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

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – December 2017. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines 

The International Skating Union's eligibility rules declared incompatible with EU competition law

On 8 December 2017, the European Commission announced that it had rendered a decision in the case against the International Skating Union (ISU). The Commission upheld the complaint lodged in October 2015 by two Dutch professional speed skaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt, represented in this case by Ben Van Rompuy and Antoine Duval (you can read their joint statement here), and ruled that the ISU's eligibility rules preventing athletes from participating in speed skating competitions not approved by the ISU under the threat of severe penalties are in violation of EU competition law. In particular, the Commission held that these rules restrict the commercial freedom of (i) athletes who may be deprived of additional source of income as they are not allowed to participate in speed skating competitions other than those authorised by the ISU; and (ii) independent organisers who are unable to attract top athletes. And while the Commission recognised that sporting rules with restrictive effects might be compatible with EU law if they pursue a legitimate objective such as the protection of athletes' health and safety or the protection of the integrity and proper conduct of sport, it found that the ISU's eligibility rules pursue only its own commercial interests to the detriment of athletes and independent organisers of speed skating competitions. The ISU eventually escaped financial sanctions, but it must modify or abolish its eligibility rules within 90 days; otherwise it would be liable for non-compliance payments of up to 5% of its average daily turnover. For more information on this topic, we invite you to read our recent blog written by Professor Stefano Bastianon.

 

The International Olympic Committee bans Russia from the upcoming Winter Olympic Games

The world has been waiting impatiently for the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision on the participation of Russian athletes in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. This was finally communicated on 5 December 2017. Having deliberated on the findings of the Schmid Commission, the IOC Executive Board decided to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee with immediate effect, meaning that only those Russian athletes who demonstrate that they had not benefited from the state-sponsored doping programme will be able to participate in the Games. Such clean athletes will be allowed to compete under the Olympic Flag, bearing the name 'Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)' on their uniforms. Further to this, the IOC Executive Board sanctioned several officials implicated in the manipulation of the anti-doping system in Russia, including Mr Vitaly Mutko, currently the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and formerly the Minister of Sport. Mounting public pressure subsequently forced Mr Mutko to step down as head of the Local Organising Committee for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Meanwhile, 21 individual Russian athletes were sanctioned (see here, here, here, and here) in December (in addition to 22 athletes in November) by the IOC Oswald Commission that is tasked with investigating the alleged doping violations by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The Oswald Commission also published two full decisions in the cases against Evgeny Belov and Aleksandr Tretiakov who were both banned from all future editions of the Games. It is now clear that the Court of Arbitration for Sport will have quite some work in the coming weeks as the banned athletes are turning to this Swiss-based arbitral tribunal to have their sanctions reviewed (see here and here).

 

Universal Declaration of Player Rights

14 December 2017 was a great day for athletes all over the globe. On this day, representatives of the world's leading player associations met in Washington D.C. to unveil the Universal Declaration of Player Rights, a landmark document developed under the aegis of the World Players Association that strives to protect athletes from ongoing and systemic human rights violations in global sport. The World Players Association's Executive Director Brendan Schwab emphasised that the current system of sports governance ''lacks legitimacy and fails to protect the very people who sit at the heart of sport'' and stated that ''athlete rights can no longer be ignored''. Among other rights, the Declaration recognises the right of athletes to equality of opportunity, fair and just working conditions, privacy and the protection of personal data, due process, or effective remedy.

 

Chris Froome failed a doping test during the last year's Vuelta a España

The world of cycling suffered yet another blow when it transpired that one of its superstars Chris Froome had failed a doping test during the last year's Vuelta a España, a race he had eventually emerged victorious from for the first time in his career. His urine sample collected on 7 September 2017 contained twice the amount of salbutamol, a medication used to treat asthma, than permissible under the World Anti-Doping Agency's 2017 Prohibited List. Kenyan-born Froome has now hired a team of medical and legal experts to put forward a convincing explanation for the abnormal levels of salbutamol in his urine and thus to avoid sanctions being imposed on him. More...

The ISU Commission's Decision and the Slippery Side of Eligibility Rules - By Stefano Bastianon (University of Bergamo)

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

1. From the very beginning, the outcome of the ISU case was highly predictable, at least for those who are familiar with the basics of antitrust law. Nevertheless, more than twenty years after the Bosman judgment, the sports sector has shown the same shortsightedness and inability to see the forest for the trees. Even this attitude was highly predictable, at least for those who know the basics of sports governance. The final result is a clear-cut decision capable of influencing the entire sports movement. More...



