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 European Commission’s ISU antitrust investigation explained. By Ben Van Rompuy

In June 2014, two prominent Dutch speed skaters, Mark Tuitert (Olympic Champion 1500m) and Niels Kerstholt (World Champion short track), filed a competition law complaint against the International Skating Union (ISU) with the European Commission.


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Today, the European Commission announced that it has opened a formal antitrust investigation into International Skating Union (ISU) rules that permanently ban skaters from competitions such as the Winter Olympics and the ISU World and European Championships if they take part in events not organised or promoted by the ISU. The Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, stated that the Commission "will investigate if such rules are being abused to enforce a monopoly over the organisation of sporting events or otherwise restrict competition. Athletes can only compete at the highest level for a limited number of years, so there must be good reasons for preventing them to take part in events."

Since the case originates from legal advice provided by the ASSER International Sports Law Centre, we thought it would be helpful to provide some clarifications on the background of the case and the main legal issues at stake. 


1. What are the events leading to the complaint? 

In December 2011, a private entity, Icederby International, informed the ISU of its intentions to start organising international speed skating events with an innovative competition format, combining long track and short track skating. At that time, Icerderby International was considering hosting betting activities on the races alongside the tracks. 

In January 2012, the ISU issued a revised Code of Ethics stipulating that persons subjected to the Code ought “to refrain from participating in all forms of betting or support betting or gambling related to any event/activity under the jurisdiction of the ISU”

In November 2013, Dubai is awarded the organisation of the World Expo 2020. Icederby International secured a contract to organise an annual speed skating event in Dubai as part of the programme leading up to the World Expo. The first Dubai Icederby Grand Prix Exhibition 2014 was to take place in October 2014. The organisers clarified that there would be no on-site betting activities during the planned Icederby events since betting activities are strictly prohibited in Dubai. 

In March 2014, the ISU nonetheless issued a statement (Communication No. 1853) saying that, because the competitions organised by Icederby International are “possibly being closely connected to betting”, they would not sanction them. The ISU also threatened that anyone participating in events organised by Icederby International would become persona non grata within the ISU. 


2. Persona non grata … what does that mean?  

According to the ISU Eligibility rules,[1] a person skating or officiating in an event not sanctioned by the ISU and/or its Members (i.e. the individual national associations) becomes ineligible to participate in ISU activities and competitions (Rule 102, para. 2 (ii)). This sanction applies not only to the skaters, but also to coaches, trainers, doctors, team attendants, team officials, judges, referees, volunteers, and anyone else engaging in a relation with the ISU.  

A person who is or has been ineligible may be reinstated as an eligible person (Rule 103, para. 1). However, this does not apply to a skater that participated in a non-sanctioned event (Rule 103, para. 2). In other words, once a skater participates in an event not organised or promoted by the ISU, he or she is banned for life from participating in the Winter Olympic Games or any of the ISU events such as the World and European Championships. In practice this would put an end to the athlete’s sporting career. 


3. Why is the ISU allegedly violating the EU competition rules? 

The complainants contend that the ISU Eligibility Rules, in particular Rule 102, as well as its enforcement by the ISU in the case at hand, constitutes a violation of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU. The main premise of the complaint is that the sanction of a lifelong ban cannot be considered inherent and proportionate to the pursuit of any legitimate objective.

The ISU Eligibility Rules are laid down in the ISU General Regulations, which the Members of the ISU have adopted. This is a decision taken by an association of associations of undertakings, within the meaning of Article 101(1) TFEU. By their very nature, the restrictions imposed by the Eligibility Rules have the potential to restrict competition because they raise virtually insurmountable barriers to entry and expansion on the market for the organisation of international speed skating events (i.e. the organisation of such events require access to the human resources controlled by the ISU). This directly and manifestly affects the interests of the skaters (and ultimately has the potential to harm the welfare of sports fans). 

