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 Event! Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter and the Right to Free Speech of Athletes - Zoom In Webinar - 14 July - 16:00 (CET)

On Wednesday 14 July 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret, is organizing a Zoom In webinar on Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter and the right to free speech of athletes.

As the Tokyo Olympics are drawing closer, the International Olympic Committee just released new Guidelines on the implementation of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter. The latter Rule provides that ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’. The latest IOC Guidelines did open up some space for athletes to express their political views, but at the same time continue to ban any manifestation from the Olympic Village or the Podium. In effect, Rule 50 imposes private restrictions on the freedom of expression of athletes in the name of the political neutrality of international sport. This limitation on the rights of athletes is far from uncontroversial and raises intricate questions regarding its legitimacy, proportionality and ultimately compatibility with human rights standards (such as with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights).

This webinar aims at critically engaging with Rule 50 and its compatibility with the fundamental rights of athletes. We will discuss the content of the latest IOC Guidelines regarding Rule 50, the potential justifications for such a Rule, and the alternatives to its restrictions. To do so, we will be joined by three speakers, Professor Mark James from Manchester Metropolitan University, who has widely published on the Olympic Games and transnational law; Chui Ling Goh, a Doctoral Researcher at Melbourne Law School, who has recently released an (open access) draft of an article on Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter; and David Grevemberg, Chief Innovation and Partnerships Officer at the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and former Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF). 

Guest speakers:

  • Prof. Mark James (Metropolitan Manchester University)
  • Chui Ling Goh (PhD candidate, University of Melbourne)
  • David Grevemberg (Centre for Sport and Human Rights)

Moderators:


Free Registration HERE

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

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

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

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


Introduction

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

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

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



WISLaw Blog Symposium - Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter: the wind of changes or a new commercial race - By Rusa Agafonova

Editor's note: Rusa Agafonova is a PhD Candidate at the University of Zurich, Switzerland   

The Olympic Games are the cornerstone event of the Olympic Movement as a socio-cultural phenomenon as well as the engine of its economic model. Having worldwide exposure,[1] the Olympic Games guarantee the International Olympic Committee (IOC) exclusive nine-digit sponsorship deals. The revenue generated by the Games is later redistributed by the IOC down the sports pyramid to the International Federations (IFs), National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and other participants of the Olympic Movement through a so-called "solidarity mechanism". In other words, the Games constitute a vital source of financing for the Olympic Movement.

Because of the money involved, the IOC is protective when it comes to staging the Olympics. This is notably so with respect to ambush marketing which can have detrimental economic impact for sports governing bodies (SGBs) running mega-events. The IOC's definition of ambush marketing covers any intentional and non-intentional use of intellectual property associated with the Olympic Games as well as the misappropriation of images associated with them without authorisation from the IOC and the organising committee.[2] This definition is broad as are the IOC's anti-ambush rules.More...

WISLaw Blog Symposium - Why the existing athletes' Olympic entering system does not comply with the fundamental principles of Olympism enshrined in the Olympic Charter - By Anna Antseliovich

Editor's note: Anna Antseliovich heads the sports practice at the Moscow-based legal group Clever Consult. She also works as a senior researcher at the Federal Science Center for Physical Culture and Sport (Russia).


The Olympic Games have always been a source of genuine interest for spectators as Olympians have repeatedly demonstrated astounding capacity of the human body and mind in winning Olympic gold, or by achieving success despite all odds.

At the ancient and even the first modern Olympic Games, there was no concept of a national team; each Olympian represented only himself/herself. However, at the 1906 Intercalated Games[1] for the first time, athletes were nominated by the National Olympic Committees (‘NOCs’) and competed as members of national teams representing their respective countries. At the opening ceremony, the athletes walked under the flags of their countries. This was a major shift, which meant that not only the athletes themselves competed against each other, but so too did the nations in unofficial medal standings.  

The nomination and selection of athletes by their NOCs to compete under their national flag and represent their country is a matter of pride for the vast majority of athletes. However, to what extent does such a scheme correspond to the ideals which the Olympic Games were based on in ancient times? Is it possible to separate sport and politics in the modern world? More...


