As is the case with other sectors, the extent of the impact of Brexit on professional sport will depend on the terms the UK agrees for its continued relationship with the EU.
Below we examine some of the high, medium and low risks primarily from the perspective of an English professional sports club.
Significant Impact post Brexit
Recruitment of young European football players
Article 19 of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players prohibits the international transfer of players under 18 except in limited circumstances. Clubs based in England can currently take advantage of one of these exceptions which permits the transfer of players between the age of 16 and 18 where the transfer takes place within the territory of the EU or EEA (and certain requirements are met) and clubs have successfully used this exception to recruit 16 and 17 year old players from both the Continent and the rest of the British Isles. In the absence of successful lobbying from The Football Association (“The FA”) to extend this exception, English clubs will no longer be able to recruit young players in this manner on Brexit.
Potential Significant Impact post Brexit
Transfer of players to and from European clubs
It currently appears likely that reciprocal free movement obligations will not be agreed and that there will be some form of immigration control on Brexit. As a result, British players may not be able to move to the Continent freely and EU nationals could be subject to entry restrictions when seeking to play in the UK. For example, currently a non-EU footballer from a top 10 ranked nation would need to have played in 30% of international games in the previous two years to automatically qualify for an endorsement from The FA (a prerequisite for getting the visa most commonly used by non-EU footballers to play in England). For nations ranked 11-20 this rises to 45% of international games and then for nations ranked 21-30 and 31-50 it rises further to 60% and 75% respectively. There are currently numerous players in the Premier League who would not meet these requirements.
In rugby, currently players from outside the EU from tier 1 and 2 rugby nations (which includes teams from New Zealand down to Spain and Namibia) must have started at least one full 15 a-side international match during the 15 months immediately prior to the date of the application to be eligible for a visa. Players from other countries must have started an international match in the last 15 months and have played in a minimum of 10 full internationals during their playing career. Therefore, whilst established current internationals would pass this test, uncapped players and those who have been retired from international game for a long period, would be ineligible under these requirements. Based on the current make-up of the Aviva Premiership, this would affect Irish nationals the most if the current regulations are applied to EU nationals after Brexit.
Despite the above, it is unlikely that the criteria in football and rugby (along with other sports) in their current form will be applied to EU nationals as the rules were drafted with no consideration for the UK being outside the EU. Although it is not possible to say at this stage with any certainly what the changes we will be, these rules will almost certainly change to reflect the UK’s new relationship with Europe.
A return to nationality quotas?
One further consideration is that when EU law ceases to apply in the UK organisers of sports competitions may be able to more effectively restrict the number of foreign players that feature in match day squads. Foreign player quotas currently exist in some sports (such as Cricket, Rugby Union and Hockey in England) but EU law prevents them being applied to EU nationals or Kolpak players. On Brexit, there is potential for all non-British nationals to be included within such a quota.
Some governing bodies may see this as advantageous in that it would allow them to discriminate in favour of the development of internationally eligible players to the potential advantage of national teams whereas it could be damaging to leagues/clubs who would be less competitive in their ability to attract the best players from across the Continent.
Lower Impact post Brexit
Sports fans visiting the UK for away fixtures may find it more difficult to do so as result of new immigration controls which could impact on attendance at cross border fixtures along with the associated effects on the atmosphere inside stadia.
Investment in players and clubs
Fluctuations in the value of the pound may be a common feature of the Brexit negotiations. A drop in the value of the pound could affect the ability of British clubs to recruit foreign players but would make British clubs more affordable for foreign investors.
Brexit is unlikely to affect the current model of licensing sports broadcasting content on a territorial basis. However, one thing for both rights holders and broadcasters to keep their eye on is the European Commission’s Digital Single Market Strategy which, amongst other things, aims to ban unjustified geo-blocking in the EU and promote portability of online content. This strategy currently excludes from its remit the territorial licensing of sports broadcasts in terms of geo-blocking so the status quo should be maintained in this regard. However, it does seek to enable consumers to view online sports content which they have legally acquired in one member state, while temporality in another member state. UK consumers may not be able to enjoy this new flexibility on Brexit and rights holders will need to factor in this new EU-wide online portability when licensing into the EU. In addition, on Brexit, the UK will have no input on changes to the Digital Single Market Strategy and any future EU regulation of the broadcasting market which could affect how rights to UK events are sold into the EU.
Deporting foreign players
The UK is yet to commit to guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals in the UK to stay post Brexit which does open up the possibility (albeit a very unlikely one) that EU national players currently in the UK could be required to leave on Brexit.