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

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...

(A)Political Games? Ubiquitous Nationalism and the IOC’s Hypocrisy

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a L.LM. candidate in the European Law programme at Utrecht University and a former intern of the Asser International Sports Law Centre

 

1.     Sport Nationalism is Politics

Despite all efforts, the Olympic Games has been and will be immersed in politics. Attempts to shield the Games from social and political realities are almost sure to miss their mark and potentially risk being disproportionate. Moreover, history has laid bare the shortcomings of the attempts to create a sanitized and impenetrable bubble around the Games. The first blog of this series examined the idea of the Games as a sanitized space and dived into the history of political neutrality within the Olympic Movement to unravel the irony that while the IOC aims to keep the Olympic Games ‘clean’ of any politics within its ‘sacred enclosure’, the IOC and the Games itself are largely enveloped in politics. Politics seep into the cracks of this ‘sanitized’ space through: (1) public protests (and their suppression by authoritarian regimes hosting the Games), (2) athletes who use their public image to take a political stand, (3) the IOC who takes decisions on recognizing national Olympic Committees (NOCs) and awarding the Games to countries,[1] and (4) states that use the Games for geo-political posturing.[2] With this background in mind, the aim now is to illustrate the disparity between the IOC’s stance on political neutrality when it concerns athlete protest versus sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics.

As was mentioned in part one of this series, the very first explicit mention of politics in the Olympic Charter was in its 1946 version and aimed to combat ‘the nationalization of sports for political aims’ by preventing ‘a national exultation of success achieved rather than the realization of the common and harmonious objective which is the essential Olympic law’ (emphasis added). This sentiment was further echoed some years later by Avery Brundage (IOC President (1952-1972)) when he declared: ‘The Games are not, and must not become, a contest between nations, which would be entirely contrary to the spirit of the Olympic Movement and would surely lead to disaster’.[3] Regardless of this vision to prevent sport nationalism engulfing the Games and its codification in the Olympic Charter, the current reality paints quite a different picture. One simply has to look at the mass obsession with medal tables during the Olympic Games and its amplification not only by the media but even by members of the Olympic Movement.[4] This is further exacerbated when the achievements of athletes are used for domestic political gain[5] or when they are used to glorify a nation’s prowess on the global stage or to stir nationalism within a populace[6]. Sport nationalism is politics. Arguably, even the worship of national imagery during the Games from the opening ceremony to the medal ceremonies cannot be depoliticized.[7] In many ways, the IOC has turned a blind eye to the politics rooted in these expressions of sport nationalism and instead has focused its energy to sterilize its Olympic spaces and stifle political expression from athletes. One of the ways the IOC has ignored sport nationalism is through its tacit acceptance of medal tables although they are expressly banned by the Olympic Charter.

At this point, the rules restricting athletes’ political protest and those concerning sport nationalism, particularly in terms of medal tables, will be scrutinized in order to highlight the enforcement gap between the two. More...


(A)Political Games: A Critical History of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter - By Thomas Terraz

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

 

Since its inception, the Olympic Movement, and in particular the IOC, has tirelessly endeavored to create a clean bubble around sport events, protecting its hallowed grounds from any perceived impurities. Some of these perceived ‘contaminants’ have eventually been accepted as a necessary part of sport over time (e.g. professionalism in sport),[1] while others are still strictly shunned (e.g. political protest and manifestations) and new ones have gained importance over the years (e.g. protection of intellectual property rights). The IOC has adopted a variety of legal mechanisms and measures to defend this sanitized space.  For instance, the IOC has led massive efforts to protect its and its partners’ intellectual property rights through campaigns against ambush marketing (e.g. ‘clean venues’ and minimizing the athletes’ ability to represent their personal sponsors[2]). Nowadays, the idea of the clean bubble is further reinforced through the colossal security operations created to protect the Olympic sites.

Nevertheless, politics, and in particular political protest, has long been regarded as one of the greatest threats to this sanitized space. More recently, politics has resurfaced in the context of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Rule 50 Guidelines. Although Rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines stirred considerable criticism, to which Richard Pound personally responded, arguing that Rule 50 is a rule encouraging ‘mutual respect’ through ‘restraint’ with the aim of using sport ‘to bring people together’.[3] In this regard, the Olympic Charter aims to avoid ‘vengeance, especially misguided vengeance’. These statements seem to endorse a view that one’s expression of their political beliefs at the Games is something that will inherently divide people and damage ‘mutual respect’. Thus, the question naturally arises: can the world only get along if ‘politics, religion, race and sexual orientation are set aside’?[4] Should one’s politics, personal belief and identity be considered so unholy that they must be left at the doorstep of the Games in the name of depoliticization and of the protection of the Games’ sanitized bubble? Moreover, is it even possible to separate politics and sport?  

