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

Brexit and EU law: Beyond the Premier League (Part 2). 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. 


Part 2. EU competition law and sports funding

The first analysed impact of Brexit on sport was the one regarding EU internal market rules and free movement. However, all sport areas that are of interest to the European Union will be impacted by the result of the future Brexit negotiations. This second part of the blog will focus on EU competition law and the media sector as well as direct funding opportunities keeping in mind that if the UK reaches for an EEA type agreement competition law and state aid rules will remain applicable as much as the funding programs.  More...


With or without them? Russia’s state doping system and the Olympic fate of Russian athletes. By Antoine Duval, Kester Mekenkamp and Oskar van Maren

On Monday 18 July 2016, Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren presented the Independent Person Report to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), regarding the alleged Russian doping program surrounding the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The report was expected to seriously threaten the participation of Russian Athletes to the rapidly approaching Rio Games, starting on 5 August. In the weekend prior to the report’s publishing, Reuters obtained a leaked letter drafted by the CEO’s of the US and Canadian anti-doping agencies, which according to the New York Times was backed by “antidoping officials from at least 10 nations— including those in the United States, Germany, Spain, Japan, Switzerland and Canada — and 20 athlete groups”, urging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban all Russian athletes from the upcoming Olympics.

Source: http://ww4.hdnux.com/photos/50/23/01/10563667/3/920x920.jpg

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Brexit and EU law: Beyond the Premier League (Part 1). 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.

The result of the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016 took the European Union (almost) by surprise. A lot has been said and written about the impact of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. As in all other areas, the British sport sector will also face the effects of the modification of the relationship between the EU and its (probable) former Member State, the UK. It is nearly impossible to foresee all consequences as the UK has not even triggered article 50 TFEU yet to officially start the exit negotiations. However, as the UK position toward the EU will change in any case, this two-part blog aims to examine the main practical implications of such an exit for the UK, but also for the EU, in relation to the actual application of EU law in sport and the EU sport policy.

Unless stated otherwise, the use of the terms Brexit in this blog should be understood as a complete exit of the UK from the European Union. This blog focus in particular on this worst case scenario and its consequences for UK sport. However, it is highly improbable that the future Brexit negotiations with the EU will end up without some kind of special agreement between the two parties the first of which being an EEA type of agreement with full access to the internal market and applicability of EU law. 

The first part of this blog will examined the consequences for UK sport in terms of access to the EU internal market and the applicability of free movement principles. The second part is focused on specific impacts with regard of others domain of EU law for professional and grassroots UK sport.  More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – June 2016. By Kester Mekenkamp

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

What a month June turned out to be. Waking up the morning after the 23rd, the results of the UK referendum on EU membership were final. The words of Mark Twain: “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today”, might provide the most apt description of the mood felt at the time.[1] The Leave campaign’s narrow victory has brought along tremendous economic, political and legal uncertainties for both the UK and the (other) Member States. To give but one example, with regard to the implications of Brexit on Europe’s most profiting football league, we recommend an older blog by Daniel Geey and Jonny Madill. More...


The EU State aid and sport saga: The Showdown

It’s been a long wait, but they’re finally here! On Monday, the European Commission released its decisions regarding State aid to seven Spanish professional football clubs (Real Madrid on two occasions) and five Dutch professional football clubs. The decisions mark the end of the formal investigations, which were opened in 2013. The Commission decided as follows: no State aid to PSV Eindhoven (1); compatible aid to the Dutch clubs FC Den Bosch, MVV Maastricht, NEC Nijmegen and Willem II (2); and incompatible aid granted to the Spanish football clubs Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Valencia CF, Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Osasuna, Elche and Hércules (3). 

The recovery decisions in particular are truly historic. The rules on State aid have existed since the foundation of the European Economic Community in 1958, but it is the very first time that professional football clubs have been ordered to repay aid received from (local) public authorities.[1] In a way, these decisions complete a development set in motion with the Walrave and Koch ruling of 1974, where the CJEU held that professional sporting activity, and therefore also football, is subject to EU law. The landmark Bosman case of 1995 proved to be of great significance as regards free movement of (professional) athletes and the Meca-Medina case of 2006 settled that EU competition rules were equally applicable to the regulatory activity of sport. The fact that the first ever State aid recovery decision concerns major clubs like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Valencia, give the decisions extra bite. Therefore, this blog post will focus primarily on the negative/recovery decisions[2], their consequences and the legal remedies available to the parties involved.[3] More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – May 2016. By Marine Montejo

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

Challenged membership put a lot of emphasis on football federations in May. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) has rendered an award, on 27 April 2016, ordering the FIFA Council to submit the application of the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) for FIFA membership to the FIFA Congress (the body authorised to admit new members to FIFA). The GFA has sought since 1999 to become a member of UEFA and FIFA. In May 2013, it became a member of the UEFA and went on to seek membership of FIFA. More...