Human Rights as Selection Criteria in Bidding Regulations for Mega-Sporting Events – Part II: FIFA and Comparative Overview – By Tomáš Grell

The first part of this two-part blog examined the new bidding regulations adopted by the IOC and UEFA, and concluded that it is the latter who gives more weight to human rights in its host selection process. This second part completes the picture by looking at FIFA's bidding regulations for the 2026 World Cup. It goes on to discuss whether human rights now constitute a material factor in evaluating bids to host the mega-sporting events organised by these three sports governing bodies. More...

Human Rights as Selection Criteria in Bidding Regulations for Mega-Sporting Events – Part I: IOC and UEFA – By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell holds an LL.M. in Public International Law from Leiden University. He contributes to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a research intern.


It has been more than seven years since the FIFA Executive Committee awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. And yet only in November 2017 did the Qatari government finally agree to dismantle the controversial kafala system, described by many as modern-day slavery. Meanwhile, hundreds of World Cup-related migrant workers have reportedly been exposed to a wide range of abusive practices such as false promises about the pay, passport confiscation, or appalling working and living conditions.[1] On top of that, some workers have paid the highest price – their life. To a certain extent, all this could have been avoided if human rights had been taken into account when evaluating the Qatari bid to host the tournament. In such a case, Qatar would not have won the bidding contest without providing a convincing explanation of how it intends to ensure that the country's poor human rights record will not affect individuals, including migrant workers, contributing to the delivery of the World Cup. An explicit commitment to abolish the kafala system could have formed an integral part of the bid.

Urged by Professor John Ruggie and his authoritative recommendations,[2] in October 2017 FIFA decided to include human rights within the criteria for evaluating bids to host the 2026 World Cup, following similar steps taken earlier this year by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and UEFA in the context of the Olympic Winter Games 2026 and the Euro 2024 respectively. This two-part blog critically examines the role human rights play in the new bidding regulations adopted by the IOC, UEFA, and FIFA. The first part sheds light on the IOC and UEFA. The second part then takes a closer look at FIFA and aims to use a comparative analysis to determine whether the new bidding regulations are robust enough to ensure that selected candidates abide by international human rights standards.More...


International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – November 2017. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

FIFA and FIFPro sign landmark agreement

A six-year cooperation agreement concluded between FIFA and FIFPro on 6 November 2017 puts an end to protracted negotiations which began after the latter had filed in September 2015 a complaint with the European Commission, challenging the validity of the FIFA transfer system under EU competition law. This agreement, together with an accord reached between FIFA, FIFPro, the European Club Association, and the World Leagues Forum under the umbrella of the FIFA Football Stakeholders Committee, should help streamline dispute resolution between players and clubs, avoid abusive practices in the world of football, or contribute to the growth of professional women's football. In addition, the FIFA Football Stakeholders Committee is now expected to establish a task force to study and conduct a broader review of the transfer system. As part of the deal, FIFPro agreed to withdraw its EU competition law complaint.

FIFA strengthens its human rights commitment amid reports of journalists getting arrested in Russia

It is fair to say that human rights have been at the forefront of FIFA's agenda in 2017. Following the establishment of the Human Rights Advisory Board in March and the adoption of the Human Rights Policy in June this year, in November FIFA published the bidding regulations for the 2026 World Cup. Under these new regulations, member associations bidding to host the final tournament shall, inter alia, commit themselves to respecting all internationally recognised human rights in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or present a human rights strategy on how they intend to honour this commitment. Importantly, the human rights strategy must include a comprehensive report that is to be complemented and informed by a study elaborated by an independent expert organisation. Moreover, on 9 November 2017, the Human Rights Advisory Board published its first report in which it outlined several recommendations for FIFA on how to further strengthen its efforts to ensure respect for human rights.

While all these attempts to enhance human rights protection are no doubt praiseworthy, they have not yet produced the desired effect as reports of gross human rights abuses linked to FIFA's activities continue to emerge. Most recently, Human Rights Watch documented how Russian police arrested a newspaper editor and a human rights defender whose work focused on exposing World Cup-related corruption and exploitation of migrant construction workers. On a more positive note, a bit of hope comes with the announcement by a diverse coalition, including FIFA, UEFA, and the International Olympic Committee, of its intention to launch a new independent Centre for Sport and Human Rights in 2018.

