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 – February 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...

FIFA's Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses in Qatar – Part II: The Zurich Court's Ruling - By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell comes from Slovakia and is currently an LL.M. student in Public International Law at Leiden University. He contributes also to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a part-time intern.

This is a follow-up contribution to my previous blog on FIFA's responsibility for human rights abuses in Qatar published last week. Whereas the previous part has examined the lawsuit filed with the Commercial Court of the Canton of Zurich ('Court') jointly by the Dutch trade union FNV, the Bangladeshi Free Trade Union Congress, the Bangladesh Building and Wood Workers Federation and the Bangladeshi citizen Nadim Shariful Alam ('Plaintiffs') against FIFA, this second part will focus on the Court's ruling dated 3 January 2017 ('Ruling').[1]  More...



FIFA's Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses in Qatar - Part I: The Claims Against FIFA - By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell comes from Slovakia and is currently an LL.M. student in Public International Law at Leiden University. He contributes also to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a part-time intern.

On 2 December 2010, the FIFA Executive Committee elected Qatar as host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup ('World Cup'), thereby triggering a wave of controversies which underlined, for the most part, the country's modest size, lack of football history, local climate, disproportionate costs or corruption that accompanied the selection procedure. Furthermore, opponents of the decision to award the World Cup to the tiny oil-rich Gulf country also emphasized the country's negative human rights record.

More than six years later, on 3 January 2017, the Commercial Court of the Canton of Zurich ('Court') dismissed the lawsuit filed against FIFA[1] jointly by the Dutch trade union FNV, the Bangladeshi Free Trade Union Congress, the Bangladesh Building and Wood Workers Federation and the Bangladeshi citizen Nadim Shariful Alam ('Plaintiffs').[2] The Plaintiffs requested the Court to find FIFA responsible for alleged human rights violations of migrant workers in connection with the World Cup in Qatar. Had the Plaintiffs' claims been upheld by the Court, such decision would have had far-reaching consequences on the fate of thousands of migrants, mostly from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, who are currently working on the construction of sporting facilities and other infrastructure associated with organization of the World Cup. More...

Doyen vs. Sporting II: The Bitter End of Sporting’s Fight at the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. By Shervine Nafissi

Editor’s Note: Shervine Nafissi (@SNafissi) is a Phd Student in sports law and teaching assistant in corporate law at University of Lausanne (Switzerland), Faculty of Business and Economics (HEC).

 

Introduction

The factual background

The dispute concerns a TPO contract entitled “Economic Rights Participation Agreement” (hereinafter “ERPA”) concluded in 2012 between Sporting Lisbon and the investment fund Doyen Sports. The Argentine player was transferred in 2012 by Spartak Moscow to Sporting Lisbon for a transfer fee of €4 million. Actually, Sporting only paid €1 million of the fee while Doyen Sports financed the remaining €3 million. In return, the investment company became the owner of 75% of the economic rights of the player.[1] Thus, in this specific case, the Portuguese club was interested in recruiting Marcos Rojo but was unable to pay the transfer fee required by Spartak Moscow, so that they required the assistance of Doyen Sports. The latter provided them with the necessary funds to pay part of the transfer fee in exchange of an interest on the economic rights of the player.

Given that the facts and circumstances leading to the dispute, as well as the decision of the CAS, were fully described by Antoine Duval in last week’s blog of Doyen vs. Sporting, this blog will solely focus on the decision of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court (“FSC”) following Sporting’s appeal against the CAS award. As a preliminary point, the role of the FSC in the appeal against CAS awards should be clarified.More...

Doyen vs. Sporting I: Doyen’s Pyrrhic Victory at the CAS

At the end of December 2015, the CAS decided on a very public contractual dispute between Sporting Clube de Portugal Futebol SAD (Sporting) and Doyen Sports Investments Limited (Doyen). The club was claiming that Doyen’s Economic Rights Participation Agreement (ERPA) was invalid and refused to pay Doyen’s due share on the transfer of Marcos Rojo to Manchester United. The dispute made a lot of noise (see the excellent coverage by Tariq Panja from Bloomberg here, here and here) as it was the first TPO case heard by the CAS after FIFA’s ban. Yet, and it has to be clear from the outset, the case does not affect the legality of FIFA’s TPO ban; it concerned only the compatibility of Doyen’s ERPA with Swiss civil law. The hearing took place in June 2015, but the case was put under a new light by the football leaks revelations unveiled at the end of 2015 (see our blog from December 2015). Despite these revelations, the CAS award favoured Doyen, and was luckily for us quickly made available on the old football leaks website. This blog will provide a commentary of the CAS decision. It will be followed in the coming days by a commentary by Shervine Nafissi on the judgment, on appeal, by the Swiss Federal Tribunal. More...

UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations and the Rise of Football’s 1%

On 12 January 2017 UEFA published its eighth club licensing benchmarking report on European football, concerning the financial year of 2015. In the press release that accompanied the report, UEFA proudly announced that Financial Fair Play (FFP) has had a huge positive impact on European football, creating a more stable financial environment. Important findings included a rise of aggregate operating profits of €1.5bn in the last two years, compared to losses of €700m in the two years immediately prior to the introduction of Financial Fair Play.



Source: UEFA’s eighth club licensing benchmarking report on European football, slide 107.


 Meanwhile the aggregate losses dropped by 81% from €1.7bn in 2011 to just over €300m in 2015.More...




International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – January 2017. By Saverio Spera.

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 Diarra ruling of the Tribunal of Charleroi

On 19 January 2017, the Hainaut Commercial Tribunal – Charleroi rendered its decision on the lawsuit filed by the football player Lassana Diarra against FIFA and the Belgian FA (URBSFA) for damages caused by not being able to exercise the status of a professional football player during the entire 2014/2015 season. The lawsuit is linked to the decision, rendered by the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber (DRC) on April 2015, to support Lokomotiv’s decision to terminate the player’s contract and to order Diarra to pay Lokomotiv the amount of EUR 10,500,000 for having breached his contract. According to the plaintiff, Diarra’s opportunity to be recruited by Sporting Charleroi was denied due to the club being potentially considered jointly liable for Diarra’s compensation pursuant to Article 17 (2) RSTP. The Belgian court held strongly that “when the contract is terminated by the club, the player must have the possibility to sign a new contract with a new employer, without restrictions to his free movement”. This case highlighted, once again, the need to read the RSTP in the light of EU law. Moreover, the decision is laying further ground for broader challenges to the RSTP on the basis of EU law (for a deeper insight into the Diarra ruling, see the recent blog written by our senior researcher Antoine Duval) More...


Introducing the new legal challenges of E-Sports. By N. Emre Bilginoglu

Editor’s Note: Emre Bilginoglu[1] is an attorney in Istanbul and the co-founder of the Turkish E-Sports Players Association, a non-profit based in Istanbul that aims to provide assistance to professional gamers and to work on the relevant laws affecting them. 


The world is witnessing the rise of a new sport that is growing at an incredible speed: E-Sports. We are only starting to understand its legal implications and challenges.

In recent years, E-Sports has managed to attract thousands of fans to arenas to see a group of people play a video game. These people are literally professional gamers (cyber athletes)[2] who make money by competing in tournaments. Not all video games have tournaments in which professional players compete against each other.

The most played games in E-Sports competitions are League of Legends (LoL), Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2) and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). LoL and DotA are both Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, a genre of strategy video games in which the player controls a single character in one of two teams. The goal of the game is to destroy the opponent’s main structure. CS:GO is a first-person shooter (FPS) game, a genre of video games where the player engages combat through a first-person perspective. The main objective in CS:GO is to eliminate the opposing team or to terrorize or counter-terrorize, planting bombs or rescuing hostages. Other games that have (popular) E-Sports competitions include Starcraft II (real time strategy), Hearthstone (collectible card video game), Call of Duty (FPS) and FIFA (football).

The gaming requires cooperation between team players, a high level of concentration, rapid reactions and some seriously fast clicking. E-Sports is a groovy term to describe organized competitive computer gaming. The E-Sports industry is exponentially growing, amounting to values expressed in billions of dollars. According to Newzoo, a website dedicated to the collection of E-Sports data, there are some 250 million occasional viewers of E-Sports with Asia-Pacific accounting for half of the total amount. The growth of the industry is indubitably supported by online streaming media platforms. This article aims to explain what E-Sports is and to give the readers an insight on the key legal questions raised by it. More...


Time for Transparency at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. By Saverio Spera

Editor’s Note: Saverio Spera is an Italian lawyer and LL.M. graduate in International Business Law from King’s College London. He is currently an intern at the ASSER International Sports Law Centre.


The time is ripe to take a closer look at the CAS and its transparency, as this is one of the ways to ensure its public accountability and its legitimacy. From 1986 to 2013, the number of arbitrations submitted to the CAS has grown from 2 to more than 400 a year. More specifically, the number of appeals submitted almost doubled in less than ten years (from 175 in 2006, to 349 in 2013[1]). Therefore, the Court can be considered the judicial apex of an emerging transnational sports law (or lex sportiva).[2] In turn, the increased authority and power of this institution calls for increased transparency, in order to ensure its legitimacy.[3]

More...