Operación Puerto Strikes Back!

Forget the European Championship currently held in France or the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio. Doping scandals are making the headlines more than ever in 2016. From tennis star Sharapova receiving a two-year ban for her use of the controversial ‘meldonium’, to the seemingly never-ending doping scandals in athletics. As if this was not enough, a new chapter was added on 14 June to one of the most infamous and obscure doping sagas in history: the Operación Puerto.

The special criminal appeal chamber,  the Audiencia Provincial, has held that the more than 200 blood bags of professional athletes that have been at the center of the investigations since 2006 can be delivered to the relevant sporting authorities, such as the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency (AEPSAD), WADA, the UCI and the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI). In other words, there is now a good chance that the identities of the involved athletes might eventually be revealed.

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/cycling/9834122/Operation-Puerto-doctor-Eufemiano-Fuentes-treated-tennis-players-athletes-footballers-and-a-boxer.html

This case note will analyze the court’s ruling and summarize its most important findings. Given the amount of time passed since the scandal first came to light (2004), the blog will commence with a short background summary of the relevant facts. More...

FIBA/Euroleague: Basketball’s EU Competition Law Champions League- first leg in the Landgericht München. 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.

On 3 June 2016, the Landgericht München (“Munich Regional Court”) ordered temporary injunctions against the International Basketball Federation (“FIBA”) and FIBA Europe, prohibiting them from sanctioning clubs who want to participate in competitions organized by Euroleague Commercial Assets (“ECA”). The reasoning of the Court is based on breaches of German and EU competition law provisions. FIBA and FIBA Europe are, according to the judge, abusing their dominant position by excluding or threatening to exclude national teams from their international competitions because of the participation of their clubs in the Euroleague. This decision is the first judicial step taken in the ongoing legal battle between FIBA and ECA over the organization of European basketball competitions.

This judgment raises several interesting points with regard to how the national judge deals with the alleged abuse of a dominant position by European and international federations. A few questions arise regarding the competence of the Munich Regional Court that may be interesting to first look at in the wake of an appeal before examining the substance of the case. More...

The Müller case: Revisiting the compatibility of fixed term contracts in football with EU Law. By Kester Mekenkamp

Editor’s note: Kester Mekenkamp is an LL.M. student in European Law at Leiden University and an intern at the ASSER International Sports Law Centre.

On 17 February 2016, the Landesarbeitsgericht Rheinland-Pfalz delivered its highly anticipated decision in the appeal proceedings between German goalkeeper Heinz Müller and his former employer, German Bundesliga club Mainz 05.[1] The main legal debate revolved around the question (in general terms) whether the use of a fixed term contract in professional football is compatible with German and EU law. 

In first instance (see our earlier blog posts, here and here), the Arbeitsgericht Mainz had ruled that the ‘objective reasons’ provided in Section 14 (1) of the German Part-time and Fixed-term Employment Act (Gesetz über Teilzeitarbeit und befristete Arbeitsverträge, “TzBfG”), the national law implementing EU Directive 1999/70/EC on fixed-term work, were not applicable to the contract between Müller and Mainz 05 and therefore could not justify the definite nature of that contract.[2] In its assessment the court devoted special attention to the objective reason relating to the nature of the work, declining justifications based thereupon.[3] Tension rose and the verdict was soon labelled to be able to have Bosman-like implications, if held up by higher courts.[4] More...

The BGH’s Pechstein Decision: A Surrealist Ruling



The decision of the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH), the Highest Civil Court in Germany, in the Pechstein case was eagerly awaited. At the hearing in March, the Court decided it would pronounce itself on 7 June, and so it did. Let’s cut things short: it is a striking victory for the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and a bitter (provisory?) ending for Claudia Pechstein. The BGH’s press release is abundantly clear that the German judges endorsed the CAS uncritically on the two main legal questions: validity of forced CAS arbitration and the independence of the CAS. The CAS and ISU are surely right to rejoice and celebrate the ruling in their respective press releases that quickly ensued (here and here). At first glance, this ruling will be comforting the CAS’ jurisdiction for years to come. Claudia Pechstein’s dire financial fate - she faces up to 300 000€ in legal fees – will serve as a powerful repellent for any athlete willing to challenge the CAS.More...