Even Richard Pound would likely agree that politics and sport are at least to a certain degree bound to be intermingled.[5] However, numerous commentators have gone further and expressed their skepticism to the view that athletes should be limited in their freedom of expression during the Games (see here, here and here). Overall, the arguments made by these commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy that while the Games are bathed in politics, athletes – though without their labor there would be no Games – are severely restrained in expressing their own political beliefs. Additionally, they often bring attention to how some of the most iconic moments in the Games history are those where athletes took a stand on a political issue, often stirring significant controversy at the time. Nevertheless, what has not been fully explored is the relationship between the Olympic Games and politics in terms of the divide between the ideals of international unity enshrined in the Olympic Charter and on the other hand the de facto embrace of country versus country competition in the Olympic Games. While the Olympic Charter frames the Games as ‘competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries’, the reality is far from this ideal.[6] Sport nationalism in this context can be considered as a form of politics because a country’s opportunity to host and perform well at the Games is frequently used to validate its global prowess and stature.

To explore this issue, this first blog will first take a historical approach by investigating the origins of political neutrality in sport followed by an examination of the clash between the ideal of political neutrality and the reality that politics permeate many facets of the Olympic Games. It will be argued that overall there has been a failure to separate politics and the Games but that this failure was inevitable and should not be automatically viewed negatively. The second blog will then dive into the Olympic Charter’s legal mechanisms that attempt to enforce political neutrality and minimize sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics. It will attempt to compare and contrast the IOC’s approach to political expression when exercised by the athletes with its treatment of widespread sport nationalism.More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – January 2020 - By Thomas Terraz

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

 

The Headlines

IOC Athlete Commission releases its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020

The IOC Athlete Commission presented its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020 at its annual joint meeting with the IOC Executive Board. It comes as Thomas Bach had recently underlined the importance of political neutrality for the IOC and the Olympic Games in his New Year’s message. Generally, rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits any political and religious expression by athletes and their team during the Games, subject to certain exceptions. The Guidelines clarify that this includes the ‘field of play’, anywhere inside the Olympic Village, ‘during Olympic medal ceremonies’ and ‘during the Opening, Closing and other official ceremonies’. On the other hand, athletes may express their views ‘during press conferences and interview’, ‘at team meetings’ and ‘on digital or traditional media, or on other platforms. While rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines have reignited a debate on whether it could be considered as a justified restriction on one’s freedom of expression.

 

The IOC has made the case that it is defending the neutrality of sport and that the Olympics is an international forum that should help bring people together instead of focusing on divisions. Specifically, Richard Pound has recently made the argument that the Guidelines have been formulated by the athletes themselves and are a justified restriction on free expression with its basis in ‘mutual respect’. However, many commentators have expressed their skepticism to this view (see here, here and here) citing that politics and the Olympics are inherently mixed, that the IOC is heavily involved in politics, and that the Olympics has often served as the grounds for some of history’s most iconic political protests. All in all, the Guidelines have certainly been a catalyst for a discussion on the extent to which the Olympics can be considered neutral. It also further highlights a divide between athlete committees from within the Olympic Movement structures and other independent athlete representation groups (see Global Athlete and FIFPro’s statements on rule 50).

 

Doping and Corruption Allegations in Weightlifting 

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has found itself embroiled in a doping and corruption scandal after an ARD documentary was aired early in January which raised a wide array of allegations, including against the President of the IWF, Tamás Aján. The documentary also included hidden camera interviews from a Thai Olympic medalist who admits having taken anabolic steroids before having won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games and from a team doctor from the Moldovan national team who describes paying for clean doping tests. The IWF’s initial reaction to the documentary was hostile, describing the allegations as ‘insinuations, unfounded accusations and distorted information’ and ‘categorically denies the unsubstantiated’ accusations. It further claims that it has ‘immediately acted’ concerning the situation with the Thai athletes, and WADA has stated that it will follow up with the concerned actors. However, as the matter gained further attention in the main stream media and faced increasing criticism, the IWF moved to try to ‘restore’ its reputation. In practice, this means that Tamás Aján has ‘delegated a range of operation responsibilities’ to Ursual Papandrea, IWF Vice President, while ‘independent experts’ will conduct a review of the allegations made in the ARD documentary. Richard McLaren has been announced to lead the investigation and ‘is empowered to take whatever measures he sees fit to ensure each and every allegation is fully investigated and reported’. The IWF has also stated that it will open a whistleblower line to help aid the investigation.More...