WISLaw Blog Symposium - Legal and other issues in Japan arising from the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games due to COVID-19 - By Yuri Yagi

Editor's note: Yuri Yagi is a sports lawyer involved in Sports Federations and Japanese Sports Organizations including the Japan Equestrian Federation (JEF), the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), the Japan Sports Council (JSC) and the All-Japan High School Equestrian Federation.


1. Introduction

Japan has held three Olympic Games since the inception of the modern Olympics;Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in 1964, Sapporo Winter Olympic Games in 1972, and Nagano Winter Olympic Games in 1998. Therefore, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (Tokyo 2020) are supposed to be the fourth to be held in Japan, the second for Tokyo. Tokyo 2020 were originally scheduled for 24 July 2020 to 9 August 2020. Interestingly, the word ‘postpone’ or ‘postponement’ does not appear in the Host City Contract (HCC).

However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) decided on 24 March 2020 that Tokyo 2020 would be postponed because of the pandemic of COVID-19. Later on, the exact dates were fixed ‘from 23 July 2021 (date of the Opening Ceremony) to 8 August 2021 (date of the Closing Ceremony).

The process of the decision is stipulated in the ‘ADDENDUM N° 4’ signed by IOC, TMG, JOC and TOCOG.

This paper provides an overview of the current situation, along with legal and other issues in Japan that have arisen due to the postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to COVID-19. The overview is offered from the perspective of a citizen of the host city and includes a consideration of national polls, the torch relay, vaccination, training camps, ever increasing costs, and the related provisions in the Candidature File and the Host City Contract. More...



WISLaw Blog Symposium - Freedom of Expression in Article 10 of the ECHR and Rule 50 of the IOC Charter: Are these polar opposites? - By Nuray Ekşi

Editor's note: Prof. Dr. Ekşi is a full-time lecturer and chair of Department of Private International Law at Özyeğin University Faculty of Law. Prof. Ekşi is the founder and also editor in chief of the Istanbul Journal of Sports Law which has been in publication since 2019.


While Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’) secures the right to freedom of expression, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter of 17 July 2020 (‘Olympic Charter’) restricts this freedom. Following the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) relating to sports, national and international sports federations have incorporated human rights-related provisions into their statutes and regulations. They also emphasized respect for human rights. For example, Article 3 of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (‘FIFA’) Statutes, September 2020 edition, provides that “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights”. Likewise, the Fundamental Principles of Olympism which are listed after the Preamble of the of the Olympic Charter 2020 also contains human rights related provisions. Paragraph 4 of Fundamental Principles of Olympism provides that the practice of sport is a human right. Paragraph 6 forbids discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. In addition, the International Olympic Committee (‘IOC’) inserted human rights obligations in the 2024 and 2028 Host City Contract.[1] The IOC Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration even goes further and aspires to promote the ability and opportunity of athletes to practise sport and compete without being subject to discrimination. Fair and equal gender representation, privacy including protection of personal information, freedom of expression, due process including the right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial panel, the right to request a public hearing and the right to an effective remedy are the other human rights and principles stated in the IOC Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration. Despite sports federations’ clear commitment to the protection of human rights, it is arguable that their statutes and regulations contain restrictions on athletes and sports governing bodies exercising their human rights during competitions or in the field. In this regard, particular attention should be given to the right to freedom of expression on which certain restrictions are imposed by the federations even if it done with good intentions and with the aim of raising awareness. More...


WISLaw Blog Symposium - Stick to Sports: The Impact of Rule 50 on American Athletes at the Olympic Games - By Lindsay Brandon

Editor's note: Lindsay Brandon is Associate Attorney at Law Offices of Howard L. Jacobs


“Tell the white people of America and all over the world that if they don’t seem to care for the things black people do, they should not go to see black people perform.” – American sprinter and Olympic Medalist John Carlos

On 21 April 2021, the Athletes’ Commission (AC) of the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) received the “full support of the IOC Executive Board for a set of recommendations in regard to the Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter and Athlete Expression at the Olympic Games.” This came over a year after the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and almost a year after the IOC and AC embarked on an “extensive qualitative and quantitative” consultation process to reform Rule 50 involving over 3,500 athletes from around the globe.

Since its introduction of the new guidelines in January 2020, Rule 50 has been touted by the IOC as a means to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games, stating that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or radical propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.”  In other words, the Olympics are a time to celebrate sport, and any political act or demonstration might ruin their “moment of glory”.

