren, “The EU State aid and Sport Saga – A blockade to Florentino Perez’ latest “galactic” ambitions (part 1)”.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Commission decision SA.33753, para. 1. For more information on why the Commission opened this case without a formal complaint, see Ben Van Rompuy and Oskar van Maren, “EU Control of State Aid to Professional Sport: Why Now?” In: “The Legacy of Bosman. Revisiting the relationship between EU law and sport”, T.M.C. Asser Press, 2016.

[12] Commission decision SA.33753 of 18 December 2013, State aid– Spain Real Madrid CF, paras. 41-43.

[13] Commission notice of 9 April 2009 on the enforcement of State aid law by national courts (2009/c 85/01), para.25. See also: Oskar van Maren, “The Real Madrid case: A State aid case (un)like any other?” 11 Competition Law Review 1:104.

[14] Commission notice on the enforcement of State aid law by national courts, para. 72. See also in that regard Case C-174/02, Streekgewest, ECLI:EU:C:2005:10, para. 19.

[15] Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid - Sección nº01 de lo Contencioso- administrativo - Pieza de Medidas Cautelares- 357/2013 – 01, 31 July 2014, page 5. Disclaimer: This is an unofficial translation by the author of the blog.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Commission Notice on the enforcement of State aid law by national courts, para.70. See also Case C-368/04, Transalpine Ölleitung in Österreich, ECLI:EU:C:2006:644, para. 45. The Court also held that national procedural rules apply “as long as those national rules do not render excessively difficult the exercise of rights conferred by EU law”. In other words, if it is more difficult to get standing under national procedural rules than under EU procedural rules, then EU procedural rules apply.  

[18] Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid - Sección nº01 de lo Contencioso- administrativo - Pieza de Medidas Cautelares- 357/2013 – 01, 31 July 2014, page 5.

[19] Ibid, page 6.

[20] Council Regulation (EU) 2015/1589 of 13 July 2015 laying down detailed rules fort the application of Article 108 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Article 16(3).

[21] Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid - Sección nº01 de lo Contencioso- administrativo – Procedimiento Ordinario 371/2013, 2 February 2015, page 10.

[22] Ibid, page 9.

Comments (5) -

  • Florentino Perez

    2/11/2017 8:33:52 AM |

    If there was no formal complaint, why did the Commission say in the first paragraph of its opening decision of 18 December 2013 that "Spain was asked to comment on the complaint on 20 December 2011"? Why should they ask Spain to comment on a complaint that does not exist?

  • Oskar van Maren

    2/15/2017 4:27:54 PM |

    Thank you for your interesting question Florentino. The way I see it, Spain was asked to comment on press reports and detailed information sent by citizens. Information sent by citizens cannot be seen as a 'formal' complaint, because citizens are generally not considered an interested party. Indeed, in the final decision the Commission changed its wording and asked Spain to comment "on this information" instead of complaint.

  • Florentino Perez

    2/18/2017 11:35:43 AM |

    But the requirement to be an interested party in order to submit a formal complaint was only introduced by the Commission in 2013. The Commission asked Spain to comment on a complaint in 2011 (as confirmed in the opening decision of 18 December 2013) but then dropped any reference to that complaint in its final decision.  It is a very dodgy behaviour by any standard to change the description of the events five years later. This may explain why they had to act, there was a "Schrodinger" complaint.

  • Oskar van Maren

    2/22/2017 11:14:29 AM |

    You are right, it is a bit strange that the Commission changed the description in the final decision. I still think, though, that the description of "the complaint" in the opening decision is a direct reference to the description of "detailed information sent by citizens" in the sentence before. Since I don't know who these citizens were (let alone know how the information sent was formulated), it is difficult to determine whether this information can be considered "a complaint" under the old requirements. Under the new requirements, it appears that this cannot be considered "a complaint".

  • Oskar van Maren

    2/22/2017 11:20:07 AM |

    In any case, I would be happy to continue this discussion with you, and share ideas on this issue. Therefore, feel free to contact me directly via email. Best, Oskar

Comments are closed