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

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

 

1        Introduction

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

I’m A Loser Baby, So Let’s Kill Transparency – Recent Changes to the Olympic Games Host City Selection Process - By Ryan Gauthier (Thompson Rivers University)

Editor's Note: Ryan Gauthier is Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. Ryan’s research addresses the governance of sports organisations, with a particular focus on international sports organisations. His PhD research examined the accountability of the International Olympic Committee for human rights violations caused by the organisation of the Olympic Games.


Big June 2019 for Olympic Hosting

On June 24, 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Milano-Cortina to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Milano-Cortina’s victory came despite a declaration that the bid was “dead” just months prior when the Italian government refused to support the bid. Things looked even more dire for the Italians when 2006 Winter Games host Turin balked at a three-city host proposal. But, when the bid was presented to the members of the IOC Session, it was selected over Stockholm-Åre by 47 votes to 34. 

Just two days later, the IOC killed the host selection process as we know it. The IOC did this by amending two sections of the Olympic Charter in two key ways. First, the IOC amended Rule 33.2, eliminating the requirement that the Games be selected by an election seven years prior to the Games. While an election by the IOC Session is still required, the seven-years-out requirement is gone.

Second, the IOC amended Rule 32.2 to allow for a broader scope of hosts to be selected for the Olympic Games. Prior to the amendment, only cities could host the Games, with the odd event being held in another location. Now, while cities are the hosts “in principle”, the IOC had made it so: “where deemed appropriate, the IOC may elect several cities, or other entities, such as regions, states or countries, as host of the Olympic Games.”

The change to rule 33.2 risks undoing the public host selection process. The prior process included bids (generally publicly available), evaluation committee reports, and other mechanisms to make the bidding process transparent. Now, it is entirely possible that the IOC may pre-select a host, and present just that host to the IOC for an up-or-down vote. This vote may be seven years out from the Games, ten years out, or two years out. More...


New Article Published! The Olympic Charter: A Transnational Constitution Without a State?

My latest article has just been published online by the Journal of Law and Society. It is available open access here.

The article stems from a conference organised by Jiri Priban from Cardiff University on Gunther Teubner's idea of societal constitutionalism applied to transnational regimes. My role was to test whether his descriptive and normative framework was readily applicable to the lex sportiva, and in particular its overarching "constitutional" text: the Olympic Charter.

As you will see my conclusion is mixed. I find that the Olympic Charter (OC) displays many constitutional features and is even able to regularly defend successfully its autonomy vis-à-vis national states and their laws. However, while I document some inception of limitative constitutional rules, such as the ban on discrimination or the principle of fair play, I also conclude that those have limited impact in practice. While constitutional changes to the OC can be triggered by scandal, resistance and contestation, as illustrated by the emergence of environmental concerns after the Albertville Games and the governance reshuffle of the IOC after the Salt Lake City scandal, I am also sceptical that these were sufficient to tackle the underlying problems, as became obvious with the unmatched environmental damage caused by the Sotchi Games in 2014.

In conclusion, more than sporadic public outrage, I believe that the intervention of national law and, even more, European Union law will be capable and needed to rein the Olympic regime and impose external constitutional constraints on its (at least sometimes) destructive operations.

Here is the abstract of the article: This article examines various aspects of Teubner's theory of societal constitutionalism using the lex sportiva as an empirical terrain. The case study focuses on the operation of the Olympic Charter as a transnational constitution of the Olympic movement. It shows that recourse to a constitutional vocabulary is not out of place in qualifying the function and authority of the Charter inside and outside the Olympic movement. Yet, the findings of the case study also nuance some of Teubner's descriptive claims and question his normative strategy.

Good read! (And do not hesitate to share your feedback)


Call for papers: Annual International Sports Law Conference of the International Sports Law Journal - 25 & 26 October - Asser Institute, The Hague

 Call for papers: Annual International Sports Law Conference of the International Sports Law Journal

Asser Institute, The Hague

25 and 26 October 2018

The editorial board of the International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) is inviting you to submit abstracts for its second ISLJ Annual Conference on International Sports Law, which will take place on 25 and 26 October at the Asser Institute in The Hague. The ISLJ published by Springer in collaboration with Asser Press is the leading academic publication in the field of international sports law. Its readership includes academics and many practitioners active in the field. This call is open to researchers as well as practitioners. 