Additionally, the ISU and its Members enjoy a position of collective dominance, which amounts to an absolute monopoly, on the market for the organisation of international speed skating events.[2] The ISU Eligibility Rules enable the ISU (and its Members) to prevent or impede effective competition on the market for international speed skating events. In short, the complainants argue that the ISU effectively abuses its powers to foreclose competitors on this and other related markets. The ISU Eligibility Rules are not simply there “on the books” but are actively invoked by the ISU to deter skaters (and officials etc.) from breaching these rules by participating/officiating in non-sanctioned events.[3] 

The initiative to launch the Icederby International Competitions exemplifies that there is a demand for more international speed skating events in addition to those that the ISU administers, both in terms of new competition formats and competing events. This need is also evident from the limited prize money that is available for long track and short track skaters in ISU sanctioned international speed skating events. The prize money available for individual skaters in a typical season with 21 international speed skating competitions (13 long track / 8 short track) is a minimum of $ 0 and maximum of $ 109,000 (long track) / $ 31,900 (short track). If speed skaters would be able to participate in the Dubai Icederby Grand Prix, which is but one out-of-season single event, they would earn individually a minimum of $ 37.650 and a maximum of $ 130,000. In other words, a short track skater could earn more by simply participating in the Icederby event than he/she would be able to earn by winning all of the ISU sanctioned international competitions during an entire season. 

While the ISU’s decision not to sanction the Icederby International Competitions is an important contextual element, the complainants are not asking the European Commission to denounce that decision. Rather, their complaint focuses entirely on the disproportionate sanction prescribed by Rule 102(2) of the ISU General Regulations. Because Icederby International is the first major organisation that wishes to organise international speed skating events without the ISU’s approval, the radical anti-competitive nature of the ISU Eligibility Rules has only now manifested itself. Any other (future) initiative to organise a non-sanctioned international speed skating event would likewise face the disproportionate restrictions imposed by the ISU Eligibility Rules. 

It is undisputed that an international sports federation, such as the ISU, may legitimately assert the interests of the sport it administers. Yet it is doubtful that the ISU could rely on its Code of Ethics (that only applies to events and activities “under the jurisdiction of the ISU”) to render ineligible any person skating or officiating in events in compliance with national laws. Sole participation in a non-sanctioned speed skating event should not constitute a threat to the integrity of speed skating that would justify a total ban. 


4. What is the remedial scope of EU competition law? 

The ISU Eligibility rules and the ISU’s conduct deprive speed skaters from the benefits that a situation of fair and open competition on the market for the organisation of international speed skating events would offer them. The scope for intervention on the basis of EU competition law is evident from previous decisional practice. 

In the FIA case, the European Commission was confronted with similar rules contained in several regulations notified by the Fédération International de l’Automobile (FIA). The International Sporting Code of the FIA provided that no licence holder could participate in an international Formula One event that is not entered on the FIA calendar. Anyone that would not comply with this provision would have their licence withdrawn and thus would be excluded from any event authorized by FIA. This and other restrictive rules led the Commission to make, in its Statement of Objections, the preliminary assessment that FIA “was using its regulatory powers to block the organization of races which competed with the events promoted or organized by FIA (i.e. events from which FIA derived a commercial benefit”.[4] The Commission eventually closed the case after having reached a settlement with FIA, which provided inter alia that FIA no longer would prevent teams and circuit owners to participate in and organise other races provided that essential requisite safety standards are met.[5] 

More recently, National Competition Authorities (NCAs) have also intervened on the basis of national and EU competition law. For example: 

  • In Sweden, the Market Court confirmed that two clauses in the Swedish Automobile Sports Federation (SBF)’s Common rules, according to which its members were forbidden from participating as drivers and event staff in races not sanctioned by the SBF, violated Article 101 TFEU.[6] The Court therefore upheld the decision of the Swedish NCA, which obliged the SBF to amend its Common rules so that they no longer prevent licence holders from applying for, participating in or being functionaries at unsanctioned motor races.[7] In 2014, the Swedish NCA also closed an investigation into a loyalty clause applied by the Swedish Bodybuilding Association (SKKF) after the SKFF committed no longer to suspend or fine athletes, coaches, officials or judges for participating in non-sanctioned competitions.[8]

  • In Italy, the NCA launched antitrust investigations into the regulations and conduct of the national motor sports federation (ACI) and equestrian sports federation (FISE) under Articles 101 and 102 TFEU. The FISE investigation focused on clauses forbidding FISE members from participating in equestrian events and activities organized by other entities (subject to exclusion from the federation). The investigation was closed after FISE committed to remove the anti-competitive clauses from its statutes. FISE also committed to allow the use of its affiliated clubs’ facilities by independent event organizers.[9] The ACI investigation focused on several regulatory and statutory provisions intended to limit access to the market for the organization of motor sport events for competitors. In 2009, the NCA adopted a commitment decision after the ACI undertook to inter alia allow its members to participate in events not organized by the federation.[10]