Asser International Sports Law Blog | The Evolution of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules – Part 1: Background and EU Law. By Christopher Flanagan

Asser International Sports Law Blog

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

The Evolution of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules – Part 1: Background and EU Law. By Christopher Flanagan

Editor's Note: Christopher is an editor of the Asser International Sports Law Blog. His research interests cover a spectrum of sports law topics, with a focus on financial regulatory disputes, particularly in professional football, a topic on which he has regularly lectured at the University of the West of England.

 

It is five years since the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) formally introduced ‘Financial Fair Play’ (FFP) into European football through its Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, Edition 2012. With FFP having now been in place for a number of years, we are in a position to analyse its effect, its legality, and how the rules have altered over the last half decade in response to legal challenges and changing policy priorities. This article is split into three parts: The first will look at the background, context and law applicable to FFP; Part Two will look at the legal challenges FFP has faced; and Part Three will look at how FFP has iteratively changed, considering its normative impact, and the future of the rules.

 

Background

Certain aspects of FFP were incredibly controversial from the outset. To a neutral observer, this might seem confusing: FFP is, ostensibly, a set of rules designed to make sure clubs pay their bills on time, stay solvent, and do not need to look to external benefactors to cover their losses. Leading sports economist Stefan Szymanski described insolvency as “a chronic problem in the world of professional Association football”, so, superficially at least, a regulatory response to this would seem natural and appropriate. Where the market fails, it is the regulator’s duty to respond.

UEFA’s President at the time, Michel Platini, said “You, we, the fans and football lovers, have no interest in seeing clubs, the real heritage of European football, disappear due to risky management”. This is a sentiment with which most fans would agree.

Accordingly, UEFA incorporated FFP into its existing licensing requirements, meaning any club that wished to compete in a UEFA competition would be required to meet the financial standards set by FFP. These standards would be overseen and enforced by a new body within UEFA’s administration called the ‘Club Financial Control Body’. The Club Financial Control Body would be further segregated into an Investigatory Chamber and an Adjudicatory Chamber.

So, why the controversy? The contentious aspect of FFP was its ‘break even’ requirement. The ‘break even’ requirement is a de facto soft salary cap, tying the maximum amount a club can spend (with defined exceptions) to its revenue generation. An overview of the break even requirement as originally conceived can be found here. In essence, “The break-even result for a reporting period is calculated as relevant income less relevant expenses’’.[1] “Income” includes receipts such as gate receipts, sponsorship, broadcasting rights, commercial activities and player sales; “expenses” includes wages, the cost of purchasing players and the cost of finance.[2]

Crucially, when FFP was first introduced, losses could not be met or offset by equity participants (i.e. owners). This was pertinent to the prevailing financial climate in football, in which certain clubs across Europe were spending unprecedented sums with the support of wealth benefactors, who would cover the clubs’ losses. Such spending was seen at clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain, Monaco, Malaga and Anzhi Makhachkala, with mixed results on and off the pitch.

Thus FFP was accused of calcifying football’s competitive hierarchy[3] and foreclosing smaller clubs from sporting and consequent business success. This debate has been played out over the last five years in the academic literature[4] and in various legal fora. The rules and the mechanisms for enforcing the rules have become increasingly sophisticated as the years have passed. UEFA, perhaps in response to these challenges, has made gradual, iterative changes to FFP that have seen the rules soften to accommodate exogenous equity input in defined permissible circumstances. These changes will be looked at in greater depth in Part Three.

 

The challenge of EU law

FFP has been described ‘legally fragile’, which is an apt description. This is because the rules cannot be said to be unquestionably permissible under European Union (EU) law; nor can they be said to be categorically in breach of EU law. The rules exist in a regulatory ‘grey’ area – FFP, in its particularly in its original, more restrictive, guise, may or may not have been illegal. This is a question for a competent (judicial) authority to decide; however, as will be discussed in more detail in Part Two, the route to such a decision has been far from straight forward, and in the intervening years, FFP has changed substantially.

The essential legal questions to determine the legality of FFP are:

  1. Does FFP breach EU competition law?
  2. Does FFP breach EU free movement law?
  3. Is there a sanctuary for any breach of EU law under the doctrine of the specificity of sport?

 

EU competition law

Article 101 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) prohibits agreements that have as their object or effect “prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the internal market”.[5] This puts regulatory associations such as UEFA in a difficult position. It is the very nature of regulation that competition is restricted or distorted; indeed, it is the very purpose of regulatory rules that participants subject to those rules alter their behaviour accordingly, which has an inevitable consequence on the competitive landscape.

