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

Call for papers - Third Annual International Sports Law Conference of the International Sports Law Journal - 24 and 25 October 2019 - Asser Institute

The Editors of the International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) invite you to submit abstracts for the third ISLJ Annual Conference on International Sports Law, which will take place on 24 and 25 October 2019 at the Asser Institute in The Hague. The ISLJ, published by Springer and Asser Press, is the leading academic publication in the field of international sports law. The conference is a unique occasion to discuss the main legal issues affecting international sports with renowned academic experts and practitioners.


We are delighted to announce the following confirmed keynote speakers:


  • Beckie Scott (Chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Athlete Committee, Olympic Champion, former member of the WADA Executive Committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC)),
  • Ulrich Haas (Professor of Law at Univerzität Zürich, CAS arbitrator), and
  • Kimberly Morris (Head of FIFA Transfer Matching System (TMS) Integrity and Compliance).


We welcome abstracts from academics and practitioners on any question related to international sports law. We also welcome panel proposals (including a minimum of three presenters) on a specific issue. For this year’s edition, we specifically invite submissions on the following themes:


  • The role of athletes in the governance of international sports
  • The evolution of sports arbitration, including the Court of Arbitration for Sport
  •  The role and functioning of the FIFA transfer system, including the FIFA TMS
  •  The intersection between criminal law and international sports (in particular issues of corruption, match-fixing, human trafficking, tax evasion)
  • Hooliganism
  • Protection of minor athletes
  • Civil and criminal liability relating to injuries in sports


Please send your abstract of 300 words and CV no later than 30 April 2019 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 2019. All papers presented at the conference are eligible (subjected to peer-review) for publication in a special issue of the ISLJ.  To be considered for inclusion in the conference issue of the journal, the final draft must be submitted for review by 15 December 2019.  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. 250€). If you wish to be considered for a grant please indicate it in your submission. 

A Reflection on the Second Report of FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory Board - By Daniela Heerdt (Tilburg University)

Editor's note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD candidate at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands and works as Research Officer for the Centre for Sports and Human Rights. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games. She published an article in the International Sports Law Journal that discusses to what extent the revised bidding and hosting regulations by FIFA, the IOC and UEFA strengthen access to remedy for mega-sporting events-related human rights violations.

 

On November 26th, the Human Rights Advisory Board[1] of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) published its second report. This blog provides a summary and brief evaluation of the report, by drawing a comparison to the previous report issued by the Human Rights Advisory Board (hereinafter: the Board) based on the content of the recommendations and FIFA’s efforts to implement the Board’s recommendations. The third part of this blog briefly reflects on the broader implications of some of the new recommendations issued for FIFA’s internal policies. The conclusion provides five more general points of observation on the report. More...

The Kristoffersen ruling: the EFTA Court targets athlete endorsement deals - By Sven Demeulemeester and Niels Verborgh

Editor’s note: Sven Demeulemeester and Niels Verborgh are sports lawyers at the Belgium law firm, Altius.

 

Introduction

In its 16 November 2018 judgment, the Court of Justice of the European Free Trade Association States (the EFTA Court) delivered its eagerly awaited ruling in the case involving Henrik Kristoffersen and the Norwegian Ski Federation (NSF). 

On 17 October 2016, Kristoffersen had taken the NSF to the Oslo District Court over the latter’s refusal to let the renowned alpine skier enter into a sponsorship with Red Bull. At stake were the commercial markings on his helmet and headgear in races organised under the NSF’s umbrella. The NSF refused this sponsorship because it had already granted the advertising on helmet and headgear to its own main sponsor, Telenor. Kristoffersen claimed before the Oslo District Court, that the NSF should be ordered to permit him to enter into an individual marketing contract with Red Bull. In the alternative, Kristoffersen claimed damages up to a maximum of NOK 15 million. By a letter of 25 September 2017, the Oslo District Court referred several legal questions to the EFTA Court in view of shedding light on the compatibility of the rules that the NSF had invoked with EEA law.

If rules do not relate to the conduct of the sport itself, but concern sponsorship rights and hence an economic activity, these rules are subject to EEA law. The EFTA Court ruling is important in that it sets out the framework for dealing with - ever more frequent - cases in which an individual athlete’s endorsement deals conflict with the interest of the national or international sports governing bodies (SGBs) that he or she represents in international competitions.More...


