Asser International Sports Law Blog

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The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Sport and EU Competition Law: New developments and unfinished business. By Ben Van Rompuy

Editor's note: Ben Van Rompuy, Head of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre, was recently interviewed by LexisNexis UK for their in-house adviser service. With kind permission from LexisNexis we reproduce the interview on our blog in its entirety. 

How does competition law affect the sports sector?  

The application of EU competition law to the sports sector is a fairly recent and still unfolding development. It was only in the mid-1990s, due to the growing commercialization of professional sport, that there emerged a need to address competition issues in relation to, for instance, ticketing arrangements or the sale of media rights.  

Apart from the evident link between competition law and commercial activities related to sport, competition law also has a vital role to play in relation to the regulatory aspects of sport. Most markets for the organization of sports events are a textbook example of monopolistic markets. As a result, sports associations exercise pure monopsony power: athletes have no choice but to accept unilaterally imposed restrictions. Albeit limited to case-by-case inquiry, competition law is thus a meaningful instrument to curb the otherwise unfettered private regulatory power of sports associations. Unfortunately, it remains underutilized. Only a handful of international sports federations have truly experienced the “Bosman effect” and faced scrutiny of their regulatory activity under the EU antitrust rules.   

Have there been any important sports-related antitrust cases in recent years? 

Not at the EU level. Regarding commercial activities, the latest case dates from 2006, namely the Commission’s commitment decision on the joint selling of the Premier League media rights. And after some politically difficult uphill battles around the 2000s against FIFA and the International Automobile Federation the European Commission has been extremely reluctant to intervene in regulatory matters. Lasts year’s rejection of the complaint against UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules was the latest “achievement”. In the last few months, however, the Commission has received a number of new interesting complaints. 

Since the decentralization of EU antitrust enforcement in 2004, National Competition Authorities have addressed more than 40 decisions concerning the joint selling of sports media rights. For the most part, the remedy package designed by the Commission has been replicated, but there are some differences: the more widespread use of a “no single buyer” obligation and the acceptance of exclusive rights contracts exceeding three years. 

Regarding regulatory aspects, a string of recent national cases have challenged rules that disproportionally restrict athlete participation in events not organized and promoted by the official federation, notably in smaller sports such as motor sport, horseracing and bodybuilding (Ireland, Italy, Sweden). What characterizes these cases is that the remedial action was purely national in scope. In Germany, by contrast, two exploitative abuse cases are making their way up through the courts that have the potential of becoming important EU-wide precedents. Both are concerned with unfair trading conditions – a rarity these days: mandatory arbitration clauses (International Skating Union) and rules concerning the mandatory release of players to the national team without compensation (International Handball Federation).  

What other aspects of competition law are important in the sporting context? 

The State aid rules are the last unexplored frontier. For decades, national and regional public authorities have directly or indirectly financed sports organisations, sports infrastructure or individual clubs, but these measures have blissfully remained under the radar of EU State aid control. Yet in the last four years, the number of complaints against alleged unlawful State aid to professional sport, mostly football clubs, has been rising. Interestingly, citizens filed most of these complaints. 

With the enactment of the new Block Exemption Regulation and several formal decisions on for instance Belgian, French, German, and Swedish State aid for the construction and renovation of stadiums, the Commission has developed a coherent set of principles for infrastructure funding. The most complex cases are still pending. They concern land swaps/sale of State property (Spain, the Netherlands), tax advantages (Spain), and bank loans, guarantees or debt waivers (Spain, the Netherlands). The beneficiaries include top clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona so the decisions are bound to attract huge media interest. 

Are there likely to be any developments in the future? 

Competition problems related to the sale of sports media rights will continue to arise at the national level. Public authorities will inevitably face stricter State aid control when supporting professional sports. State aid control could also be an effective instrument to put an end to the practice that selective tax exemptions for UEFA, FIFA, the IOC, etc. are a condition for applications to host international sporting events. 

The European Commission is currently examining a new complaint against FIFA’s ban on third-party ownership of players’ economic rights (TPO) in football and one concerning FIFA’s new regulations for player’s agents. These could result in high-profile cases. 

I do hope that the Commission will reclaim its responsibility for ensuring that rules and practices of international sports associations comply with EU competition law, particularly when athletes lodge complaints. National competition authorities lack the political power to confront international federations. And for most athletes, the possibility of private enforcement is not a real alternative given clauses barring access to national courts, the costs and the length of proceedings. For example, I am currently advising two Dutch Olympic speed skaters whose faith lies entirely in the hands of the Commission. They filed a complaint against the International Skating Union, who threatens them with a lifelong ban if they would participate in lucrative events outside the official calendar. The European Parliament has urged the Commission to open a formal investigation so we are optimistic that the Commission will take its responsibility and handle this case.  

What should lawyers in this field advise their clients? 

It is all about justifications. What you often see is that, in an attempt to shield certain practices from competition law scrutiny, much effort is put into arguments that, for example, sports associations or clubs are not “undertakings”. And only when these fail, recourse is made to underdeveloped arguments about the specificity of sport. Yet the true test lies here: are the restrictive effects reasonably necessary for the organization and proper conduct of sport? This obviously necessitates a good understanding of the sports sector and its internal dynamics. Even more so because competition authorities and courts typically give considerable deference to the legitimate role and expertise of sports associations in regulating their competitions.  

Given that most sports-related antitrust cases are now being addressed at the national level, there is a strong need to learn and draw from this decisional practice and case law. I am currently developing a database that reports and comments on all these cases, which should be a useful resource for those advising clients in the sports world.

Comments (1) -

  • Loek Jorritsma

    5/22/2015 1:25:32 PM |

    I have some questions. Where can I find why and what is a sportorganisation? Is, for example, indeed the International Automobile Federation a sportorganisation? Who decides? On what grounds? And is bodybuilding a sport? Why and who decides? On what arguments? In my opinion, since sportorganisations are not by name and activity defined by national and international law, there is no groud to exempt them form competition law. And I dislike it. Because I think sportorganisation have to be considerd as the organisations to deliver services of general interest. There is still a gap between the status of organisations and their activities.

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