Consideration should also be given to Article 102 TFEU, which prohibits undertakings (and in some circumstances collections of undertakings, i.e. oligopolies) that are in a dominant position from abusing their market dominance.

In view of this friction, the European courts have developed, through the case of Wouters, the concept of regulatory ancillarity.[6] This is the doctrine under which, subject to a test of proportionality, reasonability and necessity, even in circumstances where there is a prima facie breach of competition law by a regulatory body (in that particular case by the Dutch Bar Association), this may be permissible under EU competition law where the regulatory body in question “could reasonably have considered that that regulation, despite the effects restrictive of competition that are inherent in it, is necessary for the proper practice of the [relevant profession]”.

The applicability of Wouters to a sporting regulatory context is confirmed and clarified in the landmark Meca-Medina case. In considering whether a regulatory rule breaches competition law, the European courts must determine: 

  1. Whether the rules are necessary for the proper conduct of the sport;
  2. Whether the penalties are inherent to the restrictions in questions; and
  3. Whether the effects of the rules are proportionate to the aims pursued.

Should UEFA be unable to meet the test under the regulatory ancillarity doctrine, there is an alternative exemption with a lower threshold to which it could look. Within Article 101(3) TFEU, there is an exemption for agreements which promote “technical or economic progress, while allowing consumers a fair share of the resulting benefit” as long as such restrictions do not (a) impose on the undertakings concerned restrictions which are not indispensable to the attainment of these objectives; or (b) afford such undertakings the possibility of eliminating competition in respect of a substantial part of the products in question.

It is open to UEFA to argue that FFP dampens inflation in football in a way that is for the improvement of the game and passes a benefit to ‘consumers’ (i.e. fans) by, for example, reducing the need for ticket price increases to sustain escalating players’ wages. This would perhaps be difficult for UEFA to establish, but the economics of FFP are complicated and second order effects should be borne in mind.

 

EU free movement – workers, services and/or capital 

The EU is built upon certain deeply enshrined freedoms. These include the free movement of workers (Article 45 TFEU), the free movement of services (Article 56 TFEU), and the free movement of capital. Any agreement that acts as an impediment to these freedoms is susceptible to a finding of illegality.

In order to be permissible under EU law, any rule or agreement that restricts any fundamental freedom must be:

  1. Justified by a necessary objective in the general interest;
  2. Suitable for achieving that objective; and
  3. Proportionate.

In the case of sporting rules, the European courts have determined that the rule in question must not “go beyond what is necessary for achieving the aim pursued”,[7] which is to reiterate that it must be proportionate – a recurrent theme in considering the legality of rules made by the governing bodies of sport, such as UEFA.

The criteria to be met by UEFA in establishing that FFP does not breach EU fundamental freedoms is in line with the threshold to be met in establishing compliance with EU competition law: FFP must be necessary, suitable and proportionate.

However, in the case of free movement law, it is far from obvious that FFP will have a substantive impact on fundamental freedoms. In previous writing on the subject, I have made the following analogy:

The restriction does not emanate from the rule per se, rather by the size of the club’s turnover; players are no more restricted from moving between clubs by FFP than this author is denied a Ferrari by his credit rating.[8]


The specificity of sport under EU law

In the event that a competent adjudicative authority makes a prima facie finding that FFP is in breach of EU competition law or EU free movement law, there is still a possibility of an overall finding that FFP is not illegal under the doctrine of the specificity of sport; however, this would require the adjudicative body in question to row back considerably from the current position, and general trajectory, of the level of latitude granted to the governing bodies of sport by the European courts.

The concept of specificity will be familiar to all those with an interest in sports law and policy. It is the hypothesis under which, at its starkest interpretation, suggests governing bodies, not courts (or governments or other legislative bodies), are best placed to determine how sport should be run. Sports, it is argued, should have rule making autonomy. A more moderate view on specificity holds that due regard should be paid to the idiosyncrasies of the sports sector and the legitimate governance function played by governing bodies. 

The role of sports governing bodies, whose rules, as was the case with FFP, are often enacted in a broadly consensual way, with engagement, input and consent from key stakeholders, should be acknowledged and some due reverence should be paid to governing bodies' ability to regulate the sporting aspects under their aegis.

Indeed, the European Union had no express competence to in respect of sport until the introduction of Article 165 TFEU, a soft competency, which states that, “The Union shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues, while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function.”