In fact, the Rule 50 Guidelines say that a fundamental principle of sport is that it is neutral, and “must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.” But this separation is not necessarily rooted in totality in modern sports culture[1], particularly in the United States (“U.S.”).  This is evidenced by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (“USOPC”) committing to not sanctioning Team USA athletes for protesting at the Olympics. The USOPC Athletes stated “Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.” More...



WISLaw Blog Symposium - 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games - Introduction

Women In Sports Law (WISLaw) is an international, non-profit association based in Switzerland and aimed at promoting women in the sports law sector, through scientific and networking events, annual meetings and annual reports. WISLaw’s objectives are to raise awareness of the presence, role and contribution of women in the sports law sector, enhance their cooperation, and empower its global membership through various initiatives.

This year, WISLaw has partnered with the Asser International Sports Law Blog to organise a special blog symposium featuring WISLaw members. The  symposium will entail both the publication of a series of blog posts authored by WISLaw members, and a virtual webinar (accessible at https://lnkd.in/dgWsy6q with the Passcode 211433) to promote discussion on the selected topics. Article contributions were invited on the topic of legal issues surrounding the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In the midst of a pandemic and the rise of social justice movements around the world, the Games and their organisation gave rise to a number of interesting legal issues and challenges, which will be explored through a variety of lenses. 

We hope that you enjoy and participate in the discussion.

New Event! The Court of Arbitration for Sport at the European Court of Human Rights - Prof. Helen Keller - 26 May - 16:00

On Wednesday 26 May 2021 from 16.00-17.00 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret (University of Lausanne), is organising its fifth Zoom In webinar on the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) from the perspective of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

We have the pleasure to be joined by Prof. Helen Keller, former Judge at the ECtHR and a prominent dissenter to the majority’s ruling in the Mutu and Pechstein case.

The ECtHR decision in the Mutu and Pechstein case rendered on 2 October 2018 is widely seen as one of the most important European sports law rulings. It was also the first decision of the Strasbourg court dealing with a case in which the CAS had issued an award. The applicants, Adrian Mutu and Claudia Pechstein, were both challenging the compatibility of CAS proceedings with the procedural rights enshrined in Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The court famously declined to conclude that the CAS lacked independence or impartiality, but did find that, insofar as Claudia Pechstein was concerned, she was forced to undergo CAS arbitration and, therefore, that CAS proceedings had to fully comply with the procedural rights guaranteed in the ECHR. In particular, the court held that the refusal by CAS to hold a public hearing, in spite of Claudia Pechstein’s express request, was contrary to Article 6(1) ECHR. Beyond this case, as highlighted by the recent decision of Caster Semenya to submit an application to the ECtHR, the decision opens the way for a more systematic intervention of the Strasbourg court in assessing the human rights compatibility of CAS awards and more broadly of the transnational sports regulations imposed by international sports governing bodies.

Prof. Helen Keller will discuss with us the implications of the ECtHR’s Mutu and Pechstein decision and the potential for future interventions by the court in the realm of the lex sportiva.

The webinar will take the form of an interview followed by a short Q&A open to the digital public. 

Please note the discussion will NOT be recorded and posted on our Youtube channel. 

Register HERE!


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

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

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

 

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

2. According to the contested decision, AC Milan was guilty for failing to comply with Articles 58 to 63 of the UEFA Financial fair-play regulations on the break-even requirement. As a consequence the Adjudicatory Chamber has excluded AC Milan from participating in the next UEFA Europe League for which AC Milan has already qualified (2018-2019) at the end of the 2017-2018 Italian football championship. The appeal filed at the CAS by AC Milan was mainly aimed at seeking the annulment of the contested decision and ordering UEFA to enter into a settlement agreement.

3. The theory of proportionality test under Art. 101(1) TFEU in sports matters goes back to the ECJ’s ruling in the 2006 Meca Medina and Majcen case, while, in general terms, this theory was enunciated by the ECJ for the first time in the 1994 DLG case and then repeated in the 2002 Wouters and Others case although in a slightly different way.

