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Blog Symposium: Third-party entitlement to shares of transfer fees: problems and solutions - By Dr. Raffaele Poli (Head of CIES Football Observatory)

Introduction: FIFA’s TPO ban and its compatibility with EU competition law.
Day 1: FIFA must regulate TPO, not ban it.
Day 3: The Impact of the TPO Ban on South American Football.
Day 4: Third Party Investment from a UK Perspective.
Day 5: Why FIFA's TPO ban is justified.

Editor’s note: Raffaele Poli is a human geographer. Since 2002, he has studied the labour and transfer markets of football players. Within the context of his PhD thesis on the transfer networks of African footballers, he set up the CIES Football Observatory based at the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) located in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Since 2005, this research group develops original research in the area of football from a multidisciplinary perspective combining quantitative and qualitative methods. Raffaele was also involved in a recent study on TPO providing FIFA with more background information on its functioning and regulation (the executive summary is available here).

This is the third blog of our Symposium on FIFA’s TPO ban, it is meant to provide an interdisciplinary view on the question. Therefore, it will venture beyond the purely legal aspects of the ban to introduce its social, political and economical context and the related challenges it faces.

 

1)    Introduction

This paper reviews the main challenges to the smooth development of football when considering the repercussions of third party entitlement to shares of transfer fees (sections 2 to 5) and formulates a non-partisan proposal to reform the transfer system as a whole (section 6).

Third parties define all other parties than the teams transferring the registration of a player: companies, holdings, investments funds, agents, club shareholders and employees, footballers and relatives, other football clubs, football academies, etc.

In the interests of accuracy and avoidance of doubt, the common terms of third-party ownership and players’ economic rights are not used in this paper. Literally speaking, the business area considered is indeed based on options rather than ownership.

Moreover, the term of ownership suggests that third-party investors “own” players as for a master with respect to a slave. TPE arrangements also raise crucial issues in terms of power between third-party investors and players. However, the stakes are hardly comparable with those in the master/slave relationship. It is thus more accurate to refer to entitlement instead of ownership.

With regard to economic rights, they are nothing more than transfer compensation as stipulated by FIFA regulations. The notion of economic rights is thus also misleading as it suggests the existence of specific rights beyond those deriving from regulations set up by football authorities. The unreflective use of this concept only adds confusion to the debate.

The common goal of actors participating in the business of third-party entitlement (hereafter TPE) is to make a financial profit through the transfer of players, or, for individuals involved in the financing of clubs, to be able to secure their investments.

 

2)    TPE and the sustainability of football clubs

The growth of TPE deals raises crucial issues for the sustainable development of clubs. This is especially true for teams that view regular investment from third parties as a key income source in their business model.

While TPE investments might initially be welcomed by clubs facing economic problems, over time, such agreements have the potential to provoke a loss of control over transfer operations and durably compromise the financial situation of teams.

Within the context of economic polarisation[1], TPE deals do not have the power to solve financial issues arising from an unfavourable position in the market. On the contrary, a difficult situation from an economic standpoint reduces considerably the bargaining power of clubs with respect to third parties.

Third-party investors promoting TPE arrangements are thus often able to acquire a favourable position within a club to minimise their risks and maximise profits over the longer term. This reinforces the dependency of clubs vis-à-vis third parties and affects their financial stability.

The TPE business model develops in parallel with the progressive takeover of clubs by groups or individuals motivated by the possibility to speculate on the transfer market. The tendency to consider teams as a launching-pad to generate profits through the transfer of players increases.

Club employees in charge of transfers also contribute to this process by using their strategic position for personal profit. Within this framework, economic stakes tend to overcome sporting objectives. This runs in the vast majority of cases contrary to the long-standing interests of clubs.

Indeed, the greed of third-party investors, the high mobility of players and the chronic financial instability of clubs engaging in TPE practices tend to have a negative impact on results. Several studies by the CIES Football Observatory have provided evidence that over-activity in the transfer market is counterproductive in the long run.[2]

In turn, poor performance levels have a negative effect on the ability to generate revenues in the transfer market and can lead to bankruptcies. It is indeed harder to find potential buyers interested in taking over a club when the latter is not entitled to potential transfer fees for players under contract.

 

3)    TPE and the development of the game

The logic of short-term profit maximisation underlying TPE practices is often not appropriate for the sporting development of players. This is above all valid for young talents transferred abroad before the acquisition of a solid experience in their home country.

The numerous transfers that many footballers at the heart of the TPE business model will be confronted with to develop or restart their career only add to the pressure which makes fulfilling their potential more difficult. In many cases, this aspect is not sufficiently taken into account by third-party investors primarily attracted by the lure of money.