We are also delighted to announce that Prof. Franck Latty (Université Paris Nanterre), Prof. Margareta Baddeley (Université de Genève), and Silvia Schenk (member of FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory Board) have confirmed their participation as keynote speakers.

Abstracts could, for example, tackle questions linked to the following international sports law subjects:

  • The interaction between EU law and sport
  • Antitrust and sports regulation
  • International sports arbitration (CAS, BAT, etc.)
  • The functioning of the world anti-doping system (WADA, WADC, etc.)
  • The global governance of sports
  • The regulation of mega sporting events (Olympics, FIFA World Cup, etc.)
  • The transnational regulation of football (e.g. the operation of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players or the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations)
  • The global fight against corruption in sport  
  • Comparative sports law
  • Human rights in sport 

Please send your abstract (no more than 300 words) and CV no later than 30 April 2018 to a.duval@asser.nl. Selected speakers will be informed by 15 May.

The selected participants will be expected to submit a draft paper by 1 September 2018. All papers presented at the conference are eligible for publication in a special edition of the ISLJ.  To be considered for inclusion in the conference edition of the journal, the final draft must be submitted for review by 15 December 2018.  Submissions after this date will be considered for publication in later editions of the Journal.

The Asser Institute will cover one night accommodation for the speakers and will provide a limited amount of travel grants (max. 300€). If you wish to be considered for a grant please justify your request in your submission. 

The International Partnership against Corruption in Sport (IPACS) and the quest for good governance: Of brave men and rotting fish - By Thomas Kruessmann

Editor's note: Prof. Thomas Kruessmann is key expert in the EU Technical Assistant Project "Strengthening Teaching and Research Capacity at ADA University" in Baku (Azerbaijan). At the same time, he is co-ordinator of the Jean-Monnet Network "Developing European Studies in the Caucasus" with Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia).


The notion that “fish rots from the head down” is known to many cultures and serves as a practical reminder on what is at stake in the current wave of anti-corruption / integrity and good governance initiatives. The purpose of this blog post is to provide a short update on the recent founding of the International Partnership against Corruption in Sport (IPACS), intermittently known as the International Sports Integrity Partnership (IPAS), and to propose some critical perspectives from a legal scholar’s point of view.

During the past couple of years, the sports world has seen a never-ending wave of corruption allegations, often followed by revelations, incriminations and new allegation. There are ongoing investigations, most notably in the United States where the U.S. Department of Justice has just recently intensified its probe into corruption at the major sports governing bodies (SGBs). By all accounts, we are witnessing only the tip of the iceberg. And after ten years of debate and half-hearted reforms, there is the widespread notion, as expressed by the Council of Europe’s (CoE’s) Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) Resolution 2199/2018 that “the sports movement cannot be left to resolve its failures alone”. More...



Asser International Sports Law Blog | Case note: State aid Decision on the preferential corporate tax treatment of Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and FC Barcelona

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

Case note: State aid Decision on the preferential corporate tax treatment of Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and FC Barcelona

On 28 September 2016, the Commission published the non-confidential version of its negative Decision and recovery order regarding the preferential corporate tax treatment of Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and FC Barcelona. It is the second-to-last publication of the Commission’s Decisions concerning State aid granted to professional football clubs, all announced on 4 July of this year.[1] Contrary to the other “State aid in football” cases, this Decision concerns State aid and taxation, a very hot topic in today’s State aid landscape. Obviously, this Decision will not have the same impact as other prominent tax decisions, such as the ones concerning Starbucks and Apple

Background

This case dates back to November 2009, when a representative of a number of investors specialised in the purchase of publicly listed shares, and shareholders of a number of European football clubs drew the attention of the Commission to a possible preferential corporate tax treatment of the four mentioned Spanish clubs.[2] The preferential tax treatment derived directly from a Spanish sports law of 1990, which obliged all Spanish professional sport clubs to convert into sport limited companies. The justification for the measure was that many clubs had been managed badly because neither their members nor their administrators bore any financial liability for economic losses. This law exempted from this duty to convert those football clubs which had a positive balance in the preceding 4-5 years. The only clubs who at that moment fulfilled these conditions were Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and FC Barcelona, and were consequently permitted to remain associations. Sports associations are non-profit entities and, as such, qualified for a partial corporate tax exemption under the Spanish Corporate tax Law. Instead of paying tax for their commercial income at the general rate of 30%, sport clubs were only required to pay tax at a rate of 25%. Moreover, Spain did not include a time period for a possible re-assessment of the financial position of the sport limited companies. Thus, no professional sporting entity has had its legal qualification modified since the original assessment of 1990, irrespective of how the financial health of the entity evolved.[3]