In the DLG case the ECJ has ruled that:

«in order to escape the prohibition laid down in Article 85(1) of the Treaty, the restrictions imposed on members by the statutes of cooperative purchasing associations must be limited to what is necessary to ensure that the cooperative functions properly and maintains its contractual power in relation to producers (…). In addition, it is necessary to establish whether the penalties for non-compliance with the statutes are disproportionate to the objective they pursue and whether the minimum period of membership is unreasonable». 

Eight years later, in the Wouters and Others case the ECJ established the following principles:

(i) not every agreement between undertakings or every decision of an association of undertakings which restricts the freedom of action of the parties or of one of them necessarily falls within the prohibition laid down in Art. 101(1) of the Treaty;

(ii) for the purposes of application of that provision to a particular case, account must first of all be taken of the overall context in which the decision of the association of undertakings was taken or produces its effects; and

(iii) it has then to be considered whether the consequential effects restrictive of competition are inherent in the pursuit of those objectives.

Unlike the DLG case, in the Wouters and Others ruling the ECJ did not expressly refer to the concept of proportionality, but preferred to recall the concept of inherent restrictions. However, from the overall wording of the ECJ, it is clear that in both cases it tried to apply in the antitrust sector the same theory of mandatory requirements developed in relation to the internal market.

4. On the contrary, in the Meca Medina and Majcen case, the ECJ expressly referred to the concept of proportionality. In particular, the ECJ has literally quoted the passage of the Wouters and Others ruling where it is stated that:

«not every agreement between undertakings or every decision of an association of undertakings which restricts the freedom of action of the parties or of one of them necessarily falls within the prohibition laid down in Article 81(1) EC. For the purposes of application of that provision to a particular case, account must first of all be taken of the overall context in which the decision of the association of undertakings was taken or produces its effects and, more specifically, of its objectives. It has then to be considered whether the consequential effects restrictive of competition are inherent in the pursuit of those objectives (Wouters and Others, par. 97)». 

However, unlike the Wouters and Others case, the ECJ has added that the effects restrictive of competition must also be proportionate to the objectives pursued.

More specifically, in anti-doping issues the test of proportionality is a means to avoid the risk that a given rule (and the sanctions imposed in case of a breach of it) may prove excessive by virtue of:

(i) firstly, the conditions laid down for establishing the dividing line between circumstances which amount to doping in respect of which penalties may be imposed and those which do not, and

(ii) secondly, the severity of those penalties (in the case at issue the penalty was a two year suspension).

Regarding the first point, the ECJ has underlined that the dividing line was determined by the threshold of 2 ng/ml of urine above which the presence of Nandrolone in an athlete's body constitutes doping. Based on documents before the Court, the ECJ could conclude that the average endogenous production observed in all studies then published was 20 times lower than 2ng/ml of urine and that the maximum endogenous production value observed was nearly a third lower. As a consequence, the ECJ rejected the argument according to which the threshold was set at such a low level that it should have been regarded as not taking sufficient account of the phenomenon of the endogenous production of Nandrolone.

Regarding the second point, instead, the ECJ simply observed that: 

«since the appellants have, moreover, not pleaded that the penalties which were applicable and were imposed in the present case are excessive, it has not been established that the anti-doping rules at issue are disproportionate».

This is the most critical passage of the ruling as one could wonder what would happen if the plaintiffs had contested the proportionality of the penalties. In such a case the ECJ should have examined the substance of the plea and stated whether the two year suspension was proportionate or not. However, in the event that the ECJ had come to the conclusion that the penalty was not proportionate, the anti-doping rules at issue should have been declared null and void unless it was possible to prove that the conditions of Art. 101 (3) TFEU were fulfilled.