More than 20 Russian athletes sanctioned by the Oswald Commission for anti-doping rule violations at the Sochi Games   

November has been a busy month for the International Olympic Committee, especially for its Oswald Commission. Established in July 2016 after the first part of the McLaren Independent Investigation Report had been published, the Oswald Commission is tasked with investigating the alleged doping violations by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Its first sanctions were handed down last month. As of 30 November 2017, the Commission chaired by the IOC Member Denis Oswald sanctioned 22 athletes (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) who competed at the Sochi Olympics in the following sports: biathlon, bobsleigh, cross country skiing, skeleton, and speed skating. The Commission published its first full decision on 27 November 2017 in the case against the cross country skier Alexander Legkov, a gold and silver medallist from the Sochi Olympics, who was ultimately banned for life from attending another Olympics.More...

Statement on the European Commission's ISU Decision by Ben Van Rompuy and Antoine Duval

Editor's note: We (Ben Van Rompuy and Antoine Duval) are at the origin of today's decision by the European Commission finding that the International Skating Union's eligibility rules are contrary to EU competition law. In 2014, we were both struck by the news that ISU threatened lifetime ban against speed skaters wishing to participate in the then projected Icederby competitions and convinced that it was running against the most fundamental principles of EU competition law. We got in touch with Mark and Niels and lodged on their behalf a complaint with the European Commission. Three years after we are pleased to see that the European Commission, and Commissioner Vestager in particular, fully embraced our arguments and we believe this decision will shift the tectonic structure of sports governance in favour of athletes for years to come.


Here is our official statement:

Today is a great day for Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt, but more importantly for all European athletes. The European Commission did not only consider the International Skating Union's eligibility rules contrary to European law, it sent out a strong message to all international sports federations that the interests of those who are at the centre of sports, the athletes, should not be disregarded. This case was always about giving those that dedicate their lives to excelling in a sport a chance to compete and to earn a decent living. The majority of athletes are no superstars and struggle to make ends meet and it is for them that this decision can be a game-changer.

However, we want to stress that this case was never about threatening the International Skating Union’s role in regulating its sport. And we very much welcome the exceptional decision taken by the European Commission to refrain from imposing a fine which could have threatened the financial stability of the International Skating Union. The International Skating Union, and other sports federations, are reminded however that they cannot abuse their legitimate regulatory power to protect their economic interests to the detriment of the athletes.

We urge the International Skating Union to enter into negotiations with representatives of the skaters to devise eligibility rules which are respectful of the interests of both the athletes and their sport.

Since the summer of 2014, it has been our honour to stand alongside Mark and Niels in a 'David versus Goliath' like challenge to what we always perceived as an extreme injustice. In this fight, we were also decisively supported by the team of EU Athletes and its Chance to Compete campaign.

Finally, we wish to extend a special thank you to Commissioner Vestager. This case is a small one for the European Commission, but Commissioner Vestager understood from the beginning that small cases do matter to European citizens and that European competition law is there to provide a level playing for all, and we are extremely grateful for her vision.


Dr. Ben Van Rompuy (Leiden University) and Dr. Antoine Duval (T.M.C. Asser Instituut)

A Good Governance Approach to Stadium Subsidies in North America - By Ryan Gauthier

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.


Publicly Financing a Stadium – Back in the Saddle(dome)

Calgary, Canada, held their municipal elections on October 16, 2017, re-electing Naheed Nenshi for a third term as mayor. What makes this local election an interesting issue for sports, and sports law, is the domination of the early days of the campaign by one issue – public funding for a new arena for the Calgary Flames. The Flames are Calgary’s National Hockey League (NHL) team, and they play in the Scotiabank Saddledome. More...




Illegally obtained evidence in match-fixing cases: The Turkish perspective - By Oytun Azkanar

Editor’s Note: Oytun Azkanar holds an LLB degree from Anadolu University in Turkey and an LLM degree from the University of Melbourne. He is currently studying Sports Management at the Anadolu University.