Intervention by the European Ombudsman

The complaint was given a “high priority status” by the European Commission[4] and the allegations of an unfair Spanish tax system were widely covered in the press (see for example here and here). Nevertheless, it took the Commission more than four years to launch a formal investigation and nearly seven to reach a final decision. In fact, there are reasons to believe that the Commission’s delay in investigating the matter was only halted after an intervention by the European Ombudsman. As stated above, the complaint was submitted in November 2011. More than 25 months later, and not having been informed about the progress of the case, the complainant turned to the Ombudsman. According to the complainant, the Commission had failed to decide, in a timely way, whether or not to open the formal investigation procedure. The Ombudsman agreed with the complainant and found that the Commission had not justified its failure to decide on the matter. Furthermore, the public suspicion that the Commission’s inaction might be linked to the fact that the then Commissioner for Competition, Joaquín Almunia, was a socio (member) of one of the football clubs (Athletic Club Bilbao) involved, were highlighted by the Ombudsman in its Recommendation.[5] Even though the Commission has denied that the delay in launching the formal investigation was linked to Almunia’s personal footballing preferences, on 18 December 2013 (a mere two days after receiving the Ombudsman’s recommendation) the Commission decided to open an in-depth investigation into the tax privileges granted to the four Spanish football clubs.[6] 

The Decision

As is the case with most, if not all, State aid and tax cases, the key question is whether the tax measure (or treatment in this case) leads to a selective economic advantage for one or more undertakings, in this case the four professional football clubs.[7] In order to uncover a selective advantage in the form of tax income, the case-law subscribes that one begins by identifying and examining the common regime/system applicable in the Member State concerned. Secondly, an assessment is made of whether the treatment derogates from that common system. This assessment includes deciphering the objective assigned to the tax system, as well as determining whether the economic operators in question (i.e. the four football clubs) are in a comparable factual and legal situation to the other economic operators falling under the common system.[8] If the four clubs are in a comparable factual and legal situation, but their tax treatment derogates from the common system, this treatment will be considered selectively advantageous. Third and lastly, it is necessary to appraise whether the tax treatment is justified by the logic and nature of the tax system.[9] As regards this justification appraisal, there are two important aspects to note: First of all, there is a shift in the burden of proof, since it is for the Member State which has introduced such a differentiation in charges in favour of certain undertakings active in professional football to show that it is actually justified by the nature and general scheme of the system in question.[10] Secondly, this justification appraisal has to be separated from the general justification appraisal of Article 107(3), the latter of which will only take place after State aid in the sense of Article 107(1) is fully established.


The common system applicable and the objective assigned to the system

In both the Decision to open a formal investigation and the final Decision, the Commission considered that the common system applicable is that of the corporate tax law. This has been the common system since the professional sporting entities had to convert to limited companies in 1990. The Commission also held that the objective assigned to the system is generating State revenues on the basis of company profits.[11]


Are the four clubs in a comparable factual and legal situation?

The Commission believes that Real Madrid, Athletic Club Bilbao, Osasuna and FC Barcelona are in a comparable factual and legal situation as other professional sport companies in light of the abovementioned objective of the tax system, and cannot see how they should be treated differently. Nonetheless, Spain and the clubs argued that the clubs were not in the same factual and legal situation, because the clubs’ aim was not to make profits. Instead, all profits made have to be reinvested in the club itself. They also claimed that the CJEU’s case law allows for exceptions “in light of the peculiarities of cooperative societies which have to conform to particular operating principles”. Indeed, “those undertakings cannot be regarded as being in a comparable factual and legal situation to that of commercial companies, provided that they act in the economic interest of their members, the members being actively involved in the running of the business and entitled to equitable distribution of the results of economic performance”.[12] The fact that clubs cannot distribute profits to shareholders is a relevant peculiarity in the eyes of Spain.