The monetisation of players’ mobility within the framework of the TPE business model tends thus to have a negative effect not only for footballers, but also on football in general. Short-termism and speculation often run contrary to the personal development of players and entail greater risks of breaking careers.

Furthermore, there are serious concerns with regard to influence and bias in player selection. Indeed, the speculative nature of the TPE business model and vested interests between the various actors involved promotes favouritism.

High risks of favouritisms and insider trading also exist with regard to national team selection both at adult and youth level. Indeed, international caps can significantly increase the market value of a player and guarantee higher profits.

In addition, as the ability to produce high-quality matches is strongly linked to team cohesion, the increase in player turnover within the framework of the development of TPE arrangements is damaging to football as a spectacle.

While some well-connected clubs are able to take advantage of their privileged access to the best talent by means of TPE deals, this always takes place to the detriment of other teams within the context of a zero-sum game.

Consequently, the TPE business model prevents leagues from increasing the competitive balance between clubs and the overall performance of the league. The same holds true at international level for football as a whole.

 

4)    TPE and the transfer system

An additional concern with regard to the TPE business model relates to two founding principles underlying the transfer system of football players as agreed in 2001 by the EU, FIFA, and UEFA: contractual stability and the promotion of training.[3]

Contrary to the principle of contractual stability, the TPE business model promotes the use of the transfer system for the purpose of financial speculation. Within this framework, the trend of transferring players before the end of their contract increases.

The speculative nature of the TPE business model also has a negative impact on the promotion of training. Firstly, TPE deals are concluded without the payment of training indemnities and solidarity contributions as stipulated in FIFA regulations. Secondly, footballers having already been the subject of investment tend to be favoured above players who are locally trained.

With this in mind, it is not surprising to observe that the number of players transferred by top division clubs in 31 UEFA member associations has reached an all-time high in 2014/15. In parallel, a record low was recorded in the percentage of club-trained footballers.[4] In the long-term, these developments weaken clubs both sportingly and economically.

In addition, the TPE business model amplifies the conflicts of interest between intermediaries, fund or investment company managers and club shareholders or employees in charge of transfers. The TPE arrangements between these actors lead to the institutionalisation of conflicts of interest as the modus operandi of the transfer market.

In parallel, a process of “cartelisation” based on privileged relations develops. Established intermediaries play a crucial role in this process. The direct involvement of the most influential agents in the TPE business sphere reinforces their dominant position.[5] This further limits the competitiveness of the player representation market and the transfer market in general.

As a consequence, a few investment funds and companies collaborate on a regular basis with a close-knit group of intermediaries holding strong ties with team shareholders and managers. The key actors in these dominant networks are thus more than ever able to exercise a lasting control over more footballers and clubs.[6]

This gives them even more leverage over actors who are not part of their network. As in all economic sectors, enjoying an oligopolistic position is indeed particularly useful. Specifically in football, this drives up transfer costs for players controlled, generates ever-greater profits and consolidates the control on the market.

In addition, when TPE investors want to maintain a percentage on future transfers with the aim of maximising profits, clubs from national associations where such practices are forbidden (i.e. England) have much less bargaining power. This also leads to rising recruitment costs. From this perspective, the TPE business model is a source of inequalities between countries.

A further negative consequence of the development of the TPE business model is the creation of parallel transfer markets which are for the most part outside the scope and control of the football authorities, as well as the arbitrary justice of sporting federations.

Contrary to club officials, third-party investors do not have to respect the normal transfer windows. This gives third parties a competitive advantage over clubs. Moreover, as already mentioned, TPE agreements do not provide for the payment of solidarity or training contributions.

By sidestepping sporting regulations, the spread of the TPE business model undermines the authority of football governing bodies and the arbitrary justice of sport. This jeopardises the regulatory mechanisms agreed with public authorities to protect the interests of clubs, players and the agents wishing to operate in compliance with the existing legal framework.

 

5)    TPE and the rights of workers

By widening the number and variety of actors entitled to shares in transfer fees, TPE practices can restrict the freedom of movement of players in several ways. This situation raises important issues with regard to workers’ rights.

The existence of TPE deals generally makes negotiations more complicated. Transfers can collapse even though the clubs and the player concerned had reached an agreement. Moreover, as mentioned above, the multiplication of actors involved in transactions is likely to hinder the free movement of players by increasing transfer costs to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

From an ethical point of view, the fact that many players are kept in the dark regarding arrangements for the share of potential fees for their transfer is also problematic. Insofar as these agreements often have an impact on the rest of their career, players should at least be informed as to the identity of the actors involved, as well as to the terms of the deals.