 

Introduction

On 19 October 2017, the Turkish Professional Football Disciplinary Committee (Disciplinary Committee) rendered an extraordinary decision regarding the fixing of the game between Manisaspor and Şanlıurfaspor played on 14 May 2017. The case concerned an alleged match-fixing agreement between Elyasa Süme (former Gaziantepspor player), İsmail Haktan Odabaşı and Gökhan Sazdağı (Manisaspor players). The Disciplinary Committee acknowledged that the evidence relevant for proving the match-fixing allegations was obtained illegally and therefore inadmissible, and the remaining evidence was not sufficient to establish that the game was fixed. Before discussing the allegations, it is important to note that the decision is not only significant for Turkish football but is also crucial to the distinction between disciplinary and criminal proceedings in sports. More...

Report from the first ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference - 26-27 October at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Close to 100 participants from 37 different countries attended the first ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference that took place on 26-27 October 2017 in The Hague. The two-day programme featured panels on the FIFA transfer system, the labour rights and relations in sport, the protection of human rights in sport, EU law and sport, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and the world anti-doping system. On top of that, a number of keynote speakers presented their views on contemporary topics and challenges in international sports law. This report provides a brief summary of the conference for both those who could not come and those who participated and would like to relive their time spent at the T.M.C. Asser Institute.More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – October 2017. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Sport and EU Competition Law: uncharted territories - (II) Mandatory player release systems with no compensation for clubs. By Ben Van Rompuy

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

Sport and EU Competition Law: uncharted territories - (II) Mandatory player release systems with no compensation for clubs. By Ben Van Rompuy

The European Commission’s competition decisions in the area of sport, which set out broad principles regarding the interface between sports-related activities and EU competition law, are widely publicized. As a result of the decentralization of EU competition law enforcement, however, enforcement activity has largely shifted to the national level. Since 2004, national competition authorities (NCAs) and national courts are empowered to fully apply the EU competition rules on anti-competitive agreements (Article 101 TFEU) and abuse of a dominant position (Article 102 TFEU).

Even though NCAs and national courts have addressed a series of interesting competition cases (notably dealing with the regulatory aspects of sport) during the last ten years, the academic literature has largely overlooked these developments. This is unfortunate since all stakeholders (sports organisations, clubs, practitioners, etc.) increasingly need to learn from pressing issues arising in national cases and enforcement decisions. In a series of blog posts we will explore these unknown territories of the application of EU competition law to sport.

In this second installment of this blog series, we discuss a recent judgment of the regional court (Landgericht) of Dortmund finding that the International Handball Federation (IHF)’s mandatory release system of players for matches of national teams without compensation infringes EU and German competition law.[1] 


Background

In 2009, the Spanish Handball League (ASOBAL) and Group Club Handball (the predecessor of the Forum Club Handball (FCH); an association representing the interest of the top European handball clubs) launched a complaint with the European Commission alleging that the rules of the IHF and EHF on the mandatory release of players were in breach of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU.[2] The Commission opened a preliminary investigation. This prompted the EHF to seek an amicable solution with the complainants.

In May 2010, the EHF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with FCH, covering issues such as the terms of compensation for the release of players and the representation of clubs and other stakeholders in the bodies of the EHF:

  • The EHF agreed to pay compensation to the clubs for the release of their players to the national team. Starting from the 2010 European Championship, the EHF paid a fee of 270 EUR per player per match via the national federations to the clubs (amounting to a total compensation of 400.000 EUR, i.e. 10 percent of the profits of the 2010 European Championship).[3]

  • The EHF agreed on the principle that “each day a player spends with the national team/selection his salary should be insured by the National Federation, EHF or IHF in case of injury in favour of the clubs”.[4]

    The EHF took an important step towards more inclusive governance by creating the Professional Handball Board, a strategic platform for various stakeholders (leagues, clubs, national federations, and players). It plays an advisory role through the submission of reports and analyses to the EHF Executive Committee and contributes to the decision-making process through its chairperson (who is a full member of the Executive Committee).

Since many of the complainants’ demands were met, ASBOL and FCH withdrew their competition law complaint. Subsequently, the European Commission closed its preliminary investigation in June 2010.

The EU handball “case” is a good illustration of the remedial potential of EU competition law to strengthen good governance in sport. The mere threat of a formal investigation by the European Commission proved sufficient for the EHF to change its rules for the release of players and to establish a channel for clubs and other stakeholders to participate in its decision-making process.