    In Ireland, the NCA opened an investigation into a rule of Show Jumping Ireland (SJI) that prevented members of the SJI to compete at unaffiliated show jumping events. The case was closed after the SJI committed to amend the rule to address the competition concerns. Since then, members of SJI who enter into unaffiliated show can only be penalized if the show has not signed up to the specified Health and Safety Standards and has not provided the SJI with evidence of adequate insurance.[11] 

Two important lessons can be drawn from this decisional practice. 

First, save for compliance with objective technical safety standards, the decisional practice has consistently found that rules prohibiting the participation of its members in non-sanctioned events violated Articles 101 and/or 102 TFEU and had to be abolished. Evidently, to be deemed proportional, the sports federation would still be required to prove that a certain non-sanctioned event would be less safe than its own events.[12] 

Second, all national cases dealt with rules of national federations. In the Swedish bodybuilding case (2014), the contested rule was the national equivalent of a clause contained in the Constitution of the International Bodybuilding Federation. Yet the remedial action was purely national in scope. The SKKF committed no longer to apply the restriction in Sweden, but the rule continues to be enforced by the IFBB and all other European member federations. The much wider scope of the parties affected by a rule from an international sports federation makes it necessary to tackle the restriction at the EU level. 


5. What are the next procedural steps? 

Since this is the first time in more than a decade that the European Commission is conducting an in-depth antitrust investigation in the field of (regulatory aspects of) sport, the decision to open proceedings delivers a powerful message. 

The opening of an in-depth antitrust investigation does not prejudice the finding of a violation of the European competition rules, however. It only signals that (1) the initial assessment led to the conclusion that there are “reasonable indications of a likely infringement” and (2) the Commission will further pursue the case as a matter of priority with a view to adopting a decision.[13] The Commission will thus allocate recourses on the case and endeavour to resolve the case in a timely manner.

Unless the Commission would in the end conclude that there is not sufficient evidence to find an infringement, the case will be resolved through the adoption of a prohibition or commitment decision.  

The ISU could offer commitments suitable to address the competition concerns arising from the investigation. The Commission might then conclude that there are no longer grounds for actions. Instead of formally establishing a violation of the EU competition rules, a commitment decision will simply make those commitments legally binding. In the alternative, the Commission will proceed to a prohibition decision, requiring the ISU to bring the infringements to an end. For this purpose, it may impose on the ISU remedies proportionate to the infringement committed and necessary to bring the infringement to an end and impose a fine. 


6. Why is this case so important? 

Needless to say, the stakes are significant and extend well beyond the sport of speed skating. 

Only a handful of international sport federations have truly experienced the “Bosman effect” and faced scrutiny of their regulatory overreach under the European competition rules. The fact that most international sports federations are based in Switzerland, outside the EU, may further explain a lack of awareness about the need to comply with EU competition law. Of course, this does not mean they are immune: anti-competitive practices that appreciably affect the EU market are drawn into the net of EU competition law. 

While the compliance of sporting rules with EU competition law needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, the European Commission did present an indicative list of sporting rules that are likely to infringe Articles 101 and 102 TFEU in its 2007 White Paper on Sport. Rules shielding sports associations from competition are mentioned. Other than in the area of revenue generating activities related to sport (in particular the sale of sports media rights), however, the body of competition case law at the EU level dealing with organisational sporting rules is limited. Even though sports associations usually have practical monopolies in a given sport, the remedial potential of EU competition law to influence their regulatory actions (that often have significant economic consequences) remains underexplored.[14]  

The Commission’s decision to pursue this case therefore has an important precedent-setting value. This is particularly true for the numerous international sports federations that also disproportionally restrict athlete participation in unsanctioned events with penalties ranging from fines, periods of ineligibility, and lifetime bans. For instance: 

  • International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB): since 2009, all athletes that take part in unauthorized beach volleyball events will have their membership withdrawn for all FIVB competitions (period of ineligibility up to a life ban).[15] Surprisingly, different sanctions apply to participation in volleyball competitions of non-FIVB recognized organizations (e.g. a fine on the club involved of CHF 30.000 and suspension of the club, teams, players, and officials involved for a period up to two years).[16]