Season 2 of football leaks: A review of the first episodes

Season 2 of #FootballLeaks is now underway since more than a week and already a significant number of episodes (all the articles published can be found on the European Investigative Collaborations’ website) covering various aspect of the (lack of) transnational regulation of football have been released (a short German documentary sums up pretty much the state of play). For me, as a legal scholar, this new series of revelations is an exciting opportunity to discuss in much more detail than usual various questions related to the operation of the transnational private regulations of football imposed by FIFA and UEFA (as we already did during the initial football leaks with our series of blogs on TPO in 2015/2016). Much of what has been unveiled was known or suspected by many, but the scope and precision of the documents published makes a difference. At last, the general public, as well as academics, can have certainty about the nature of various shady practices in the world of football. One key characteristic that explains the lack of information usually available is that football, like many international sports, is actually governed by private administrations (formally Swiss associations), which are not subject to the similar obligations in terms of transparency than public ones (e.g. access to document rules, systematic publication of decisions, etc.). In other words, it’s a total black box! The football leaks are offering a rare sneak peak into that box.

Based on what I have read so far (this blog was written on Friday 9 November), there are three main aspects I find worthy of discussion:

  • The (lack of) enforcement of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) Regulations
  • The European Super League project and EU competition law
  • The (lack of) separation of powers inside FIFA and UEFA More...

Supporters of the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018: Altius

Editor's note: In the coming days we will introduce the supporters of our upcoming ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018 (also known as #ISLJConf18). To do so, we have sent them a tailored questionnaire aimed at reflecting both their activities and their expectations for the conference. It is a good opportunity for us to thank them for their enthusiastic support and commitment to international sports law research. We are very happy to finish this series of interviews with Sven Demeulemeester from Altius, a Belgian law firm based in Brussels with a very fine (and academically-minded!) sports law team. 


1. Can you explain to our readers the work of Altius in international sports law? 

Across different sports’ sectors, Altius’ sports law practice advises and assists some of the world’s most high-profile sports governing bodies, clubs and athletes, at both the national and the international level. The team has 6 fully-dedicated sports lawyers and adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, which guarantees a broad range of legal expertise for handling specific cases or wider issues related to the sports industry. We are proud to be independent but, in cross-border matters, are able to tap into a worldwide network.

2. How is it to be an international sports lawyer? What are the advantages and challenges of the job? 

Sports law goes beyond one specific field of law. The multiplicity of legal angles keeps the work interesting, even after years of practising, and ensures that a sports lawyer rarely has a dull moment. The main downside is that the sports industry is fairly conservative and sometimes ‘political’. While the law is one thing, what happens in practice is often another. Bringing about change is not always easy. 

3. What are the burning issues in international sports law that you would like to see discussed at the conference? 

 The much-anticipated overhaul of the football transfer system is eagerly anticipated and is worth a thorough debate, also in terms of possible, viable alternatives. The impact of EU law - both internal market rules, competition law and fundamental rights – can hardly be underestimated. Also, dispute resolution mechanisms within the realm of sports - and an accessible, transparent, independent and impartial sports arbitration in particular - will remain a ‘hot’ topic in the sector for years to come. Furthermore, ethics and integrity issues should remain top of the agenda, as is being demonstrated by the current money-laundering and match-fixing allegations in Belgium. Finally, in a sector in which the use of data is rife, the newly-adopted GDPR’s impact remains somewhat ‘under the radar’.

4. Why did you decide to support the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference? 

The ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference is refreshing, both in terms of its topics and participants. The academic and content-driven approach is a welcome addition to other sports law conferences in which the networking aspect often predominates.

Supporters of the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018: LawInSport

Editor's note: In the coming days we will introduce the supporters of our upcoming ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018 (also known as #ISLJConf18). To do so, we have sent them a tailored questionnaire aimed at reflecting both their activities and their expectations for the conference. It is a good opportunity for us to thank them for their enthusiastic support and commitment to international sports law research. We are very happy to continue this series of interviews with LawInSport, a knowledge hub and educational platform for the community of people working in or with an interest in sport and the law  (many thanks to LawInSport's CEO Sean Cottrell for kindly responding to our questions).


1. Can you explain to our readers what LawInSport is about?

LawInSport is a knowledge hub, educational platform and global community of people working in or with an interest in sport and the law.

Our objective is to help people ‘understand the rules of the game™’. What does this mean? It means people in sport having access to information that enables them to have a better understanding the rules and regulations that govern the relationships, behaviours and processes within sports. This in turn creates a foundation based on the principles of the rule of law, protecting the rights of everyone working and participating in sport.  

2. What are the challenges and perks of being an international sports law 'reporter’ ?

I do not consider myself a reporter, but as the head of an organisation that has a responsibility to provide the highest quality information on legal issues in sport,  focusing on what is important and not just what is popular, whilst trying to stay free from conflicts of interests. These two issues, popularism and conflict of interest, are the two of the biggest challenges.