In 2014, the EHF and FCH renewed the 2010 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) until June 2018. The modified MoU, which has been the subject of negotiations for more than one year, foresees increased fees for the release of players to the European Championships.

Strengthened by the satisfactory outcome reached with the EHF in 2010, the FCH made attempts to come to a similar arrangement with the IHF. Following negotiations during the course of 2010 and 2011, the IHF for the first time in history paid compensation for the release of players to the World Championship and signed insurance for player salaries for injured players. The IHF Council also proposed to integrate the clubs as stakeholders in its bylaws. The clubs, however, did not accept with the terms and conditions of the proposal and no agreement was reached. The clubs were also dissatisfied with the amount of the compensation paid by the IHF: qualification matches were not compensated and the fee only amounted in average to 10-20 percent of the monthly salary paid by the European top clubs. The prospects of reaching an agreement between the IHF and the CFH dimmed. In March 2012, the IHF made clear that it was no longer prepared to discuss a MoU with the FCH. This prompted 30 German clubs to sue the IHF and the German Handball Federation (DHB) before the regional court of Dortmund in April 2013. 


The 2014 Dortmund judgment

The IHF Player Eligibility Code provides that a club having a foreign player under contract is obliged to “release such player to his National Federation if he is called up to take part in activities of that federation's national team” (Article 7.1.2). The activities include the Olympic Games, World Championships, and continental championships as well as the qualification matches and tournaments for these events. According to Article 7.2 of the Code, a club releasing a national player “shall not have any claim to compensation”. Furthermore, the club must take out insurance coverage for the player in the event of personal injury and resulting consequences for the period for which the player has been called to his federation’s activities (Article 7.3.2). A club failing to release a player that is able to play will be penalized in accordance with the IHF Regulations Concerning Penalties and Fines and the disciplinary regulations of the Continental Confederation concerned (Article 7.4.4).

The German handball clubs, supported by the FCH, argued that the rules concerning the mandatory release of players to the national team and their application by the IHF and DHB constitute an abuse of a dominant position prohibited by Article 102 TFEU and the equivalent German competition law provision (§ 19 Gesetz gegen Wettbewerbsbeschränkungen, GWB).

The regional court of Dortmund first addressed a number of procedural issues. Considering that the DHB is bound by the rules of the IHF, the court decided to join the proceedings against the IHF and DHB. Moreover, the court did not defer to the jurisdictional exclusivity claimed by the defendants. It stressed that the internal disciplinary bodies or even the Court of Arbitration could not be considered independent and impartial for the purpose of reviewing the compatibility of the mandatory player release system with competition law.[5] According to the court, neither the IHF nor the DHB regulations could prevent the clubs from seeking direct recourse to an ordinary civil court. Lastly, the court found German law to be applicable. Even though Article 7 of the IHF Player Eligibility Code affects handball clubs worldwide, its obligations also substantially affect the German market in which the claimants operate.[6] The intimate connection between the claims against the IHF and the DHB further supported the conclusion that the regional court of Dortmund was the appropriate legal venue for hearing the case.

On substance, the court found that the IHF is a monopolist on the market for the organisation of international handball events, including the World Championships and the Olympic Games (i.e. events in which national teams compete), and on a number of other separate, but closely related, commercial markets (e.g. sponsorship). Also on the markets for the organisation of European and national handball competitions, the IHF holds a dominant position (solely and together with the EHF and the national federations).[7]

Turning to the contested rule of the IHF Player Eligibility Code (Article 7), the court stressed that the obligation for clubs to release players for matches of national teams without compensation is incompatible with the civil code rule of good faith in contractual performance.[8] In any normal business, it would be unthinkable that an undertaking would provide for free a resource, its employees, to a competitor seeking to make profits from that resource.[9] At the same time, the court found that this obligation constitutes an exploitative abuse of a dominant position prohibited by § 19 GWB and Article 102 TFEU. When recruiting top foreign-raised players, clubs must take into account the costs of paying their players while they are absent and, what is more, the costs incurred if those players would get injured during an international match. As such, uncompensated player release restricts the clubs’ contractual freedom and distorts competition between the clubs.

Although Article 102 TFEU does not contain an exemption clause similar to Article 101(3) TFEU, an undertaking may escape an abuse finding by demonstrating an objective justification or efficiency defense for its conduct. The court, however, brushed aside the arguments put forward by the IHF and DHB to this end. 