Asser International Sports Law Blog | The Evolution of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules – Part 1: Background and EU Law. By Christopher Flanagan

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 Evolution of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules – Part 1: Background and EU Law. By Christopher Flanagan

Editor's Note: Christopher is an editor of the Asser International Sports Law Blog. His research interests cover a spectrum of sports law topics, with a focus on financial regulatory disputes, particularly in professional football, a topic on which he has regularly lectured at the University of the West of England.

 

It is five years since the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) formally introduced ‘Financial Fair Play’ (FFP) into European football through its Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, Edition 2012. With FFP having now been in place for a number of years, we are in a position to analyse its effect, its legality, and how the rules have altered over the last half decade in response to legal challenges and changing policy priorities. This article is split into three parts: The first will look at the background, context and law applicable to FFP; Part Two will look at the legal challenges FFP has faced; and Part Three will look at how FFP has iteratively changed, considering its normative impact, and the future of the rules.

 

Background

Certain aspects of FFP were incredibly controversial from the outset. To a neutral observer, this might seem confusing: FFP is, ostensibly, a set of rules designed to make sure clubs pay their bills on time, stay solvent, and do not need to look to external benefactors to cover their losses. Leading sports economist Stefan Szymanski described insolvency as “a chronic problem in the world of professional Association football”, so, superficially at least, a regulatory response to this would seem natural and appropriate. Where the market fails, it is the regulator’s duty to respond.

UEFA’s President at the time, Michel Platini, said “You, we, the fans and football lovers, have no interest in seeing clubs, the real heritage of European football, disappear due to risky management”. This is a sentiment with which most fans would agree.

Accordingly, UEFA incorporated FFP into its existing licensing requirements, meaning any club that wished to compete in a UEFA competition would be required to meet the financial standards set by FFP. These standards would be overseen and enforced by a new body within UEFA’s administration called the ‘Club Financial Control Body’. The Club Financial Control Body would be further segregated into an Investigatory Chamber and an Adjudicatory Chamber.

So, why the controversy? The contentious aspect of FFP was its ‘break even’ requirement. The ‘break even’ requirement is a de facto soft salary cap, tying the maximum amount a club can spend (with defined exceptions) to its revenue generation. An overview of the break even requirement as originally conceived can be found here. In essence, “The break-even result for a reporting period is calculated as relevant income less relevant expenses’’.[1] “Income” includes receipts such as gate receipts, sponsorship, broadcasting rights, commercial activities and player sales; “expenses” includes wages, the cost of purchasing players and the cost of finance.[2]

Crucially, when FFP was first introduced, losses could not be met or offset by equity participants (i.e. owners). This was pertinent to the prevailing financial climate in football, in which certain clubs across Europe were spending unprecedented sums with the support of wealth benefactors, who would cover the clubs’ losses. Such spending was seen at clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain, Monaco, Malaga and Anzhi Makhachkala, with mixed results on and off the pitch.

Thus FFP was accused of calcifying football’s competitive hierarchy[3] and foreclosing smaller clubs from sporting and consequent business success. This debate has been played out over the last five years in the academic literature[4] and in various legal fora. The rules and the mechanisms for enforcing the rules have become increasingly sophisticated as the years have passed. UEFA, perhaps in response to these challenges, has made gradual, iterative changes to FFP that have seen the rules soften to accommodate exogenous equity input in defined permissible circumstances. These changes will be looked at in greater depth in Part Three.

 

The challenge of EU law

FFP has been described ‘legally fragile’, which is an apt description. This is because the rules cannot be said to be unquestionably permissible under European Union (EU) law; nor can they be said to be categorically in breach of EU law. The rules exist in a regulatory ‘grey’ area – FFP, in its particularly in its original, more restrictive, guise, may or may not have been illegal. This is a question for a competent (judicial) authority to decide; however, as will be discussed in more detail in Part Two, the route to such a decision has been far from straight forward, and in the intervening years, FFP has changed substantially.

The essential legal questions to determine the legality of FFP are:

  1. Does FFP breach EU competition law?
  2. Does FFP breach EU free movement law?
  3. Is there a sanctuary for any breach of EU law under the doctrine of the specificity of sport?

 

EU competition law

Article 101 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) prohibits agreements that have as their object or effect “prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the internal market”.[5] This puts regulatory associations such as UEFA in a difficult position. It is the very nature of regulation that competition is restricted or distorted; indeed, it is the very purpose of regulatory rules that participants subject to those rules alter their behaviour accordingly, which has an inevitable consequence on the competitive landscape.