Popularism and the drive to win attention is, in my opinion, causing a lack of discipline when it comes to factual and legal accuracy in coverage of sports law issues, which on their own may seem harmless, but can cause harm to organisations and individuals (athletes, employees, etc).

Conflict of interest will obviously arise in such a small sector, however, there is not a commonly agreed standard in internationally, let alone in sports law. Therefore, one needs to be diligent when consuming information to understand why someone may or may not hold a point of view, if they have paid to get it published or has someone paid them to write it. For this reason it can be hard to get a full picture of what is happening in the sector.

In terms of perks, I get to do something that is both challenging and rewarding on a daily basis, and as  a business owner I have the additional benefit of work with colleagues I enjoy working with. I have the privilege of meeting world leaders in their respective fields (law, sport, business, science, education, etc) and gain insights from them about their work and life experiences which is incredibly enriching.  Getting access to speak to the people who are on the front line, either athletes, coaches, lawyers, scientists, rather than from a third party is great as it gives you an unfiltered insight into what is going on.

On the other side of things, we get the opportunity to help people through either having a better understand of the legal and regulatory issues in sports or to understand how to progress themselves towards their goals academically and professionally is probably the most rewarding part of my work. 

3. What are the burning issues in international sports law that you would like to see discussed at the conference?

  • The long-term implications of human rights law in sport;
  • The importance of meaningful of stakeholder consultation in the creation and drafting of regulations in sport;
  • Effective international safeguarding in sport.

4. Why did you decide to support the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference?

We support ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference as it is a non-profit conference that’s purpose is to create a space to explore a wide range of legal issues in sport. The conference is an academic conference that does a great job in bringing a diverse range of speakers and delegates. The discussions and debates that take place will benefit the wider sports law community.  Therefore, as LawInSport’s objective is focused on education it was a straight forward decision to support the conferences as it is aligned with our objectives. 

Supporters of the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018: Women in Sports Law

Editor's note: In the coming days we will introduce the supporters of our upcoming ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference 2018 (also known as #ISLJConf18). To do so, we have sent them a tailored questionnaire aimed at reflecting both their activities and their expectations for the conference. It is a good opportunity for us to thank them for their enthusiastic support and commitment to international sports law research. We are very proud to start this series of interviews with Women in Sports Law, an association launched in 2016 and which has already done so much to promote and advance the role of women in international sports law (many thanks to Despina Mavromati for kindly responding to our questions on behalf of WISLaw).


1. Can you explain to our readers what WISLaw is about?

Women In Sports Law (WISLaw, www.wislaw.co) is an international association based in Lausanne that unites more than 300 women from 50 countries specializing in sports law. It is a professional network that aims at increasing the visibility of women working in the sector, through a detailed members’ directory and various small-scale talks and events held in different countries around the world. These small-scale events give the opportunity to include everyone in the discussion and enhance the members’ network. Men from the sector and numerous arbitral institutions, conference organizers and universities have come to actively support our initiative.


2. What are the challenges and opportunities for women getting involved in international sports law?

Women used to be invisible in this sector. All-male panels were typical at conferences and nobody seemed to notice this flagrant lack of diversity. WISLaw created this much-needed platform to increase visibility through the members’ directory and through a series of small-scale events where all members, independent of their status or seniority, can attend and be speakers.

Another difficulty is that European football (soccer) is traditionally considered to be a “male-dominated” sport, despite the fact that there are so many great female football teams around the world. The same misperception applies to sports lawyers!

Last, there is a huge number of women lawyers working as in-house counsel and as sports administrators. There is a glass ceiling for many of those women, and the WISLaw annual evaluation of the participation of women in those positions attempts to target their issues and shed more light into this specific problem.


3. What are the burning issues in international sports law that you would like to see discussed at the conference?

The ISLJ Annual Conference has already set up a great lineup of topics combining academic and more practical discussions in the most recent issues in international sports law. 


4. Why did you decide to support the ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference?

The Asser International Sports Law Centre has promoted and supported WISLaw since the very beginning. The ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference was the first big conference to officially include a WISLaw lunch talk in its program, allowing thus the conference attendees to be part of a wider informal discussion on a specific topical issue and raise their questions with respect to WISLaw. Another important reason why WISLaw supports this conference is because the conference organizers are making sincere efforts to have increased diversity in the panels : this year’s ISLJ Annual International Sports Law Conference is probably the first sports law conference to come close to a full gender balance in its panels, with 40% of the speakers being women !