First, the defendants contended that without the player release system, clubs would not be willing to release their players to national teams. The release rules would also prevent clubs from trying to weaken foreign national teams in favor of their own national team.[10] The court stressed, however, that the mandatory release of players for national teams in itself is not being contested. It also pointed to the fact that the IHF, notwithstanding Article 7.2 of the Player Eligibility Code, decided to pay compensation for the release of players to the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. This indicates that in principle a compensation would not adversely affect the sporting or other interests of the IHF. In addition, the court made numerous references to the MoU reached between the EHF and the FCH as well as to the MoU between FIFA and the European Club Association (ECA) (i.e. the deal as a result of which the Oulmers litigation was terminated, see below). These examples indeed exemplify that an uncompensated player release system cannot be considered indispensable.

Second, the defendants argued that participation in international handball events increases the exposure and thus the value of the players, which indirectly benefits the clubs.[11] Also this argument failed to convince the court. If the IHF and DHB would be able to quantify this advantage, this could be taken into consideration when determining the compensation. Yet it could not objectively justify the denial of compensation for the release of players or for their potential injuries.

In light of these observations, the court declared the conditions for the release of players to foreign national teams, embedded in Article 7.2 and 7.3.2 of the IHF Player Eligibility Code, null and void. Interestingly, the court also suggested that the IHF would introduce a cap on the number of days an association would be entitled to call up players for the national team. 


A landmark judgment in the making?

Unsurprisingly, the IHF and the DHB lodged an appeal against the judgment before the higher regional court (Oberlandesgericht) of Düsseldorf. It is not unthinkable that eventually the case will trigger a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice and emerge as the successor of the abandoned Oulmers litigation against the FIFA player release system.

The regional court of Dortmund did not expressly rely on the Wouters proportionality test, transposed in Meca-Medina, to assess whether the IHF’s player release system constituted an abuse of a dominant position. The court’s analysis is, however, largely consistent with the analysis that the Court of Justice would follow. After having established that the contested rules emanate from an undertaking that has a dominant position, the court verified whether there are less restrictive means to achieve the objectives pursued by the IHF’s mandatory player release system. It did not call into question the necessity of a mandatory player release system for the organisation of international handball competitions, but the court did conclude that the current system – which leaves clubs uncompensated – could not be objectively justified.

For at least two reasons the Dortmund judgment, while not final yet, has potential to become an important precedent for many other sports.

First and foremost, it offers the first substantive assessment of the compatibility of player release rules with EU (and national) competition law. Particularly in the event of a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice, the case could serve as a much-needed wake up call to all international sports federations that currently operate a similar system. Arguably, federations could assert that the compensation should not cover all the costs incurred by the clubs. Indirect benefits to the clubs could be discounted. Yet it appears undeniable that the imposition of the burden on clubs to supply players without allowing them a fair share of the resulting benefits constitutes an abuse prohibited by Article 102 TFEU.

Second, even though sports federations usually have practical monopolies in a given sport, the remedial potential of Article 102 TFEU to tackle abusive conduct remains underexplored. This case, and even the earlier competition law complaint lodged against the EHF, reveals that it offers a powerful instrument to steer sports federations into the direction of better governance. Eventually the IHF will have to follow the path that others (e.g. EHF, FIFA) have traveled. After all, the determination of a fair compensation for player release necessitates a consensual strategy that balances the needs of stakeholders, in this case the clubs, with the needs of the federation.


We continue to follow this case closely, so stay tuned.



[1] Landgericht Dortmund, Urteil vom 14.05.2014, 8 O 46/13.

[2] Cases COMP/39659 ASOBAL v handball federations and COMP/39669 Group Club Handball v handball federations.

[3] Forum Club Handball, EHF pays compensation to the clubs, 28 February 2010.

[4] Forum Club Handball, Insurance of player salaries in case of injury, 15 June 2010.

[5] Landgericht Dortmund, Urteil vom 14.05.2014, 8 O 46/13, paras. 104-114.

[6] Idem, para. 118.

[7] Idem, paras. 121-122.

[8] German Civil Code, Section 242 (An obligor has a duty to perform according to the requirements of good faith, taking customary practice into consideration”).

[9] Landgericht Dortmund, Urteil vom 14.05.2014, 8 O 46/13, para. 129.

[10] Idem, para. 130.

[11] Idem, para. 132.

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