Consideration should also be given to Article 102 TFEU, which prohibits undertakings (and in some circumstances collections of undertakings, i.e. oligopolies) that are in a dominant position from abusing their market dominance.

In view of this friction, the European courts have developed, through the case of Wouters, the concept of regulatory ancillarity.[6] This is the doctrine under which, subject to a test of proportionality, reasonability and necessity, even in circumstances where there is a prima facie breach of competition law by a regulatory body (in that particular case by the Dutch Bar Association), this may be permissible under EU competition law where the regulatory body in question “could reasonably have considered that that regulation, despite the effects restrictive of competition that are inherent in it, is necessary for the proper practice of the [relevant profession]”.

The applicability of Wouters to a sporting regulatory context is confirmed and clarified in the landmark Meca-Medina case. In considering whether a regulatory rule breaches competition law, the European courts must determine: 

  1. Whether the rules are necessary for the proper conduct of the sport;
  2. Whether the penalties are inherent to the restrictions in questions; and
  3. Whether the effects of the rules are proportionate to the aims pursued.

Should UEFA be unable to meet the test under the regulatory ancillarity doctrine, there is an alternative exemption with a lower threshold to which it could look. Within Article 101(3) TFEU, there is an exemption for agreements which promote “technical or economic progress, while allowing consumers a fair share of the resulting benefit” as long as such restrictions do not (a) impose on the undertakings concerned restrictions which are not indispensable to the attainment of these objectives; or (b) afford such undertakings the possibility of eliminating competition in respect of a substantial part of the products in question.

It is open to UEFA to argue that FFP dampens inflation in football in a way that is for the improvement of the game and passes a benefit to ‘consumers’ (i.e. fans) by, for example, reducing the need for ticket price increases to sustain escalating players’ wages. This would perhaps be difficult for UEFA to establish, but the economics of FFP are complicated and second order effects should be borne in mind.

 

EU free movement – workers, services and/or capital 

The EU is built upon certain deeply enshrined freedoms. These include the free movement of workers (Article 45 TFEU), the free movement of services (Article 56 TFEU), and the free movement of capital. Any agreement that acts as an impediment to these freedoms is susceptible to a finding of illegality.

In order to be permissible under EU law, any rule or agreement that restricts any fundamental freedom must be:

  1. Justified by a necessary objective in the general interest;
  2. Suitable for achieving that objective; and
  3. Proportionate.

In the case of sporting rules, the European courts have determined that the rule in question must not “go beyond what is necessary for achieving the aim pursued”,[7] which is to reiterate that it must be proportionate – a recurrent theme in considering the legality of rules made by the governing bodies of sport, such as UEFA.

The criteria to be met by UEFA in establishing that FFP does not breach EU fundamental freedoms is in line with the threshold to be met in establishing compliance with EU competition law: FFP must be necessary, suitable and proportionate.

However, in the case of free movement law, it is far from obvious that FFP will have a substantive impact on fundamental freedoms. In previous writing on the subject, I have made the following analogy:

The restriction does not emanate from the rule per se, rather by the size of the club’s turnover; players are no more restricted from moving between clubs by FFP than this author is denied a Ferrari by his credit rating.[8]


The specificity of sport under EU law

In the event that a competent adjudicative authority makes a prima facie finding that FFP is in breach of EU competition law or EU free movement law, there is still a possibility of an overall finding that FFP is not illegal under the doctrine of the specificity of sport; however, this would require the adjudicative body in question to row back considerably from the current position, and general trajectory, of the level of latitude granted to the governing bodies of sport by the European courts.

The concept of specificity will be familiar to all those with an interest in sports law and policy. It is the hypothesis under which, at its starkest interpretation, suggests governing bodies, not courts (or governments or other legislative bodies), are best placed to determine how sport should be run. Sports, it is argued, should have rule making autonomy. A more moderate view on specificity holds that due regard should be paid to the idiosyncrasies of the sports sector and the legitimate governance function played by governing bodies. 

The role of sports governing bodies, whose rules, as was the case with FFP, are often enacted in a broadly consensual way, with engagement, input and consent from key stakeholders, should be acknowledged and some due reverence should be paid to governing bodies' ability to regulate the sporting aspects under their aegis.

Indeed, the European Union had no express competence to in respect of sport until the introduction of Article 165 TFEU, a soft competency, which states that, “The Union shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues, while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function.”

However, the distinction between elite football as being ‘purely sport’ and elite football as a business has become blurred in to the point of being indistinguishable; and the EU clearly has express competence to deal with business.