  • International Swimming Federation (FINA): any affiliated member having any kind of relationship with non-affiliated bodies shall be suspended for a minimum period of one year up to a maximum period of two years.[17]

    International Netball Federation (INF): any person participating in any capacity in an unsanctioned event is automatically ineligible to participate in INF events for a minimum of 12 months thereafter.[18]

    International Gymnastics Federation (FIG): gymnasts taking part in unsanctioned competitions or exhibitions may not claim to be eligible to participate in the Olympic Games.[19]

    International Cricket Council (ICC): other than in exceptional circumstances, a person participating in unofficial cricket events shall not be selected or permitted to participate in official events for a minimum of one year thereafter.[20]

    International Hockey Federation (FIH): any athlete or other individual participating in an unsanctioned event is automatically ineligible for one year to participate in any FIH event.[21]

The mere threat of drastic sanctions, combined with the general lack of objective, transparent, and non-discriminatory rules governing the authorization of international sports events, enables federations to de facto block events that could compete with the events they organise and promote. In the absence of sufficient procedural safeguards, this clearly raises concerns about a conflict of interest between a federation’s power to authorise the organisation of events and the federation’s commercial interests in promoting its own events.

The ISU case will hopefully provide a much-needed reminder to sports federations that without valid justifications they cannot use their private regulatory power to foreclose competitors or hinder the freedom of EU athletes and sports personnel to exercise economic activities. 

Disclaimer: the author represents and advises the complainants in their antitrust proceedings.


[1] ISU General Regulations (2014), available at http://static.isu.org/media/165642/constitution-and-general-regulations-version-july-31-2014.pdf

[2] This has already been recognized by the German courts in the Pechstein case.

[3] In its 2014 statement (Communication No. 1853), the ISU found it opportune to remind all its members “that participation in any international ice skating competition not sanctioned by the ISU will result in the loss of eligibility of the participants”.

[4] Notice published pursuant to Article 19(3) of Council Regulation No 17 concerning Cases COMP/35.163, Notification of FIA Regulations, COMP/36.638, Notification by FIA/FOA of agreements relating to the FIA Formula One World Championship, COMP/36.776  GTR/FIA & others (2001/C 169/03), OJ C169/6-7

[5] European Commission, XXXIst Report on Competition Policy 2001, para. 221 et seq.

[6]  Swedish Market Court's ruling 2012:16 in Case A 5/11, Svenska Bilsportförbundet v Konkurrensverket (December 20, 2012) available at http://www.kkv.se/t/NewsArchive.aspx?id=529  (see also e.g. http://www.kkv.se/t/NewsPage____8672.aspx ).

[7] Konkurrensverket (Swedish Competition Authority) Decision of 13 May 2011 in Case 709/2009, available at http://www.kkv.se/upload/Filer/Konkurrens/2011/Beslut/09-0709.pdf.

[8] Konkurrensverket (Swedisch Competition Authority) Decision of 28 May 2014 in Case 590/2013, available at http://www.konkurrensverket.se/upload/Filer/Konkurrens/2014/13-0590.pdf.

[9] Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato, Federitalia/Federazione Italiana Sport Equestri (FISE), Decision n°18285 of 28 July 2008, Bolletino n° 19/2008. 

[10] Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato, Gargano Corse/ACI, Decision n° 19946 of 30 June 2009, Bolletino n° 23/2009.

[11] The Competition Authority, Show Jumping Ireland, case summary available at http://www.tca.ie/images/uploaded/documents/201205%20Case%20Summary%20-%20SJI.pdf

[12] Swedish Market Court's ruling 2012:16 in Case A 5/11, Svenska Bilsportförbundet v Konkurrensverket (December 20, 2012) available at http://www.kkv.se/t/NewsArchive.aspx?id=529; The Competition Authority, Show Jumping Ireland, case summary available at http://www.tca.ie/images/uploaded/documents/201205%20Case%20Summary%20-%20SJI.pdf.

[13] European Commission, Antitrust Manual of Procedures (2012), available at http://ec.europa.eu/competition/antitrust/antitrust_manproc_3_2012_en.pdf

[14] Ben Van Rompuy, "The role of EU competition law in tackling abuse of regulatory power by sports associations" (2015) 22 Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law 2, 174-204.