The proportionality test under Art. 101 (1) TFEU and the legitimacy of UEFA Financial fair-play regulations: From the Meca Medina and Majcen ruling of the European Court of Justice to the Galatasaray and AC Milan awards of the Court of Arbitration for Sport – By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports 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. On the 20th July 2018, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (hereinafter referred to as “CAS”) issued its decision in the arbitration procedure between AC Milan and UEFA. The subject matter of this arbitration procedure was the appeal filed by AC Milan against the decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Financial Control Body dated 19th June 2018 (hereinafter referred to as “the contested decision”). As many likely know, the CAS has acknowledged that, although AC Milan was in breach of the break-even requirement, the related exclusion of the club from the UEFA Europe League was not proportionate. To date, it is the first time the CAS clearly ruled that the sanction of exclusion from UEFA club competitions for a breach of the break-even requirement was not proportionate. For this reason the CAS award represents a good opportunity to reflect on the proportionality test under Art. 101 TFEU and the relationship between the landmark ruling of the European Court of Justice (hereinafter referred to as “ECJ”) in the Meca Medina and Majcen affair and the very recent case-law of the CAS. More...

The “Victory” of the Court of Arbitration for Sport at the European Court of Human Rights: The End of the Beginning for the CAS

My favourite speed skater (Full disclosure: I have a thing for speed skaters bothering the ISU), Claudia Pechstein, is back in the news! And not from the place I expected. While all my attention was absorbed by the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe (BVerfG or German Constitutional Court), I should have looked to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR). The Pechstein and Mutu joint cases were pending for a long time (since 2010) and I did not anticipate that the ECtHR would render its decision before the BVerfG. The decision released last week (only available in French at this stage) looked at first like a renewed vindication of the CAS (similar to the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) ruling in the Pechstein case), and is being presented like that by the CAS, but after careful reading of the judgment I believe this is rather a pyrrhic victory for the status quo at the CAS. As I will show, this ruling puts to rest an important debate surrounding CAS arbitration since 20 years: CAS arbitration is (at least in its much-used appeal format in disciplinary cases) forced arbitration. Furthermore, stemming from this important acknowledgment is the recognition that CAS proceedings must comply with Article 6 § 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), in particular hearings must in principle be held in public and decisions freely available to all. Finally, I will criticise the Court’s finding that CAS complies with the requirements of independence and impartiality imposed by Article 6 § 1 ECHR. I will not rehash the  well-known facts of both cases, in order to focus on the core findings of the decision. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Why the European Commission will not star in the Spanish TV rights Telenovela. By Ben Van Rompuy and Oskar van Maren

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

Why the European Commission will not star in the Spanish TV rights Telenovela. By Ben Van Rompuy and Oskar van Maren

The selling of media rights is currently a hot topic in European football. Last week, the English Premier League cashed in around 7 billion Euros for the sale of its live domestic media rights (2016 to 2019) – once again a 70 percent increase in comparison to the previous tender. This means that even the bottom club in the Premier League will receive approximately €130 million while the champions can expect well over €200 million per season.

The Premier League’s new deal has already led the President of the Spanish National Professional Football League (LNFP), Javier Tebas, to express his concerns that this could see La Liga lose its position as one of Europe’s leading leagues. He reiterated that establishing a centralised sales model in Spain is of utmost importance, if not long overdue.

Concrete plans to reintroduce a system of joint selling for the media rights of the Primera División, Segunda División A, and la Copa del Rey by means of a Royal Decree were already announced two years ago. The road has surely been long and bumpy. The draft Decree is finally on the table, but now it misses political approval. All the parties involved are blaming each other for the current failure: the LNFP blames the Sport Governmental Council for Sport (CSD) for not taking the lead; the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) is arguing that the Federation and non-professional football entities should receive more money and that it should have a stronger say in the matter in accordance with the FIFA Statutes;  and there are widespread rumours that the two big earners, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, are actively lobbying to prevent the Royal Decree of actually being adopted.

To keep the soap opera drama flowing,  on 30 December 2014, FASFE (an organisation consisting of groups of fans, club members, and minority shareholders of several Spanish professional football clubs) and the International Soccer Centre (a movement that aims to obtain more balanced and transparent football and basketball competitions in Spain) filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission against the LNFP. They argue that the current system of individual selling of LNFP media rights, with unequal shares of revenue widening the gap between clubs, violates EU competition law.