The Commission rebutted Spain’s claim that sport associations and sport limited companies are not in the same factual and legal situation.   It firstly criticised Spain’s obligatory conversion of all-but-four sport associations into sport limited companies in 1990 by highlighting that “differences in the economic performance cannot justify different treatment as regards the obligatory form of organisation or the lack of choice in that respect. Losses are not intrinsic to a certain form of organisation. The business performance is therefore not an objective criterion justifying different taxation bases or imposing certain forms of incorporation for an indefinite period”.[13] Moreover, not being able to distribute profits to shareholders “cannot support a lower taxation of certain football clubs when compared to other professional sporting entities. (…) Those four clubs, although they are non-profit entities, actively seek to make profit themselves”, in a comparable way to other professional sporting entities.[14] Indeed, “the fact that clubs are obliged to reinvest the income they realise (…) does not weaken their competitive position, nor justifies a different, more favourable, tax treatment with respect to other entities active in professional sport. It rather drives them to improve their facilities”.[15]


Justification by the nature and logic of the tax system

As stated above, it is up to the Member State concerned to argue why the different tax treatment is justified under the general tax system. The Decision shows that Spain, the four clubs and La Liga (who was given interested party status by the Commission) presented a variety of arguments that in their eyes justified the different treatment. Three of these arguments were the followings:

1. Associations have stricter internal control mechanisms than sporting limited companies;

2. Associations have fewer possibilities of access to the capital market than sporting limited companies;

3. Associations are placed at a disadvantageous position under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules compared to sporting limited companies.

As regards the first justification brought forward, it underlines the liability regime imposed on the management body of a sport association. For example, a club’s management board “must provide a bank guarantee covering 15% of the club’s budgeted spending in order to guarantee any losses generated during its term. In addition, management board members will be strictly liable, in an unlimited manner, with their present and future personal assets, for any losses generated that exceed this guaranteed amount.”[16] Nonetheless, the Commission held that this justification is at odds with the rationale for the conversion of the other sport clubs to sport limited companies in 1990, which was the fact that many clubs had been managed badly. “If there was a need for certain clubs to be subject to stricter controls, the obligatory transformation into a limited company would not be necessary to pursue the purpose of that law.[17]

Further, Spain’s claim that clubs have fewer possibilities of access to the capital market cannot be seen as a justification for deviating from the common tax system. Simply put, “if the disadvantages of the clubs in this respect are as manifest as [Spain and the clubs] assert, they always have the possibility to change their corporate form”.[18]

Last, the Commission considers the Financial Fair Play rules of the UEFA to be “internal rules set by a football organisation which aim to ensure a reasonable financial management of sport entities and to avoid continuous loss making. They cannot justify a different taxation of profits by the State”.[19] With this last consideration, the Commission displays a rather benevolent attitude towards UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules. Indeed, refusing to attack these rules in any way is very much in line with its previous public statements on FFP, such as the Commission’s and UEFA’s Joint Statement on FFP of March 2012 and the Cooperation Agreement between the Commission and UEFA of October 2014.


Compatibility assessment under Article 107(3)

As can be read from paragraph 85 of the Decision, neither Spain nor the beneficiaries have claimed that any of the exceptions provided for in Article 107(2) and 107(3) TFEU apply in the present case. Generally speaking, successful justifications under Articles 107(2) and (3) are uncommon in State aid and taxation cases. Two possible reasons for this can be deciphered: On the one hand, Member State and interested parties seek justifications by the nature and logic of the tax system, i.e. they argue that the justification rules out a selective advantage for one more undertakings, thereby ruling out State aid under Article 107(1). On the other hand, State aid through tax advantages are in most cases considered as operating aid. Operating aid can normally not be considered compatible with the internal market under Article 107(3) TFEU in that it does not facilitate the development of certain activities or of certain economic areas, nor are the tax incentives in question limited in time, digressive or proportionate to what is necessary to remedy to a specific economic handicap of the areas concerned.[20] In the preferential corporate tax treatment of four Spanish football clubs case, the Commission noted that a lower tax burden than one that should normally be borne by the clubs in the course of their business operations, should be considered as operating aid.[21] Hence, this type of aid cannot be considered compatible aid under any of the exceptions of Article 107(3).

Yet, the tax benefit scheme in the Hungarian sport sector decision of 2011 provides an example of a tax benefit scheme for the sport sector that is declared compatible State aid under Article 107(3)c) TFEU. In this case, the Commission held that the scheme was introduced in a sufficiently transparent and proportionate manner, i.e. that the measure was well-designed to fulfil the objective of developing the country’s sport sector.[22] Moreover, the Commission acknowledged the special characteristics of sport and held that the objective of the scheme is in line with the overall objectives of sport as stipulated in Article 165 TFEU, namely that the EU “shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues”, because the sport sector “has enormous potential for bringing the citizens of Europe together, reaching out to all, regardless of age or social origin”.[23]

As regards the preferential corporate tax treatment of four Spanish football clubs case, no reference was made by Spain or the interested parties to Article 165, or how the preferential tax treatment could contribute to the promotion of sporting issues or values. Perhaps Spain and the four clubs were aware that such a justification would not fly, since the preferential tax treatment is only beneficial to four football clubs and not to the sports sector in general.


