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EU Policy. Court decision in the Super League case put the status of sports into effect

The final decisions of the EU’s highest court, expected this week, regarding the unsuccessful attempt to establish the Super League, are expected to shed light on the future of European football and the ‘constitutional’ position of the sport in the EU Treaties.

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EU Policy. Court decision in the Super League case put the status of sports into effect
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21 Aralık 2023 - 0:00
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In late 1995, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) handed down the famous Bosman decision, which allowed players to move to a new club at the end of their contracts without a transfer fee.

This decision, along with the increased negotiation powers of football managers during contract negotiations, paved the way for players to benefit from the same freedom of movement rights as employees in other sectors.

More than two decades later, a December ruling by the Luxembourg-based EU Supreme Court will reshape football, with the final decision on the breakaway European Superior League project, created in defiance of Europe’s football governing body UEFA, due early tomorrow morning. has potential. view.

These final and non-appealable decisions of the 15-judge Supreme Chamber are scheduled for the last day of the 2023 Court calendar.

The outcome will be presented alongside two related decisions, on athletes sanctioned by the International Skating Union for taking part in external events, and on the compatibility with EU law of UEFA’s homegrown rules, which set quotas for locally trained players.

Whatever the practical outcome of tomorrow’s decision, it will mark a turning point in the relationship between EU competition law and sports governance in Europe, with repercussions that will extend beyond football.

What’s at stake?

This began in late April 2021, when twelve of the world’s biggest and richest football clubs announced plans to launch a new midweek international competition called the European Superior League.

In theory, the breakaway tournament would compete with the existing Champions League organized by UEFA, Europe’s football governing body based in Nyon, Switzerland, but Super League clubs wanted to continue playing in UEFA-organised national competitions.

UEFA’s threat to ban rebel clubs from all national competitions and even impose sanctions, together with the global reaction created by the announcement, caused 12 of the original founders of the Super League to withdraw from the project.

The Madrid Court called on the European Court of Justice to decide whether UEFA’s threats constituted bad faith behavior under EU competition rules, which prevent dominant operators from abusing their powers.

The question is to what extent sports bodies such as UEFA can impose sanctions on their members who want to organize other tournaments and whether they can request prior approval to organize new competitions.

According to Super League representatives, UEFA acted exploitatively in protecting its commercial monopoly; Prior authorization rules are necessary for UEFA to organize international competitions and help it fulfill its mandate and protect the integrity of European football.

European Sports Model

The Super League case offers EU judges the opportunity to examine in detail the extent to which European sports bodies are exempt from ordinary competition rules affecting businesses more broadly.

This issue depends on the interpretation of Article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU); This article expresses the bloc’s commitment to “developing the European dimension in sport by ensuring fairness and openness in competitions and cooperation between responsible institutions”. for sports”.

According to Attorney General Athanasios Rantos, who delivered a non-binding opinion to the judges of the European Court of Justice in December 2022, this article provides for the “constitutional recognition” of sport and emphasizes that features such as promotion and relegation systems are essential for the “European Model of Sport”. case.

EU sports lawyers and experts interviewed by Euronews agree that if the judges reaffirm Rantos’ opinion, the special constitutional place for sport in EU law will be consolidated.

According to another sports law expert, the decision could also clarify the roles of sports governing bodies, and UEFA in particular, and the limitations on their powers; because this body is currently football’s regulator, sanctioner and commercial body negotiating TV rights for all major football matches. Football competitions in Europe.

First result: monopoly wins

EU judges may regard UEFA as a monopolistic enterprise but exempt from EU competition laws as the guarantor of the football pyramid structure ensuring respect for the European Sport model, in line with Rantos’s interpretation of the special ‘constitutional’ status of sport.

Proponents of the European Super League confirmed to Euronews that this scenario would not preclude the possibility of rival competitions such as the European Super League, but would make them unattractive as clubs participating in a competition outside the UEFA system would have to abandon their national associations and all other continental competitions. It is managed by UEFA.

Such endorsement of the European Sports Model could also impact sports where closed competitions run by private operators are the norm, such as Europe’s main basketball competition, the Euroleague, and cycling’s Tour de France and rugby’s Six Nations, two of Europe’s most important sporting events.

While the EU Court may rule in favor of a sports governing body taking on both regulatory and organizational roles, it may not approve of UEFA also managing the commercial aspects of the game.

The jury could also demand that UEFA separate its regulatory and commercial roles, following the Formula 1 model where private company Liberty Media manages the races while the FIA ​​tweaks organizational matters such as safety regulations. This may be a consolation prize of sorts for the Europeans, but UEFA strongly opposes this decision, according to a lawyer interviewed by Euronews.

Second result: Match over for UEFA

The court may rule against Rantos’ view, finding that every organization has a license to compete and the right to participate in the sports market as long as it complies with certain criteria, such as openness, solidarity, commitment to the grassroots and protection of players. health.

This will give the green light to both the European Super League project and initiatives to create rival alternative sports competitions alongside traditional sports competitions.

Even if this scenario is confirmed, the collapse of UEFA’s de facto monopoly on European football will remain challenging, at least in the short term.

The Switzerland-based football governing body has taken various measures in response to the Super League initiative since the announcement of the Leave competition, particularly the filling of the football fixture calendar.

Three years ago UEFA introduced a third continental competition, the Conference League, and next year it will introduce a new model for the Champions League, with 36 teams instead of 32, producing around 50% more matches.

This tactic will make it difficult for the Super League or other actors to negotiate with UEFA for a share of the European football calendar, unless clubs choose the undesirable option of leaving the system.

In addition, UEFA currently enjoys exclusivity with international broadcasters for football competitions until 2027, and even the biggest innovation in football, access to the FIFA World Cup for clubs, scheduled to start in 2025, will be guaranteed through participation in UEFA competitions.

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