Source:http://www.gopixpic.com/600/buscar%C3%A1n-el-amor-verdadero-nueva-novela-de-televisa/http:%7C%7Cassets*zocalo*com*mx%7Cuploads%7Carticles%7C5%7C134666912427*jpg/


The complaint will surely be frowned upon in Brussels. First, Spain is on the verge of introducing a joint selling arrangement. So what is the point of using competition law as an instrument to obtain … a joint selling arrangement? Second, the argument that a horizontal agreement, preventing LNFP clubs from individually competing in the sale of their media rights, is needed to ensure fair and effective competition seems, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. Third, who files an antitrust complaint on 30 December?

The complainants essentially target the polarization of revenues between the two top clubs (Real Madrid and FC Barcelona) and the other clubs. This is a well-known and long-standing feature of the LNFP, which is only in part attributable to disparities in the clubs’ media rights income. The complainants point out, however, that media coverage is also an important driver of other main revenue streams (e.g. value of sponsorship deals, ticket sales, and merchandising). 

Since the end of the 1990s, clubs have been selling the LNFP media rights individually. In a system of individual selling, a club’s bargaining power is evidently determined by the market potential of the matches of a specific club and not by the collective attractiveness of the competition as a whole. This has resulted in a pronounced imbalance between the two top clubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, who are able to extract supra-normal profits, and the other clubs.

For the 2010-2011 season, for example, the two Spanish giants both received around €125 million for their live media rights, leaving their domestic peers fighting over the scraps (i.e. the next biggest clubs earned around €40 million and the majority of the clubs sold their rights for about €15 million). In other words, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona generate ten times more revenue from their media rights as compared to the smaller clubs.

While it is easy to see why this situation may be considered unfair from the perspective of the majority of the clubs, it is less evident to find a competition law problem. 


A competition law perspective 

As stated above, the complaint is launched against the LNFP who, according to FASFE, by means of authorising the individual selling of TV rights system, is violating EU competition law.

First, the complainants argue that the system of individual selling strengthens the dominant positions of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona and, subsequently, undermines the competitive position of the other clubs. So far so good. But then they jump to the conclusion that Article 102 TFEU is being violated, not by the LNFP, but by Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. 

There they lost us – and presumably anyone remotely familiar with EU competition law. But let’s be a good sport and contemplate this line of reasoning a bit further.  

It might be argued that Real Madrid and FC Barcelona hold a (collective) dominant position on certain product markets in Spain and, by extension, in a substantial part of the internal market – even though the complaint fails to properly define those relevant markets. On the upstream market for the acquisition of media rights of La Liga, both clubs behave to a certain extent independently of their competitors. Spanish broadcasters first seek to acquire the media rights to their matches, which undercuts the bargaining position of the other clubs in the subsequent negotiations for the purchase of their rights. A more fundamental flaw is that the complainants contend that the possession or even strengthening of a dominant position by way of competition falls within the prohibition of Article 102 TFEU. The complaint does not put forward a single argument substantiating how both clubs engage in abusive conduct. 

Second, the complainants argue that the LNFP, according to Article 49 of its statutes, must look after the common interests of the competitions that it organises and of its members. In their view, the 1996 decision of the LFNP General Assembly to re-introduce a system of joint selling, which has negatively affected the majority of clubs and a large majority of fans, does not comply with this objective. 

While it can be argued that the LNFP’s decision constitutes a decision of an association of undertakings within the meaning of Article 101(1) TFEU, it is difficult to see how it has an anti-competitive object or effect. Quite on the contrary, the decision lifted the competitive constraints on the clubs’ independent decision-making that were in place up until the season 1997-1998. 

It should be noted that a system of joint selling of media rights does not necessarily bring about an equitable distribution of the revenues among the clubs. Albeit connected, the distribution mechanism is a separate measure, which is typically for the most part performance-based. Moreover, financial solidarity can also be implemented through other mechanisms, such as a taxation system or the redistribution of voluntary contributions. That said, it must be acknowledged that a system of joint selling does facilitate the sharing of revenues among clubs. The ability of sports organisers to impose alternative financial solidarity mechanisms might be constrained by the pressure of the larger clubs (which evidently wish to see a larger share of the revenues flow back to them because they are primarily responsible for generating these revenues). The clubs’ media rights income ratio in the other top European football leagues, where media rights are sold collectively, illustrates this point. In the season 2011-2012 the earnings ratio of the top to the bottom club was as follows: Premier League (1,55 to 1); Serie A (4,35 to 1); Bundesliga (2,3 to 1); and Ligue 1 (3,2 to 1).[1] 

Considering that joint selling only creates incentives for horizontal solidarity, the financial solidarity justification in itself could not outweigh the anti-competitive effects of a joint selling arrangement. The restrictions of competition are considerable. First, joint selling agreements prevent clubs from individually competing in the sale of their media rights. Access to the market can therefore be foreclosed to competing buyers. Second, joint selling leads to uniform prices and other trading conditions. Price-fixing is a hard-core restriction that is normally prohibited. Third, joint selling could lead to output restrictions when certain rights are withheld from the market. 