Morally speaking, the written consent of players should also be compulsory to validate the contractual details agreed between the different parties involved. This is currently not the case. As a matter of fact, many TPE arrangements run contrary to the fundamental right of players to decide where they want to play.

TPE practices thus contribute in reducing the decision-making powers of footballers to the profit of third parties. In the least favourable scenarios, players find themselves in a situation of dependence towards third-party investors and intermediaries with little or no room to manoeuvre.

Young players from poor family backgrounds with little knowledge on the functioning of the transfer system are particularly vulnerable with respect to arrangements promoted within the context of the TPE business model.

This was notably raised by Marcelo Estigarribia in a recent interview published by an Italian magazine.[7] The Paraguayan footballer complained about the numerous transfers he had to face up (six over the last seven years) after that an investment company acquired the control of his career through TPE arrangements.

Of course, successful footballers can also take advantage of the networks set up by dominant actors through TPE arrangements. However, the opposite holds often true for the majority of less successful players who would have needed a more stable context to develop their skills or would have liked to have a greater control on their career path.

 

6)    Plea for a holistic approach

The practical functioning of the transfer market of football players and the development of the TPE business model threaten the integrity of football. A holistic approach is needed to limit the worst pitfalls of the business and reduce its profitability for third parties who do not act in the long standing interests of clubs and of football in general.

This will involve reforming the existing transfer system and making it better suited to fulfil the purpose for which it was first implemented and has since been adapted as previously described in this paper.

An efficient measure would be to entitle each team in which a player has passed through to a compensation for each fee paying transfer taking place over the course of the player’s professional career on a pro rata basis to the number of official matches played at the club.

For example, if footballer X begins as a professional in club X and plays 75 matches there before being transferred to club Y, in the event of a paying fee transfer to club Z after 25 official games played for club Y, club X is entitled to 75% of the transfer fee. And this even though club Y already paid a fee to sign the player from club X.

This reform would re-focus the transfer system back on the objectives for which it was conceived, notably with regard to contractual stability and the promotion of training. It would also have a positive impact in terms of income redistribution, a key issue in today’s football.[8]

At contractual stability level, the reform would ensure that clubs are rewarded with a substantial compensation at a later stage even if the player leaves at the end of his contract. Consequently, teams could more easily afford keeping the best talents for a longer period. This would also help tame salary inflation.

With regard to the promotion of training, such a reform would make sustainable investments in clubs or youth academies for the training of the next generation of players more interesting from a financial standpoint.

Training clubs would indeed be better compensated economically in that they would receive substantial money also in the event of a second, third or further paying fee transfer, which are generally the most profitable.

In the meantime, this would reduce the attractiveness of speculating on specific talents to obtain short-term profits with no real contribution to the smooth development of football, as it is the case with the current TPE business model.

Of course, this reform is no golden bullet. It would not solve all the problems related to corporate governance issues at club level. It would also not be able to tackle all the concerns arising from the practical functioning of the transfer market of football players as highlighted above.

However, it would have the merit to re-direct the transfer system towards the key principles underlying its creation and existence. It would also allow football governing bodies to gain a better control over its operation.

Beyond the TPE issue, all stakeholders concerned about the integrity of football should have an interest in updating the transfer system to protect the smooth development of the game. The proposed reform moves in that



[1] See UEFA 2014: The European Club Footballing Landscape, Club Licensing Benchmarking Report (http://www.uefa.org/MultimediaFiles/Download/Tech/uefaorg/General/02/09/18/26/2091826_DOWNLOAD.pdf).

[2] See Poli R., Besson R. and Ravenel L. 2015: Club instability and its consequences, CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report n° 2 (http://www.football-observatory.com/IMG/pdf/mr01_eng.pdfhttp://www.football-observatory.com/IMG/pdf/mr01_eng.pdf).

[3] See http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-02-824_en.htm.

[4] The figures are available in the CIES Football Observatory’s Digital Atlas at http://www.football-observatory.com/Digital-Atlas.

[5] See Poli, R. and Rossi, G. (2012) Football agents in the biggest five European markets. An empirical research report. CIES: Neuchâtel (http://www.football-observatory.com/IMG/pdf/report_agents_2012-2.pdf).

[6] A thorough analysis of the working of dominant networks in the transfer market of football players is available in Russo, P. (2014) Gol di rapina. Il lato oscuro del calcio globale. Edizioni Clichy, Firenze.

[7] Fabrizio Salvio, Sport Week, 27.09.2014, 34-38.

[8] See Poli R., Besson R. and Ravenel L. 2015: Transfer expenditure and results, CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report n° 3 (http://www.football-observatory.com/IMG/pdf/mr03_eng.pdf).

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