The same reasoning was applied by the EU Commission in the ISU decision concerning the Eligibility rules enacted by the International Skating Union. In its decision, the Commission clearly underlined that:

«even if the Eligibility rules and their consequential effects restrictive of competition were inherent in the pursuit of any legitimate objective, the sanctions imposed on athletes in case of breach of the Eligibility rules are manifestly disproportionate» (par. 260).[1]

Thus, in sports matters there seem to be no doubt that the proportionality test must involve also the sanctions imposed on athletes. As already said, in the ISU decision, the Commission has clearly underlined that the Eligibility rules were not proportionate to achieve legitimate objectives in particular in view of the disproportionate nature of the ISU’s ineligibility sanctions. More specifically the Commission has pointed out that:

«the 2014 Eligibility rules provided for the heaviest sanction of a lifetime ban, even for the first infringement of the Eligibility rules, without taking into consideration the circumstances of the case (…). For the purposes of the assessment of the proportionality of the Eligibility rules it is however not relevant how many times the ISU has actually imposed sanctions. The fact that a lifetime ban was imposed only once on an athlete may even underline the strong deterrent effect of the sanctions. Although the sanctions system has been modified in the General Regulations 2016, the sanctions remain disproportionately punitive, as they provide for periods of ineligibility that go up to five years for negligent participation in unauthorized events, up to 10 years for athletes that knowingly participate in unauthorised events and a lifetime ban for athletes participating in unauthorised events endangering, inter alia, the ‘ISU jurisdiction’. These are disproportionately heavy sanctions in particular in view of the fact that on average a professional athlete's entire career is around eight years long. Also the imposition of a five-year ban is therefore likely to impact very heavily on an athlete's career who, after years of training and sacrifices, loses the possibility to gain income through the participation in the ISU's international events». 

This reasoning clearly shows that the Commission has considered the sanctions imposed to be disproportionate, not simply the rule forbidding participation in unauthorized events.

5. To date, neither the EU Commission nor the ECJ has had the opportunity to comment on the compatibility of the UEFA Financial Fair-play rules with EU Competition law. Indeed, regarding the Striani affair, the Commission has dismissed the complaint on procedural grounds only (the lack of Community interest), while the ECJ has declared a reference for preliminary ruling send by a Belgian court manifestly inadmissible and therefore did not rule on the substance of the case. As a consequence, to date there is no European formal decision that has assessed the compatibility of UEFA Financial Fair-play rules with EU law.

This opportunity, however, was offered to the CAS in the context of the Galatasaray/UEFA award (2016/A/4492). To fully understand the case one must go back to the 2nd March 2016 when the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Financial Control Body issued a decision in which it decided that Galatasaray has failed to comply with the terms of the Settlement Agreement and imposed on Galatasaray an exclusion from participating in the next UEFA Club competition for which it would otherwise qualify in the next two seasons.

On the 11th March 2016, Galatasaray filed an appeal with the CAS to challenge the decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Financial Control Body. Basically, the arguments put forward by Galatasaray were based:

(i) on the alleged incompatibility of the break-even rule with EU law (namely, Art. 101 TFEU on cartels, Art. 102 TFEU on abuse of dominant position, Art. 63 TFEU on free movement of capital, Art. 56 TFEU on free movement of services and Art. 45 TFEU on free movement of workers); and, in the event the first argument is rejected,

(ii) on the alleged disproportionate nature of the sanctions imposed by UEFA.

It is very interesting to note that from the point of view of Galatasaray the incompatibility of the break-even rule with EU law is something different and completely divorced from the proportionate character of the sanction. Indeed, the latter argument is invoked only in the event the first argument is rejected. In other words, according to this line of defence, the compatibility of the break-even rule with EU principles must be assessed only on the basis of the alleged restrictive effects on competition and the (alleged legitimate) objectives pursued, without considering the sanctions imposed.

In line with this approach, the CAS examined the two arguments put forward by Galatasaray separately. Regarding the relationship between the break-even rule and EU Competition law, the CAS reasoning can be summarized as follows:

(i) UEFA Financial fair-play regulations have neither the object nor the effect of restricting competition because: (a) UEFA Financial fair-play regulations do not prevent the clubs from competing among themselves on the pitch or in the acquisition of football players; (b) they prevent the distortion of competition by overspending; (c) clubs are free to pay the players as much as the wish provided that salaries are covered by revenues; (d) large dominant clubs have always existed and will always exist and therefore the alleged ossification of the structure market is a nonsense; (d) overspending is not completely prohibited because the break-even rule only applies over rolling periods of three years; and

(ii) in any case, even assuming that the break-even rule has anticompetitive effects, the objectives sought by UEFA Financial fair-play regulations do appear legitimate and their alleged restrictive effects inherent to the achievement of those objective. Put simply: if UEFA intends to control the level of indebtedness of European football clubs, the imposition of limits to spending beyond revenues is a natural element of a financial discipline seeking that objective.