[15] FIVB, Beach Volleyball Handbook 2013, Article 9.1 and 11.3. 

[16] FIVB, Disciplinary Regulations, Article 15.2 and Sports Regulations Volleyball, Article 46.6.

[17] FINA, General Rules 2013-2017, Rule GR4.

[18] INF, General Regulations – Appendix – Regulations on Sanctioned & Unsanctioned Events: Guidance Notes (August 2013).

[19] FIG, Technical Regulations, Appendix B (Rules of Eligibility for the International Gymnastics Federation).

[20] ICC, Regulations for Approved/Disapproved Cricket and Domestic Cricket Events, Section 32.4.

[21] FIH, Regulations on Sanctioned & Unsanctioned events, Article 2.


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Asser International Sports Law Blog | Multi-Club Ownership in European Football – Part II: The Concept of Decisive Influence in the Red Bull Case – By Tomáš Grell

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

Multi-Club Ownership in European Football – Part II: The Concept of Decisive Influence in the Red Bull Case – By Tomáš Grell

 

Introduction 

The first part of this two-part blog on multi-club ownership in European football outlined the circumstances leading to the adoption of the initial rule(s) aimed at ensuring the integrity of the UEFA club competitions (Original Rule) and retraced the early existence of such rule(s), focusing primarily on the complaints brought before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the European Commission by the English company ENIC plc. This second part will, in turn, introduce the relevant rule as it is currently enshrined in Article 5 of the UCL Regulations 2015-18 Cycle, 2017/18 Season (Current Rule). It will then explore how the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) interpreted and applied the Current Rule in the Red Bull case, before drawing some concluding remarks. 

 

The Red Bull case: The concept of decisive influence

Background 

The company Red Bull GmbH (Red Bull) started building its football empire[1] in 2005 by transforming the Austrian club SV Wüstenrot Salzburg[2] into what would henceforth be known as FC Red Bull Salzburg (RB Salzburg). As regards its legal form, RB Salzburg is currently a limited liability company (GmbH) wholly owned by the association FC Red Bull Salzburg e.V. Until 2015, when the club began a disengagement process from Red Bull, the statutes of FC Red Bull Salzburg e.V. conferred on Red Bull the right to appoint and remove the members of the association's board.

In 2009, with the objective of playing the top-flight Bundesliga within a decade, Red Bull invested in the German club SSV Markranstädt, at that time competing in the fifth tier of German football. The club was subsequently rechristened as RasenBallsport[3] Leipzig (RB Leipzig) and rebranded. Although RB Leipzig thrived on the pitch, it attracted much criticism off the pitch for attempting to circumvent the so-called '50+1 rule', according to which German football clubs may not allow investors to acquire a majority of their voting rights.

Since Red Bull's takeover of RB Leipzig in 2009, the two clubs have maintained a close cooperation involving an increased transfer activity which has seen players moving from one club to the other on a regular basis. With the help of players like Naby Keïta, who moved from RB Salzburg to RB Leipzig in the summer of 2016, the German club finished second in the 2016/17 Bundesliga season, its first-ever in the top flight, and qualified for the 2017/18 UCL group stage. RB Salzburg, for their part, added in the 2016/17 campaign another domestic title to their collection and secured a spot in the 2017/18 UCL second qualifying round.

The Current Rule  

As mentioned above, the Current Rule is encapsulated in Article 5 of the UCL Regulations 2015-18 Cycle, 2017/18 Season (UCL Regulations). It preserves the structure of the Original Rule, making admission to the UEFA club competitions conditional upon fulfilment of three specific criteria. In terms of substance, however, the Current Rule differs in two important aspects. First, unlike the Original Rule which outlawed ownership, personal and other links only between clubs participating in the same UEFA club competition, the Current Rule extends this prohibition to clubs participating both in the UCL and the UEFA Europe League. Second, an individual or legal entity is now deemed to have control over a club not only if he/she/it (i) holds a majority of the shareholders' voting rights; (ii) is authorized to appoint or remove a majority of the members of the administrative, management or supervisory body; or (iii) is a shareholder and single-handedly controls a majority of the shareholders' voting rights, but also if he/she/it (iv) is able to exercise by any means a decisive influence in the decision-making of the club.[4] The purpose of this latter change is to address situations where an individual or legal entity falls short of having de jure control over a club, but nevertheless remains able to exercise such an influence that may, if exercised in more than one club, jeopardize the integrity of the UEFA club competitions. As will be discussed in the next section, the concept of decisive influence played a pivotal role in the Red Bull case.