Recovery of the aid

Given that the Commission considered the preferential tax treatment to be unjustifiable State aid, a recovery decision was adopted. According to the Commission, the amount of the aid to be recovered from the four football clubs consists of the difference between the amount of corporate tax which the clubs actually paid and the amount of corporate tax which would have been due under the general corporate regime starting from the year 2000.[24] The Commission further recalls that the exact amount of the aid to be recovered will be assessed on a case by case basis during the recovery proceeding which will be carried out by the Spanish authorities in close cooperation with the Commission.[25]

In this regard, it is important to mention that Spain amended the corporate tax rules in November 2014 and new rules entered into force on 1 January 2015.[26] Under the amended law, the corporate income tax rate of 30% for all limited companies will be reduced to 28% for 2015 and to 25% from 2016 onwards. This includes limited sport companies as well, which will, from 2016, be submitted to that 25% corporate tax rate.[27] In other words, since there is no longer a different tax treatment for associations compared to sport limited companies as of 2016, Spain has seized to grant (unlawful) State aid to the four professional football clubs. The recovery will thus only involve the advantages obtained until the end of 2015. 


Conclusion

Few will disagree with the Commission in that the Spanish corporate tax system allowed for an economic selective advantage to be granted to Real Madrid, Athletic Club Bilbao, Osasuna and FC Barcelona over more than 25 years, and without the presence of an acceptable justification for such a favourable treatment. Having said this, this particular “saga” has not quite ended after it became clear that Athletic Club de Bilbao (at least) appealed the Commission’s Decision in front of the General Court of the EU.

Notwithstanding the upcoming Court case, the practical impact of this Decision will probably be very limited. Firstly, the actual aid that needs to be recovered by Spain will be relatively low in financial terms. As can be read in the Commission’s press release of 4 July 2016, it is estimated that the amounts that need to be recovered are around €0-5 million per club.[28] The Spanish government is yet to announce how much it will recover, but Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in particular will have no difficulties returning the aid, irrespective of what the amount exactly is. Secondly, by lowering the corporate tax rate for all limited companies in 2015 and 2016, Spain cannot be considered anymore as granting State aid to its professional football associations based on the corporate tax system. This also means that there is no more reason to believe that the European Commission could “force” the four clubs to change their legal status from club to sport limited company through the enforcement of EU State aid rules, as some have insinuated. The fans of these clubs were dreading this outcome because becoming a sport limited company would open the doors to external investors, who would not necessarily in their eyes have the best interest of the clubs in mind.



[1] The Commission has previously published: Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.41613 on the measure implemented by the Netherlands with regard to the professional football club PSV in Eindhoven; Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.40168 on the State aid implemented by the Netherlands

in favour of the professional football club Willem II in Tilburg; Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.41612 on the State aid implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club MVV in Maastricht; Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.41614 on the measures implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club FC Den Bosch in 's-Hertogenbosch; Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.41617 on the State aid implemented by the Netherlands in favour of the professional football club NEC in Nijmegen; and Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.33754 on the State aid implemented by Spain for Real Madrid CF. The last remaining decision to be published is Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.36387 Aid to Valencia football clubs.

[2] Draft recommendation of 16 December 2013 of the European Ombudsman in the inquiry into complaint 2521/2011/JF against the European Commission, points 1-3.

[3] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769 on the State Aid implemented by Spain for certain football clubs, paras. 5-9.

[4] Draft recommendation of the European Ombudsman in the inquiry into complaint 2521/2011/JF against the European Commission, point 13.

[5] “Rather than allaying suspicions regarding a conflict of interests, and regarding inappropriate influences on the decision making process, the Commission's failures here have actually added to those suspicions”.

[6] Interestingly enough, on that same day, the Commission decided to open an in-depth investigation into State guarantees in favour of three Spanish football clubs in Valencia and land transfers by the Council of Madrid to Real Madrid: Commission decision of 18 December 2013, SA.36387, Spain—Alleged aid in favour of three Valencia football clubs; Commission decision of 18 December 2013, SA.33754, Spain—Real Madrid CF.

[7] C Quigley, “European State Aid Law and Policy”, Hart Publishing (2015), pages 109-127.

[8] See for example Joined Cases C-78/08 to C-80/08 Paint Graphos and others ECLI:EU:C:2011:550, para. 49.

