Vote to Leave European Union Could Create Headaches for British Sports

By Ken Belson; Jamie Trecker | International New York Times, July 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Vote to Leave European Union Could Create Headaches for British Sports


Ken Belson; Jamie Trecker, International New York Times


The ability of Britain's major soccer clubs to sign and retain some international stars would be complicated, should the country leave the European Union.

The full consequences of Britain's vote to leave the European Union will take years to sort out, but sports teams are starting to prepare for a potentially rocky transition that could make it harder for them to acquire international players from elsewhere on the continent and potentially raise the cost of signing them.

In the worst case, British soccer, rugby and cricket teams would have difficulty acquiring athletes from the other 27 European Union countries, particularly younger players that many teams recruit to their academies and youth teams, if the free passage of citizens between European Union nations were curtailed. This could provide an opening for British athletes who have not been able to win roster spots, but it could also dilute the international appeal of England's Premier League.

"The Premier League is the biggest and most successful soccer league in the world, and the reason for that is the entertainment value," said Gary Mellor, the managing director of Beswicks, a British sports management firm. "It's probably more competitive than other leagues, but at the same time, you have a fairly decent standard of players. But if it moves back to being primarily British in player makeup, it will lose some of its appeal to a worldwide audience. That will impact television deals and sponsorships."

Interest from wealthy foreigners wanting to buy British teams could also sag if the British economy slows, or if the quality of play suffers. A steep decline in the value of the pound might make it cheaper to buy teams, but it could also hurt the value of the clubs.

"There would be discount for going into the E.P.L., but then, theoretically, profits and revenues are devalued, too," said Rob Tilliss, who founded Inner Circle Sports, a sports advisory firm. "But the product is so good now that they'll figure out how to make it work."

Despite the potential for turmoil, little may happen in the coming season because Britain has not yet formally applied to leave the European Union, and it will have two years to work out the details of its exit once an application is filed. Some British politicians already have suggested that they might seek a more limited departure from the European Union.

The Premier League and other sports associations, as well as broadcasters and others with a vested interest in British sports, might also lobby for exemptions so that the current visa-free passage between Britain and the European Union could continue for athletes.

"They are a very powerful league, and they have lots of supporters in high places," said John Williams, the director of the Center for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester.

Williams expects exemptions to be made for athletes and other workers with unique skills. "They speak the same language as the global TV partners, and they want to project themselves as global partners," he said. "It seems to me the Premier League is bombproof."

Rules, of course, can be changed: Norway and Switzerland adjusted their work-permit rules to gain access to the European common market. But given the anti-European rhetoric in Britain and the ambition of the Football Association, which governs the game there, to promote more English players, it is unclear what compromises can be made.

So sports teams have little choice for now but to prepare for a world in which players from the European Union have a harder time obtaining the work permits they need to compete in Britain. …

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