Furthermore, the club coefficient no longer serves as a principal criterion in determining which of the two or more commonly owned clubs should participate in a UEFA club competition. Under the Current Rule, the club which qualifies on sporting merit for the more prestigious UEFA club competition is to be favoured.[5] If two or more commonly owned clubs qualify for the same UEFA club competition, then the club which was best-ranked in its domestic championship should be admitted.[6]

Proceedings before the CFCB

On 15 May 2017, soon after RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig had both secured their place in the 2017/18 UCL, the UEFA General Secretary dispatched a letter to the CFCB, expressing his concern that the clubs might not fulfil the criteria enshrined in the Current Rule. The subsequent investigation conducted by the CFCB Investigatory Chamber relied to a great extent on compliance reports prepared by independent auditors. On 26 May 2017, the CFCB Chief Investigator referred the case to the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber, concluding that the clubs had failed to satisfy the criteria set out in the Current Rule and, as a result, only RB Salzburg should be admitted to the 2017/18 UCL.[7] In particular, the CFCB Chief Investigator suggested that Red Bull exercised decisive influence in the decision-making of both RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig, and identified several ways in which this influence manifested itself. For instance, the CFCB Chief Investigator drew attention to the presence of certain individuals allegedly linked to Red Bull in the decision-making bodies of both clubs or an unusually high level of income received by the clubs from Red Bull via sponsorship agreements.[8]

In its decision handed down on 16 June 2017, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber paid attention mainly to the changes made by RB Salzburg as part of the club's disengagement process from Red Bull. As noted above, Red Bull ceased to have the right to appoint and remove the board members of FC Red Bull Salzburg e.V. in 2015, when the association's statutes were amended accordingly. With this in mind, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber had to examine whether Red Bull was not able to exercise decisive influence in the decision-making of RB Salzburg (and RB Leipzig) by any other means.

The CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber was confronted with an onerous task, in particular because the UCL Regulations do not specify when an individual or legal entity is deemed to have decisive influence in the decision-making of a club. Nor do these regulations clarify how such a level of influence could be attained. Having examined the wording and purpose of the Current Rule, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber asserted that ''the benchmark for establishing decisive influence is a high one'',[9] finding support for its conclusion in the EU Merger Regulation.[10] For the avoidance of doubt, the Chamber further noted that the concept of decisive influence is not to be confused with that of significant influence which features in the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, Edition 2015.[11]

In determining whether Red Bull was indeed capable of exercising decisive influence in the decision-making of both clubs, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber observed from the aforementioned compliance reports that RB Salzburg had removed certain individuals allegedly linked to Red Bull from the club's decision-making bodies and terminated certain loan agreements entered into with the beverage company.[12] With the aim of refuting the CFCB Chief Investigator's allegations, RB Salzburg presented additional documentary evidence. According to the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber, it followed from such evidence, inter alia, that Red Bull had reduced the amount of sponsorship money paid to the Austrian club or that a cooperation agreement between the two clubs had been terminated.[13] This evidence alleviated the CFCB Chief Investigator's concerns to such an extent that he eventually decided to withdraw his objection to the admission of RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig to the 2017/18 UCL.[14] Consequently, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber held that, at the time of its decision, Red Bull's relationship with RB Salzburg resembled ''only a standard sponsorship relationship''.[15] Having concluded that Red Bull did not have decisive influence in the decision-making of RB Salzburg, there was no need for the Chamber to consider Red Bull's relationship with RB Leipzig.[16]

Furthermore, the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber verified whether one of the clubs did not exercise decisive influence over the other. In this regard, the Chamber referred to the cooperation agreement and the increased transfer activity between the clubs. Nonetheless, the Chamber eventually stated that there was insufficient evidence to arrive at the conclusion that RB Salzburg exercised decisive influence over RB Leipzig or vice versa.[17]

 

