Do Plans for a European Super League Breach Competition Law?

By: Andreas Stephan (UEA Center for Competition Policy)

The world of European football was thrown into controversy this week by the announcement that 12 leading clubs have agreed to join a new European Super League (ESL). Unlike the Champions League, the ESL will consist of a permanent membership, with only 5 of its 20 slots open to qualification from other teams. The move has widely been condemned by sports fans and political leaders, and UEFA have said, ‘We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening. Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit it cannot be any other way.’ This blog takes a brief look at the possible competition law implications of the Super League.

EU Competition Law and Sport

The level of organisation and regulation required for sport make it quite different to conventional markets. Apart from the importance of everyone being subject to the same set of sporting rules, there is also a need for careful coordination between competitions to ensure that, for example, players can honour their commitments to commercial and national teams. How football clubs behave in their commercial transactions is generally the same as any other business subject to competition law. For example, if they agree with other clubs on the price of replica football kits, they will be fined for being in a cartel.

Yet, contrary to what has been suggested elsewhere, it is difficult to describe football teams as competitors in the conventional sense. A Norwich City football fan would never view Ipswich Town as a competitor they might one day take their business to (except for a ticket to an away game, of course). The commercial success of football clubs depends primarily on their performance in the sport itself and this is a key aspect of the industry and appeal for fans. For example, it is what made it possible for Leicester City to win the English Premier League in 2015/6, despite being clear outsiders. Sports federations like UEFA are required to regulate the game and to deal with the crucial business of selling TV rights and distributing the proceeds among football clubs. Competition rules do apply to sports but the role of sports federations ‘is recognised in pursuing the legitimate objective of safeguarding the integrity, health, safety and the proper functioning of sport’. If TV rights were allocated at club level, for example, it would result in a chaotic and inefficient system of allocation and constant negotiation, with the possibility of the rights to the same game being sold twice…