By contrast, regarding the proportionality of the sanction imposed by the UEFA, the reasoning of the CAS is completely based on external factors which allegedly affected the finances of Galatasaray (i.e., the Syrian refugee crisis, the terrorist attacks in Turkey, the Turkish major match-fixing scandal, the exchange rate and rate fluctuations, the national economic downturn in Turkey, the inefficiencies of the market and the management changes). However, according to the CAS, this argument cannot be accepted because the club failed to provide the Panel with the accounting evidence of how and in which proportion each of these factors would have caused the break-even deficit. Moreover, the CAS has underlined that the sanction was not disproportionate because:

(i) it was imposed as a sanction for a second violation (i.e., after the Settlement Agreement which presupposes the previous violation of the rules on financial fair play);

(ii) an exclusion limited in time (one season) from the UEFA competitions is consistent with the principle of equal treatment and fair competition, as it protects the club respecting the UEFA Financial Fair-play regulations and does not prevent future compliance with them.


It follows from the foregoing that, according to the CAS the proportionate character of sanctions listed in the UEFA Financial Fair-play regulations cannot affect the evaluation of the legitimacy of these regulations under Art. 101 TFUE.

6. To some extent the AC Milan/UEFA case is similar to the Galatasaray case. Both clubs have failed to comply with the break-even requirement; both clubs have been sanctioned with the exclusion for one season from the UEFA competitions; both clubs have contested the proportionality of the sanction. Unlike Galatasaray, however, AC Milan was denied the possibility to enter into a Settlement Agreement[2]. On the contrary, it is worthy to note that the CAS has confirmed the decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA CFCB, which was rendered on the 19th June 2018, establishing that AC Milan had failed to fulfil the break-even requirement. However, it has annulled the decision to the extent that it has excluded AC Milan from participating in the next UEFA Club competition for which it would otherwise qualify in the next two seasons (i.e., the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons), arguing that the sanction was not proportionate. As a consequence, the CAS has referred back the case to the Adjudicatory Chamber to issue a proportionate disciplinary measure. The press release issued on the 20th July 2018 (the full text of the award is not yet available) indicates that the decision to annul the sanction and refer back the case to the Adjudicatory Chamber is based on the following arguments:

(i) some important elements regarding the financial situation of the Club and the recent change in the Club’s ownership have not been properly assessed by the Adjudicatory Chamber, or could not be properly assessed at the moment when the contested decision was rendered;

(ii) the Adjudicatory Chamber is in a better position than the CAS Panel to issue a new proportionate disciplinary measure on the basis of the current financial situation of the Club.

Despite the differences between the two cases, it is interesting to note that in the Galatasaray case the CAS assessed the sanction imposed by the Adjudicatory Chamber on the merits and found it proportionate. To the contrary, in the AC Milan case the CAS has assessed the sanction on the merits only to state that it was not proportionate, but refrained from saying which other sanction could be considered proportionate, arguing that the Adjudicatory Chamber is in a better position than the CAS to issue a new proportionate disciplinary measure. In other words, the CAS seems to say that it has no problem to assess the proportionality of a given sanction ; however, if it deems that the sanction is not proportionate, it is not for the CAS to replace the penalty imposed with another sanction.

7. Comparing the awards in the Galatasaray and AC Milan cases with the ruling in Meca Medina and Majcen affair some aspects deserve to be underlined. First of all, according to the case-law of the ECJ in sports matters, the evaluation of the restrictive effects of a rule necessarily presupposes the analysis of the proportionate character of the sanction imposed in the event of violation of that rule. On the contrary, according to the case-law of the CAS the analysis of the proportionate character of a sanction necessarily presupposes a positive evaluation of the legitimate character of the objectives pursued by the rule and its inherence to those objectives. In other words, it seems that according to the CAS the disproportionate nature of a sanction is not capable of affecting the legitimacy of the rule whose violation determined that sanction. Although the full text of the award is not yet available from the AC Milan/UEFA case it emerges that the disproportionate nature of the penalty imposed only resulted in the referral of the case to the Adjudicatory Chamber for the imposition of another sanction. Although apparently in line with the Wouters and Others case, this approach is clearly in contrast with the Meca Medina and Majcen case and, more generally, with the whole theory of mandatory requirements in the field of the internal market.