Further implications and concluding remarks

Rules aimed at ensuring the integrity of club competitions also exist at the national level. In England, the Rules of the Premier League stipulate, inter alia, that a person[18] – be it either natural person, legal entity, firm or unincorporated association – may not (i) be involved in or have any power to determine or influence the management or administration of more than one club participating either in the Premier League or the English Football League;[19] and (ii) hold or acquire any significant interest in more than one club participating in the Premier League. A person is deemed to have acquired significant interest in a club if he/she/it holds 10 per cent or more of the shareholders' voting rights.[20] In Spain, an individual or legal entity may not hold 5 per cent or more of the shareholders' voting rights in more than one club participating in a professional competition at the state level.[21]

It follows that both in England and Spain, the pertinent regulations set a relatively low threshold of the shareholders' voting rights that an individual or legal entity may not exceed in more than one club participating in the same domestic club competition. Moving back to UEFA, the Current Rule sets the relevant threshold at 50 per cent (majority of the shareholders' voting rights), but complements it with the 'catch-all' notion of decisive influence.

I believe that the CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber may have missed a golden opportunity in the Red Bull case to clarify further the rather vague concept of decisive influence. Unfortunately, the Chamber limited itself to stating that ''the benchmark for establishing decisive influence is a high one'',[22] without providing any concrete examples of how such a level of influence could be attained or manifested in practice.[23] The concept of decisive influence therefore remains shrouded in legal uncertainty. Moreover, in order to avoid speculations, the Chamber could have provided more details about the changes made by RB Salzburg. For instance, it could have specified which individuals allegedly linked to Red Bull were removed from the club's decision-making bodies or how the amount of sponsorship money paid to the club was reduced. Such details become particularly important if the concept of decisive influence plays a central role, because in this context the general public will not be able to access most of the relevant information via commercial registers. In contrast, this will not be the case with legal systems in England or Spain which employ a threshold of the shareholders' voting rights as a key criterion. Thus, if UEFA fails to provide such details (subject to confidentiality rules) in its decisions, its credibility might suffer.

Despite the fact that this post has identified certain flaws of the concept of decisive influence, I do not believe that a modification of the Current Rule should be a matter of urgency. As suggested above, a well-reasoned decision may foster UEFA's credibility and help reduce the legal uncertainty emanating from the concept of decisive influence. Bearing in mind the recent revitalization of multi-club ownership in European football, UEFA might soon get another opportunity to deliver such decision.


[1]   It should be noted that in addition to FC Red Bull Salzburg and RasenBallsport Leipzig, Red Bull also owns the U.S. club New York Red Bulls and the Brazilian club Red Bull Brasil.

[2]   It was often referred to as SV Austria Salzburg, a name that was given to the club at its foundation in 1933.

[3]   In fact, due to the rules prohibiting clubs to be named after their sponsors, the abbreviation 'RB' does not officially stand for Red Bull, but rather for RasenBallsport which can be roughly translated as 'lawn ball sports'.

[4]   UCL Regulations, Article 5.01(c).

[5]   Ibid. Article 5.02(a).

[6]   Ibid. Article 5.02(b).

[7]   As the Austrian club finished first in its domestic championship (whilst RB Leipzig finished second).

[8]   CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber AC-01/2017 RasenBallsport Leipzig GmbH and FC Red Bull Salzburg GmbH, Decision of 16 June 2017, para. 11.

[9]   Ibid. para. 41.

[10] Council Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 of 20 January 2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings, Article 3(2). See also Commission Consolidated Jurisdictional Notice under Council Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings.

[11] CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber decision (n 8) para. 40.

[12] Ibid. para. 50.

[13] Ibid. para. 51.        

[14] Ibid. para. 52.

[15] Ibid. para. 55.

[16] Ibid. para. 57.

[17] Ibid. para. 58.

[18] Rules of the Premier League to be found in the Premier League Handbook, Season 2017/18, Rule A.1.122.

[19] Ibid. Rule F.1.2. This provision in essence corresponds to Article 5.01(b) of the UCL Regulations.

[20] Rules of the Premier League, Rule F.1.3.

[21] Royal Decree No 1251/1999 on Sports Limited Liability Companies, Article 17(1) and (2). Professional football competitions at the state level include only La Liga and Segunda División A.

[22] See CFCB Adjudicatory Chamber decision (n 8) para. 41.

[23] Such examples could only be inferred from the changes made by RB Salzburg.

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