As the discussion of the competition law decisional practice below will demonstrate, it is even unclear whether the financial solidarity argument can be invoked as a partial legal defence against the prohibition of restrictive agreements. 


The financial solidarity conundrum

One of the key assumptions underlying the complaint is that the EU institutions advocate the joint selling of media rights. This is presumably one of the main reasons why they are turning to Brussels for help. While it is true that the European Council (e.g. in the 2001 Nice Declaration) and the European Parliament have always been supportive of the link between joint selling and the principle of financial solidarity, the same cannot be said about the European Commission. In policy documents, the Commission has refrained from making (strong) pronouncements on the solidarity benefits of joint selling vis-à-vis individual selling. In the Helsinki Report on Sport (1999) the Commission underscored the need to examine the precise link between the joint selling of media rights and financial solidarity between professional and amateur sport. In its White Paper on Sport (2007) the Commission acknowledged that joint selling “can be a tool for achieving greater solidarity within sports”, but immediately added that also a system of individual selling by clubs can be linked to a robust solidarity mechanism. Only in the Communication on Developing the European Dimension of Sport (2011) the Commission expressed some general support for a system of joint selling. Surely some of the Commission’s press releases coinciding its decisions in this area mention benefits for financial solidarity (see e.g. here). If the complainants had looked at the actual decisions, however, they would have realised that that rhetoric is inconsistent with the legal argumentation.

After the need to address competition issues in relation to joint selling arrangements for football media rights emerged in the 1990s, several National Competition Authorities (NCAs) found that the system was incompatible with the national competition rules. The NCAs were sceptical about the necessary link between joint selling and revenue distribution and, subsequently, did not consider it to be a pro-competitive benefit capable of offsetting the identified restrictive effects. Even though the NCAs spoke out uniformly against the joint selling of football media rights, in three Member States their decisions were either overruled by a national court (United Kingdom) or circumvented through legislative action (Germany) or executive orders (the Netherlands).[2] This created uncertainties regarding the circumstances under which joint selling could be considered compatible with EU and national competition law. 

In the UEFA Champions League decision (2003) the European Commission for the first time assessed the compatibility of the joint selling of football media rights with Article 101 TFEU. In two subsequent decisions, German Bundesliga (2005) and FA Premier League (2006), the Commission raised similar competition concerns and imposed similar remedies to address these concerns. 

In all three decisions, the Commission found that joint selling arrangements are caught by the prohibition of Article 101(1) TFEU, but may create substantial efficiency gains so that Article 101(3) TFEU could be invoked as a legal defence. It identified three main benefits: (1) the creation of a single point of sale (which creates efficiencies by reducing the transaction costs for sports organisers and media content operators); (2) branding of the output by one entity (which creates efficiencies as it helps the media products receive wider recognition and distribution); and (3) the creation of a league product focused on the competition as a whole rather than individual clubs. 

To ensure that the efficiency benefits outweigh the toxic cocktail of anti-competitive effects (i.e. price-fixing and considerable risks of market foreclosure and output restrictions), the Commission carefully prescribed the way in which the rights must be marketed by imposing a list of behavioural remedies. 

Competition concern

Remedy

UEFA

DFB

FAPL

Risk of foreclosure effects in downstream markets

Non-discriminatory and transparent tendering procedure

X

X

X

Independent monitoring trustee overseeing tender process

 

 

X

No conditional bidding

 

 

X

Risk of market foreclosure effects in downstream markets as a result of exclusivity and bundling of media rights.

Limitation of scope of exclusive contracts:

-       a reasonable amount of different rights packages

-       no combination of large and small packages

-       earmarked packages for special markets/platforms (new media rights)

 

X

 

X

 

X

 

X

 

X

X

X

Limitation of duration of exclusive contracts: max. three football seasons

X

X

X

Risk of output restrictions

Fall-back option to clubs for unsold or unused rights

X

X

X

Parallel exploitation of less valuable rights by clubs

X

 

 

Risk of monopolisation

“No single buyer” obligation

 

 

X

In all three of the Commission’s investigations, the parties put forward the financial solidarity argument as the main justification for an exemption of their joint selling arrangements under Article 101(3) TFEU.[3] Yet the Commission never substantially addressed that argument. Only in the UEFA Champions League decision, the point was briefly considered. The Commission simply noted that UEFA had failed to substantiate the indispensability of a joint selling agreement for the redistribution of revenue and, subsequently, for the organisation of the Champions League.[4] Since it could exempt the joint selling agreement on economic efficiency grounds, however, the Commission concluded that “it is not necessary for the purpose of this procedure to consider the solidarity argument any further”.[5] As such, the Commission conveniently got round the issue.