[9] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, para. 51.

[10] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, para. 59. See also Case T-211/05 Italian Republic v Commission ECLI:EU:T:2009:304, para. 125.

[11] Commission decision of 18 December 2013, SA.29769, Spain—State aid to certain Spanish professional football clubs, para. 16; and Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, para. 53.

[12] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, para. 62; and joined Cases C-78/08 to C-80/08 Paint Graphos and others ECLI:EU:C:2011:550, para. 61.

[13] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, para. 56.

[14] Ibid, para. 65

[15] Ibid, para. 67.

[16] Ibid, para. 24.

[17] Ibid, para. 61.

[18] Ibid, para. 68.

[19] Ibid, para. 71.

[20] See for example Commission Decision of 10 October 2015, SA.38374 on State aid implemented by the Netherlands to Starbucks, para. 433.

[21] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, para. 86.

[22] Commission Decision of 9 November 2011, SA.31722 – Hungary - Supporting the Hungarian sport sector via tax benefit scheme., paras 95-98.

[23] Ibid, paras 86-87. For more information on the tax benefit scheme in the Hungarian sport sector decision, see O. van Maren, “The EU State aid and Sport Saga: Hungary’s tax benefit scheme revisited? (Part 1)”, Asser International Sports Law Blog, 18 May 2016.

[24] According to Article 17(1) of the State Aid Procedural Regulation 2015/1589, the powers of the Commission to recover aid are subject to a limitation period of ten years. Since the Commission asked Spain for information for the first time in 2010, the recovery of the tax difference starts with the taxation year 2000.

[25] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, paras. 93-97.

[26] Ley 27/2014 de 27 noviembre 2014, del Impuesto sobre Sociedades, BOE of 28 November 2014. Article 29(1) stipulates that “El tipo general de gravamen para los contribuyentes de este Impuesto será el 25 por ciento”.

[27] Commission Decision of 4 July 2016, SA.29769, para. 34.

[28] European Commission - Press release IP/16/2401 of 4 July 2016, State aid: Commission decides Spanish professional football clubs have to pay back incompatible aid.

Comments (2) -

  • Boris

    11/7/2016 7:50:54 PM |

    Very interesting analysis.

    "there are reasons to believe that the Commission’s delay in investigating the matter was only halted after an intervention by the European Ombudsman"

    This is really scary stuff, very close to corruption, why was the EC protecting a few companies? why does the EC take such huge reputational risks? It is all very strange. Looking at this, it is not really surprising that the US believes that the EU's competition policy is biased.

    One question, EC has stated that Spain has already amended the tax rules and you say that the discriminatory treatment has ended in 2015 but under the current Spanish corporation tax law (articles 109-111) the sport clubs are still exceptionally allowed (as partially exempted entities) to treat many items of revenue as fully exempt for corporation tax purposes. The tax rate may now be the same but the tax base selective advantage still exists. Has the EC asked Spain to eliminate this preferential treatment or are lower corporation tax bases a clever loophole that could be used by the likes of Luxembourg and Ireland to favour specific companies? At the end of the day, these countries could achieve the same result whether it is by reducing the tax base or by granting a lower tax rate.

    The EC has ruled Real Madrid and Barca will have to calculate their taxes since 2000 as if they had been sport limited companies but sport limited companies can only participate in one sport discipline (i.e. they cannot participate in football and basketball simultaneously). Will an exception be made for Real and Barca or will they have to calculate their football and basketball taxes separately? How could the EC justify the exception?

    The Telegraph referred to a €7m annual tax saving due to the ability to set-off basketball losses against football profits (www.telegraph.co.uk/.../) and over 16 years this could add up to a huge amount.

    Have you noticed that there is a provision in the new corporation tax law (seventh additional disposition) that states that the conversion of the sport clubs into PLCs shall be free of corporation tax (for the undertakings that would receive the assets) and free of personal tax (for the non-profit members that would make a handsome profit by receiving the shares of the clubs). This is a very weird transaction for any non-profit and the model could be replicated elsewhere to circumvent state aid rules. Why should the conversion not be taxed according to the general tax rules for both corporations and individuals? Has the EC asked Spain to end this discriminatory treatment?

    Many thanks

    • Oskar van Maren

      11/8/2016 12:33:25 PM |

      Dear Boris,

      Thank you very much for your comment.

      You pose a series of questions that will require me to look into the matter thoroughly.

      I shall get back to you as soon as possible and look forward to the discussion with you.

      Best,

      Oskar

Comments are closed