To this regard it is of paramount importance not to underestimate the fundamental difference between rules which are applied a priori and rules that are applied a posteriori. As also recognized by the CAS in the well-known ENIC case:

«rules that are applied a priori tend to prevent undesirable situations which might prove difficult or useless to deal with afterwards, rather than imposing a penalty on someone guilty of something. On the other hand, rules that are applied a posteriori are bound to react to specific behaviours. For example, under EC law and several national laws, rules on mergers are applied a priori, whereas rules on abuses of dominant position are applied a posteriori. Merger operations are checked before they actually take place, and are blocked if the outcome of the merger would be the establishment of a dominant position because of the possible negative consequences on the market and not because the individuals owning or managing the merging undertakings are particularly untrustworthy and the company after the merger is expected to abuse of its dominant position (…). All such a priori rules are applied on a preventive basis, with no appraisal of any specific wrongdoing and no moral judgement on the individuals or companies concerned. On the other hand, rules setting forth obligations and corresponding penalties or sanctions, such as criminal or disciplinary rules, can be applied only after someone has been found guilty of having violated an obligation». 

In this context it is clear that rules applied a posteriori (such as the UEFA Financial Fair-play regulations) consist of both the obligations set forth and the corresponding sanctions. In addition, it is not possible nor correct to arbitrarily separate the obligation from the sanction. Indeed, the fact that in the Meca Medina and Majcen ruling the proportionality test was referred precisely to the restrictive effects and not to the prohibition of doping cannot be ignored. The prohibition of doping as such, without the corresponding sanctions, does not have any restrictive effect on competition.

Secondly, the sanctioning system envisaged by the UEFA does not provide clear and transparent criteria as to how the sanctions are to be applied. There is no scale to measure and define the seriousness of the violation and no provision illustrating the relationship between the violation and the sanction that can be imposed. It is interesting to note that the same reasoning was applied by the EU Commission in the ISU decision. And everyone knows the outcome of this case.

Thirdly, the choice of the CAS to refer back the case to the Adjudicatory Chamber could mean that the AC Milan/UEFA case is not yet closed definitively. According to Art 29 of the Procedural rules governing the UEFA Club Financial Control Body in case of a breach of the UEFA Financial Fair-play regulations the clubs may be sanctioned with the following measures: a) warning, b) reprimand, c) fine, d) deduction of points, e) withholding of revenues from a UEFA competition, f) prohibition on registering new players in UEFA competitions, g) restriction on the number of players that a club may register for participation in UEFA competitions, including a financial limit on the overall aggregate cost of the employee benefits expenses of players registered on the A-list for the purposes of UEFA club competitions, h) disqualification from competitions in progress and/or exclusion from future competitions, i) withdrawal of a title or award. If the exclusion from UEFA competitions is certainly one of the most serious sanctions, there are other particularly serious penalties, such as the prohibition on registering new players in UEFA competitions or the restriction on the number of players that a club may register for participation in UEFA competitions. Consequently, since the seriousness of the ascertained infringement seems to exclude that the Adjudicatory Chamber may decide to apply a very minimal sanction (such as a warning or a reprimand), it cannot be excluded that the new sanction will also be perceived as excessive and therefore disproportionate. And in this case, at least in theory, nothing could prevent AC Milan from appealing to the CAS by challenging again the disproportionate character of the (new) sanction.

8. The Meca Medina and Majcen ruling presents many ambiguities and for this reason is rightly criticized. To say nothing else, it cannot be ignored that the extension of the proportionality test also to the sanctioning system provided for by sports regulations raises at least two fundamental problems: (a) firstly, to establish which criteria are to be used to determine the proportionate character of the sanctions; and (b) secondly, the opportunity to invest judges or arbitrators of such a task. However, the recent case-law of the CAS on the proportionality test of UEFA Financial Fair-play regulations seems to reveal no less serious concerns and perplexities.


[1] For more details, see my blog and Ben Van Rompuy’s blog.

 

[2] As a consequence one could argue that the decision of the panel to find that the sanction is disproportionate is probably connected to the fact that Milan was not offered a settlement.

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