The national decisional practice subsequent to the Commission’s precedents equally refrained from addressing the issue. The NCAs started focusing their assessments exclusively on efficiency benefits, as instructed by the Commission.  

In short, in competition law proceedings related to joint selling arrangements, the financial solidarity defence has never been very compelling – it was either considered unsound (early national enforcement practice) or remained unaddressed. Of course, one may still argue that the elephant in the room was surreptitiously taken into account (bearing in mind that the acceptance of a similar price-fixing cartel in other sectors would be difficult to imagine).[6] 


Redistribution formulas for media rights income  

After the European Commission de facto legitimized the joint selling of football media rights, the system became the common practice for marketing such rights in Europe. Since Italy reintroduced the system of joint selling in 2010, Cyprus, Portugal, and Spain are now the last EU markets in which first division football clubs sell their rights individually. 

To put the distribution key foreseen in the pending Spanish Royal Decree into perspective, we will first summarize how the other four big European leagues redistribute the media rights income. 

England: Since 1992, the year in which the Premier League was formed, it was decided that 50% of the revenue is split equally between the 20 clubs, 25% is paid in Merit Payments (depending on where a club finishes in the final League table), and the final 25% is paid in Facility Fees (based on each time a club’s matches are broadcast in the UK). All international broadcast revenue, and central commercial revenue, is split equally amongst the 20 clubs. For the season 2013/2014, the ratio between the top (Liverpool at €132 million Euros) and the bottom earning club (Cardiff City at €84 million) was 1.57:1.

Germany: Within the German Bundesliga clubs, the criteria for the distribution of revenues will be determined by a 2:1 ratio between the top-ranked and the bottom-ranked teams in an ad hoc distribution ranking for the years 2013 – 2017. This means that the revenue sharing distribution will range from a maximum of 5.8% of the total amount for the first place team to at least 2.9% for the 18th place team. The Bundesliga’s international media rights income distribution, however, remains based on both international and domestic sport performance.

Italy: Italy’s Serie A joint selling system had an earnings ratio of the top to bottom club of 5.25:1 for the season 2013/2014. Juventus, the top earning club, had an income from TV rights of €94 million, whereas the bottom earning club, Sassuolo, of €17.9 million.[7] Out of the total amount distributed, 40% is distributed to all the clubs as a fixed amount. Furthermore, 30% is distributed on the basis of past results (15% on results during last five seasons, 10% on historical results[8], and 5% on last season’s final league position); and 25% according to club supporters base.  

The planned Royal Decree in Spain will have a distribution system that guarantees Real Madrid and FC Barcelona an amount that is very close to what they earn now. The income ratio of the clubs will start at 4:1 and diminishes as the total amount of income increases. From the total income, about 3% will be deducted for the Spanish FA and for non-professional sports. Additionally, 10% will be assigned to the Second Division. The remaining amount will be distributed as follows: 50% as fixed amount for all the clubs, 25% depending on sports results while taking into account historical results. The other 25% will be distributed in relation to public awareness similar the Italian system (calculated on the basis of TV audiences, city population, and number of fans of the club).  


Conclusion

It is safe to say that the competition complaint launched by FASFE will not lead to the European Commission opening a formal investigation. The complainants fail to demonstrate how the current Spanish individual selling system breaches, or even potentially breaches, Article 101 and/or 102 TFEU. In that regard, it should be noted that they already tried their luck with the national competition authority (CNC), alleging infringements of national competition law. On 8 January 2013, the CNC decided to reject the complaint because it only prescribed the results of the current media rights sales process without demonstrating violations of the national competition rules. 

Whether FASFE is aware of the same judicial inaccuracies in its Commission complaint is unknown. On the other hand, it is quite evident that invoking competition law to argue for the introduction of a cartel with significant anti-competitive effects is paradoxical. The ex post fairness (i.e. the outcome of market competition) that FASFE is looking for is quite different from the ex ante fairness in the market place that competition policy is concerned with. One can therefore interpret the complaint as an attempt to add pressure on the involved Spanish parties (the CSD, the LNFP, and the RFEF) to introduce the new Royal Decree once and for all. Although the Spanish public is provided daily episodes full of jabbering, backstabbing and other drama, as with all Telenovelas, the soap is dragging on and on and should have ended ages ago. 