The general trend in decisions of the European courts has been to circumscribe self-determination by the governing bodies of sport. Through cases such as Bosman,[9] Meca-Medina, and Bernard,[10] the European courts have made it clear that sport cannot avoid or cherry-pick the applicability of EU law. This is acutely relevant in the case of FFP, which, after all, deals with how football clubs are run financially. There are obvious sporting consequences to this, but it is difficult to characterise FFP as anything other than a rule restrictive of the business of sport.

UEFA’s position on Article 165 is that “while sport is not ‘above the law’, there is now a provision in the Treaty itself recognising that sport cannot simply be treated as another ‘business’, without reference to its specific characteristics”. This is not an unreasonable position; sport is a unique industry in which, unlike other industries, the survival of competitors is important for any given club to flourish. Perhaps the courts could be persuaded that a carve-out based on specificity should be applicable to FFP – but this would require a seismic change of direction.

So it is incredibly unlikely that specificity as a discrete sui generis doctrine would give sanctuary to FFP were the rules deemed to be otherwise in breach of EU law. However, facts peculiar to the football industry (i.e. its specificity) should be considered as part of an assessment as to whether FFP is a proportionate mechanism to pursue UEFA’s objectives. As noted above, proportionality is a limb of the tests for derogations to EU competition and fundamental freedom law.

I have previously commented that: 

For football clubs, there is a strong correlational link between spending money and playing success. This has encouraged clubs to risk financial vulnerability in pursuit of improved match results, despite the mathematical impossibility of all clubs being able to improve their fortunes on the field. This innate instability has resulted in persistent insolvencies despite the remarkable growth in turnover seen in the professional game. Regrettably, when balance sheets weaken, the risk of insolvency increases; and once a club becomes insolvent, its survival is subject to the predilections of its creditors. The game’s governing bodies should aim to militate against…this volatility.

UEFA would doubtless argue that, given the specific nature of the industry it regulates, instituting a soft salary cap such as that implemented by FFP is a proportionate response. In that sense at least, the specificity of sport might be of consideration in the legality of FFP.

 

Conclusion 

It is difficult to say with any degree of conclusiveness whether FFP is legal or not. There are strong arguments either way. The marginal nature of the legal position has been problematic for UEFA and has undoubtedly led to the legal challenges to FFP over the last five years, which are discussed in greater depth in Part Two of this series.

The uncertain legal position, and the challenges generated by that lack of clarity has also, in all likelihood, shaped UEFA’s policy decisions as FFP has evolved in the years since its inception. These are discussed in Part Three of this series.

FFP has certainly been fertile ground for debate, and will likely continue to be so until such a time as there has been a determinative, binding view of its legality. When or whether this will happen remains to be seen.


[1] Annex X, Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, Edition 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Peeters and Stefan Szymanski , 'Financial Fair Play in European Football ' [2014] 29(78) Economic Policy 343-390

[4] See, for example, Serby, T. (2016) The state of EU sports law: lessons from UEFA’s ‘Financial Fair Play’ regulations, International Sports Law Journal 16(1–2):37–51; Flanagan, C (2013) A tricky European fixture: an assessment of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations and their compatibility with EU law, International Sports Law Journal 13(1):148; Lindholm, J (2010) The Problem with Salary Caps Under European Union Law: The Case Against Financial Fair Play, Texas Review of Entertainment and Sports Law, Vol. 12.2, pp. 189-213

[5] Noting that UEFA certainly constitute an association of undertakings in the relevant legal sense, see for example Case T-193/02 Piau (2005) ECR I-209, (2005) 5 CMLR 42 or EU Commission decision 2003/778/EC, 23 July 2003, Case COMP C.2-37.398 - Joint selling of the commercial rights of the UEFA Champions League §§ 106-107

[6] As identified and defined by Whish and Bailey in Competition Law (OUP, 8th)

[7] Case C-176/96, Jyri Lehtonen and Castors Canada Dry Namur- Braine ASBL v Fédération Royale Belge des Sociétés de Basketball ASBL (FRBSB) ECR (2000) I-2681

[8] Flanagan, C (2013) A tricky European fixture: an assessment of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations and their compatibility with EU law, International Sports Law Journal 13(1).

[9] Case C-415/93 Union Royale Belge des Socie ́te ́s de Football Association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman (1995) ECR I-4921.

[10] C-325/08 Olympique Lyonnais v Olivier Bernard and Newcastle United FC (2010) ECLI:EU:C:2010:143.

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