However, the distinction between elite football as being ‘purely sport’ and elite football as a business has become blurred in to the point of being indistinguishable; and the EU clearly has express competence to deal with business.

The general trend in decisions of the European courts has been to circumscribe self-determination by the governing bodies of sport. Through cases such as Bosman,[9] Meca-Medina, and Bernard,[10] the European courts have made it clear that sport cannot avoid or cherry-pick the applicability of EU law. This is acutely relevant in the case of FFP, which, after all, deals with how football clubs are run financially. There are obvious sporting consequences to this, but it is difficult to characterise FFP as anything other than a rule restrictive of the business of sport.

UEFA’s position on Article 165 is that “while sport is not ‘above the law’, there is now a provision in the Treaty itself recognising that sport cannot simply be treated as another ‘business’, without reference to its specific characteristics”. This is not an unreasonable position; sport is a unique industry in which, unlike other industries, the survival of competitors is important for any given club to flourish. Perhaps the courts could be persuaded that a carve-out based on specificity should be applicable to FFP – but this would require a seismic change of direction.

So it is incredibly unlikely that specificity as a discrete sui generis doctrine would give sanctuary to FFP were the rules deemed to be otherwise in breach of EU law. However, facts peculiar to the football industry (i.e. its specificity) should be considered as part of an assessment as to whether FFP is a proportionate mechanism to pursue UEFA’s objectives. As noted above, proportionality is a limb of the tests for derogations to EU competition and fundamental freedom law.

I have previously commented that: 

For football clubs, there is a strong correlational link between spending money and playing success. This has encouraged clubs to risk financial vulnerability in pursuit of improved match results, despite the mathematical impossibility of all clubs being able to improve their fortunes on the field. This innate instability has resulted in persistent insolvencies despite the remarkable growth in turnover seen in the professional game. Regrettably, when balance sheets weaken, the risk of insolvency increases; and once a club becomes insolvent, its survival is subject to the predilections of its creditors. The game’s governing bodies should aim to militate against…this volatility.

UEFA would doubtless argue that, given the specific nature of the industry it regulates, instituting a soft salary cap such as that implemented by FFP is a proportionate response. In that sense at least, the specificity of sport might be of consideration in the legality of FFP.

 

Conclusion 

It is difficult to say with any degree of conclusiveness whether FFP is legal or not. There are strong arguments either way. The marginal nature of the legal position has been problematic for UEFA and has undoubtedly led to the legal challenges to FFP over the last five years, which are discussed in greater depth in Part Two of this series.

The uncertain legal position, and the challenges generated by that lack of clarity has also, in all likelihood, shaped UEFA’s policy decisions as FFP has evolved in the years since its inception. These are discussed in Part Three of this series.

FFP has certainly been fertile ground for debate, and will likely continue to be so until such a time as there has been a determinative, binding view of its legality. When or whether this will happen remains to be seen.


[1] Annex X, Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, Edition 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Peeters and Stefan Szymanski , 'Financial Fair Play in European Football ' [2014] 29(78) Economic Policy 343-390

[4] See, for example, Serby, T. (2016) The state of EU sports law: lessons from UEFA’s ‘Financial Fair Play’ regulations, International Sports Law Journal 16(1–2):37–51; Flanagan, C (2013) A tricky European fixture: an assessment of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations and their compatibility with EU law, International Sports Law Journal 13(1):148; Lindholm, J (2010) The Problem with Salary Caps Under European Union Law: The Case Against Financial Fair Play, Texas Review of Entertainment and Sports Law, Vol. 12.2, pp. 189-213

[5] Noting that UEFA certainly constitute an association of undertakings in the relevant legal sense, see for example Case T-193/02 Piau (2005) ECR I-209, (2005) 5 CMLR 42 or EU Commission decision 2003/778/EC, 23 July 2003, Case COMP C.2-37.398 - Joint selling of the commercial rights of the UEFA Champions League §§ 106-107

[6] As identified and defined by Whish and Bailey in Competition Law (OUP, 8th)

[7] Case C-176/96, Jyri Lehtonen and Castors Canada Dry Namur- Braine ASBL v Fédération Royale Belge des Sociétés de Basketball ASBL (FRBSB) ECR (2000) I-2681

[8] Flanagan, C (2013) A tricky European fixture: an assessment of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations and their compatibility with EU law, International Sports Law Journal 13(1).

[9] Case C-415/93 Union Royale Belge des Socie ́te ́s de Football Association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman (1995) ECR I-4921.

[10] C-325/08 Olympique Lyonnais v Olivier Bernard and Newcastle United FC (2010) ECLI:EU:C:2010:143.

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