Whether the switch to a joint selling arrangement will significantly improve the competitive balance in La Liga remains to be seen. Since FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are guaranteed an amount similar to what they receive now, this will ultimately depend on how much the total income from the sale of the media rights will increase. The inexorable rise in the value of the broadcasting deals in the UK, which is the unique result of a duopoly of two powerful deep-pocket players (i.e. the incumbent dominant pay-TV operator Sky and new market entrant BT) that emerged after the introduction of the “no single buyer” obligation, cannot be realistically expected – at least not in the short term. Yet it is relatively certain that the overall income from media rights will go up – ultimately to the benefit of all the clubs. A (minimum) earnings ratio of the top to bottom club of 4:1 is not overly ambitious, but surely is a welcome step towards remedying the current imbalance between the two top clubs and their less fortunate competitors.


[1] See T.M.C. Asser Institute and Institute for Information Law, “Study on Sports Organisers' Rights in the EU”, Commissioned by the European Commission, DG Education and Culture, February 2014.

[2] Idem.

[3] See e.g. Commission, “Case No IV/37.214 - DFB - Central marketing of TV and radio broadcasting rights for certain football competitions in Germany” (Notice) (1999) OJ C/610, para. 7; Commission, “Notice published pursuant to Article 19(3) of Council Regulation No 17 concerning case COMP/C.2/38.173 and 38.453 - joint selling of the media rights of the FA Premier League on an exclusive basis” (2004) OJ C 115/3, para. 10.

[4] UEFA Champions League (Case COMP/37.398) Commission decision 2003/778/EC (2003) OJ L291/25, para. 131.

[5] Idem, para. 167.

[6] See e.g. Giorgio Monti, “Article 81 EC and Public Policy” (2002) 39 CMLR 1057 (calling it a “sector-specific exemption”).

[7] FASFE Antitrust Complaint of 30 December 2014, page 11

[8] In other words, this revenue is determined by overall league placings since 1946. In this category, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan are the top earning clubs. For more info see: http://www.financialfairplay.co.uk/latest-news/tv-revenue-distribution-%E2%80%93-comparing-italian-and-english-models.

Comments (2) -

  • José Antonio Rodríguez Miguez

    2/17/2015 1:09:50 PM |

    Congratulations for this very interesting and solid post. A Spanish sayung days that “Barça is more than a club”; we can say that football is more than a sport, it’s basically a bussness, and a level playing field must be guaranted. It’s the best and only way to go forward as a sport and as bussness.  

  • Count of Egmont

    2/19/2015 2:13:50 PM |

    FASFE's complaint is indeed quite weak and amateurish (more posturing than anything else as they fail to raise some well known issues that could have significantly strengthened their case) but you forgot to mention that, irrespective of the merits of the complaint, their chances of succeeding against Real Madrid in a competition case would be near zero at the moment since the current EC Deputy Director-General for Antitrust, Mr. Cecilio Madero-Villarejo is a die-hard Real Madrid fan and club member who regularly attends football games at the VIP area of the Bernabeu Stadium. It is therefore highly unlikely that he will be very keen to open an investigation into this issue as it would go against his own personal interests. Could this be the reason why a series of unfortunate events has surrounded all Real Madrid related investigations?

    The British newspaper, The Independent, reported about this situation two years ago:

    "After Real Madrid’s victory in the 2000 Champions League final, a supporter of the club who identified himself then as a 43-year-old European Union official living in Brussels wrote to the newspaper El Pais to convey his joy at the club’s eighth European title.

    In the letter published in the newspaper on 14 June 2000, he described how after the match, in a state of some emotion, he placed a Real “Campeones” flag on the balcony of his Brussels flat. To some eyes, it looked uncomfortably like a reference to the Spanish phrase “poner una pica en flandes” – literally “putting a pike in Flanders” – which refers to the Spanish occupation of the territory in the 16th and 17th centuries.

    Not in the best taste, but given the individual’s euphoria and the memories he said it brought back of his childhood, perhaps it was understandable. The letter was written by Cecilio Madero Villarejo, who still lives in Brussels but has a better job than he did 13 years ago.

    These days, Madero is one of the four men who make up the directorate-general at the European Commission under the leadership of commissioner and fellow Spaniard Joaquin Almunia, whose job it is to enforce the rules on big business, from anti-trust, to mergers and, of course, state aid."

    Real Madrid is safe for as long as he is in DG-Comp, in any case safer than the reputation of the EC's competition policy that will surely face some scrutiny in the light of the UK's EU referendum .

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